Almost non-existent 30 years ago, the rate of suicide and self harm amongst the First Australians has reached crisis levels, particularly in remote communities and particularly amongst youth.
In the Northern Territory, Indigenous youth suicide is 10 times higher than for non-Indigenous youth. Suicide has become the 2nd leading cause of death for Aboriginal men in the NT after cardiovascular disease.
In the Kimberley of Western Australia, there has been an average of one attempted suicide every week since the start of 2012.
Families are reeling in grief, and communities are overwhelmed with what many are calling "an epidemic of self harm".
Something is desperately wrong, and urgent action is needed to restore the balance of life in Aboriginal communities.
The state of Indigenous suicide in Australia has now become one of the country's foremost human rights issues, of which little is known by the public or acted upon by the Government.
Suicide is an act of desperation, driven by a combination of life factors that negatively impact on that person’s social and emotional wellbeing. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, these factors are quite distinct from the rest of the population. The following ‘risk factors’ have been identified by community leaders, Elders and those working closely with Indigenous communities in Australia.
Unresolved historical and inter-generational trauma (frontier massacres, dispossession from traditional lands, assimilation policy, Stolen Generations, racism, abuse)
Loss of cultural identity and spiritual connection to land
Cross-cultural confusion and erosion of cultural resilience
Family disconnection and isolation of youth
Unemployment and lack of opportunities
Lack of self respect and self confidence, in particular amongst Indigenous men
Poverty and overcrowding
Disempowerment and loss of community control and traditional authority
Ongoing racism and institutional prejudice
Susceptibility to drug and alcohol addiction
In order to address the factors identified above, a holistic and community driven approach is needed to improve the social and emotional wellbeing of Indigenous people in Australia. Elders and community leaders are calling to lead in the process of healing their communities. The 'protective factors' that have been shown to improve their wellbeing and reduce the risk of suicide include:
Keeping culture and language strong
Living on or maintaining relationship with traditional lands
Bridging the divide between youth and Elders
Community empowerment and self determination
Recognition of Customary Law and discipline
'Two-way' education at school
Engaging activities for youth in communities
Culturally-appropriate job pathways and work opportunities
Elder driven on-country healing programs for youth
The current approach of government policy and service delivery is not working. Top-down policies and programs are contributing to the loss of Elders' control and governance roles in their communities. And most damagingly, the benefits of cultural identity and practice for social wellbeing are being neglected by contemporary mental health practice.
A new direction is needed that is driven by Indigenous Elders' wisdom, to reconnect their youth to community, family and culture, thereby restoring harmony in their communities.