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At last, a national suicide prevention strategy for Indigenous Australians

The Federal Government recently released its response to the Senate committee’s report, The Hidden Toll: Suicide In Australia.

The Government’s response to each of the report’s recommendations is detailed from page 57 onwards.

Senator Rachel Siewert, who chairs the Senate Community Affairs Reference Committee, which prepared the Hidden Toll report, has welcomed the news that there will be a national suicide prevention strategy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Rachel Siewert writes:

The establishment of a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Strategy, as recommended in our report, is a critical step to reducing the significant risk and community impact of suicide around parts of Australia.

The proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people taking their own lives is around three times higher than the general population, with that proportion even higher again among young men.

There is widespread concern that the actual rate may be even higher than this, with attempted suicide believed to be significantly under-reported in Indigenous communities.

We know from experience that mainstream approaches to suicide prevention and identifying those at risk don’t work well in Aboriginal communities: the risk factors are different, the stresses are different – so we need to use other channels to get the message out and other strategies to reduce vulnerability and increase individual, family and community resilience.

This is why to reduce the prevalence and impact of suicide, a specific National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Strategy needs to take a whole of community postvention response to suicide.

Such an approach would tackle community-wide risk factors and on the protective capacity of community, family and cultural resilience.

There are entrenched risks to social and emotional wellbeing that contribute to vulnerability to suicide in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. These include disadvantage, social exclusion, unresolved grief and loss, trauma and abuse, domestic violence, removal from family, substance misuse, family breakdown, cultural dislocation, racism and discrimination – an imposing list for which there is no single remedy.

What is particularly concerning is the prevalence of suicide clusters and contagion effects – with the shock, grief, despair and hopelessness of one tragic death potentially leading to a series of suicides and attempted suicides.

Just as mainstream public health programs tackling tobacco and alcohol have failed to reach and to engage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, suicide prevention strategies have also failed.

There is a need to deliver better mental health services in these communities and ensure Indigenous mental health workers are available after hours. A focus on positive and strength based programs to build resilience in young people is also essential.

We also need to be able to respond quickly and effectively to mobilise community support resources when a serious risk is identified or a suicide is attempted or committed – to prevent contagion effects. There is a need for education and support services for families when a suicide or attempted suicide occurs, in order to minimise ongoing risk.

And, as ever, it is really important that the strategy is not limited by the kind of short-term, siloed, on-and-off, project-specific funding that has constrained the Aboriginal community-controlled health sector.

With so many needs, it is very clear that a comprehensive and coordinated approach is needed to this issue.

Fortunately, in responding last week to the release of our Hidden Toll report, the Minister for Mental Health and Ageing has committed to establish and resource a specific National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Strategy.

This is a promising outcome which validates all of the hard work that advocates and community members have put into raising the profile of this issue, supporting the inquiry, and pushing for a comprehensive government response.

So now the real work can begin. We now have an excellent opportunity to work with community, Indigenous psychologists, health services and community workers to reduce the toll of suicide on our most disadvantaged and vulnerable citizens.

Comments 4

  1. Guwardi says:

    What has to be recognised Melissa, Rachel is that the complex array of underlying reasons for the “Hidden Toll” experienced by many Aboriginal people will not be addressed by opening an office or building a new organisational structure. Real action must be taken at a community level. This prevention strategy offers an opportunity to invest in a service delivery model that operates from within the community, with an existing team of practitioners many of whom are local Aboriginal people. I of course speak of the Aboriginal Community Controlled Health services which has to be the base for any service determined to reduce the toll.

  2. Jack Hicks says:

    Nunavut, a territory in the Canadian Arctic with an 85% Inuit population and a devastating suicide rate, has just released a long-overdue suicide prevention strategy. It can be found at http://www.tunngavik.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/2010-10-26-nunavut-suicide-prevention-strategy-english.pdf. As a member of the Working Group that developed it, I would be happy to answer any questions… jackooloosie@gmail.com

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