The ripple effect, silence and powerlessness: hidden barriers to discussing suicide in Australian Aboriginal communities

by Todd R. Heard, Katherine McGill, Jaelea Skehan and Bronwyn Rose

Published 7 February 2022

Context

Suicide is a leading cause of death for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia. However, there is very little published research exploring effectiveness of approaches to reduce the risk of suicide in Aboriginal communities. There is an urgent need to actively engage with Aboriginal communities to better understand these issues and to develop solutions together to prevent deaths by suicide in Aboriginal communities.

Research and findings

This paper explored how suicide is discussed within Aboriginal communities, and how barriers in communication impact suicide risk and support.

Researchers used a qualitative, thematic, cross-sectional design, and conducted focus groups to explore the perceptions and views of Aboriginal participants in relation to discussing suicide. The focus groups were conducted in Hunter New England region in NSW. The focus groups uncovered four key themes: suicide is a whole community issue; the ripple effect of suicide deaths; silence about suicide and its impacts; and being powerless to act.

Researchers found that the discussion under each theme was viewed and experienced very differently between focus group participants. For some study participants, suicide was not a topic discussed regularly unless led by a social and emotional wellbeing focused elder. Discussion within communities also varied, impacted by individual fear and perceptions of shame. Negative experiences with the mental health system were identified by focus group participants as a barrier to suicide discussion, and some participants felt powerless to act if alternative aboriginal focused mental health support services were not available. All of these identified factors may be barriers to help seeking and suicide prevention for Aboriginal people and communities.

Implications

The researchers highlighted the need for future suicide prevention initiatives to address the silence and ripple effect of suicide that exists within Aboriginal communities. They suggest that further initiatives should support Aboriginal people to build confidence and skills in discussing suicide, and improve access to, and experience of, mental health support services including community-based services for Aboriginal Australians. The researchers suggest that an effective Aboriginal suicide prevention strategy should encompass all factors through a holistic approach rather than individually.