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Issue #1560      15 August 2012

Rates of suicide “a national tragedy”

Indigenous wellbeing champion Tom Calma has called on the Australian government to properly resource and implement the nation’s first Indigenous suicide prevention strategy once it is finalised. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s suicide rates revealed in a new Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) report were “a national tragedy” that must be addressed, Dr Calma said.


Tom Calma. (Photo: Koori Mail)

The ABS report covers the period 2001 to 2010 and actually found that the suicide rate in Australia had decreased by 17 percent over that period, from 12.7 to 10.5 deaths per 100,000 people.

But it also revealed the overall rate of suicide for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to be twice that of non-Indigenous people. Nearly 1,000 Indigenous suicide deaths throughout Australia between 2001 and 2010 represented about five percent of all suicide deaths registered in this period.

Dr Calma, who chairs the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Advisory Group, said the gap in rates of suicide in young people was particularly disturbing.

“Suicide rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander females aged 15-19 years were 5.9 times higher than those for non-Indigenous females in this age group, while for males the corresponding rate ratio was 4.4,” he said.

“This is an appalling national tragedy that is not only depriving too many of our young people of a full life, but is wreaking havoc among our families and communities.

“As anyone who has experienced a friend or family member committing suicide will know, the effects are widespread and devastating and healing can be elusive for those left behind.

“... It is time that we draw a line under this tragic situation that is impacting so significantly on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals, families and communities in this nation.”

In June, the Gillard government appointed the Menzies School of Health Research in Darwin to help develop the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Strategy.

Advisory group

The research institute is working with the advisory group headed by Dr Calma and the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) to ensure the strategy is coherent and comprehensive, and backed by a strong evidence base.

Dr Calma said the ABS report highlighted the timeliness of the developing strategy and commended the government “for taking the issue seriously”. “However, I also call on the Australian government to properly resource and implement the strategy once it is finished,” he said. “Australian governments must support, and work in partnership with, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to develop these community based solutions.

“As the example of programs in the Kimberleys demonstrates, just as disempowerment is part of the problem, so empowerment of our communities must be part of the solution to suicide among our young people.”

Dr Calma said it was also vital that mainstream mental health services were properly equipped and staffed to work with young Indigenous people at risk of suicide.

The ABS report said the exact scale of difference between the suicide rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous people was difficult to establish conclusively.

National Mental Health Commission (NMHC) chairman Allan Fels said as much when he addressed the National Press Club (NPC) last week on the commission’s progress in developing Australia’s First National Report Card on Mental Health and Suicide Prevention.

“Scandalously, we don’t know the true rates in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities but it is at least 2.5 times higher,” Professor Fels said. “And for every completed suicide, there are up to 50 attempts.”

He said mental health and Indigenous health – of which mental health was a very significant component – were the two profound weaknesses of a health system that was good by international standards.

The NMHC will meet in Alice Springs next week, giving Professor Fels and commissioners, including Aboriginal psychologist Pat Dudgeon, their first opportunity to dedicate a whole meeting to Indigenous mental health, social emotional wellbeing and suicide prevention.

In his NPC address, Professor Fels expressed concern that the mentally ill could be excluded from Labor’s national disability insurance scheme (NDIS) as the federal government negotiates with the states and territories on the costs of trial sites.

He said it was “critical” the scheme covered people with serious psychiatric conditions as well as the physically disabled.

“It is a key need for the mental illness agenda,” he told journalists.

* If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call Lifeline (13 11 14), Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467) or Kids Helpline (for young people aged 5 to 25 years) (1800 551 800).  

Next article – Housing Action and Homeless Persons’ Week

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