Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People

Statistics related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

In recent years, suicide within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities has become an increasing problem.  Statistics[1] show the percentage of all deaths attributable to suicide is much higher among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people than non-Indigenous people. In 2016 suicides accounted for 5.5% of all registered deaths of people identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, compared with 1.7% for non-Indigenous.  The rate of lifetime prevalence estimates of self-injury is significantly higher in the Indigenous population than in non-Indigenous.[2] 

Suicide ranked as the 5th leading cause of death for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people in 2016 while it ranked 15th for non-Indigenous persons. However, in 2016 suicide was the leading cause of death for both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous children and young people aged 5 – 17 years. In the period 2012 to 2016, suicide was the leading cause of death for persons identified as being of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin between 15 and 34 years of age and the second leading cause for those aged 35 to 44 years. The median age at death for suicide in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons over this period was 29 years, compared with 45 years in the non-Indigenous population. (“Median age” means that half the people were younger than this age and half were older.) A comparison between Indigenous and non-Indigenous suicide rates is shown in the graph below for the period 2012 to 2016, with data for each age group totaled across the years.

Figure 3. Number of Indigenous and Non-Indigenous suicides that occurred for each 100,000 population in age-specific groups during the 5 years 2012-2016. (Data includes figures for New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. Data for Victoria, Tasmania and Australian Capital Territory are excluded in line with national reporting guidelines.)

[Source: generated from (ABS 2017)1]

Far North Queensland has a very high representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.  In this region the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have historically been subjected to government legislation which has impacted on their social health and well-being, particularly in the area of suicide. Post-colonisation and low socio-economic status has led to frustration, alienation and anger, hopelessness, grief and lack of purpose. This, in so many cases, also links to heavy drinking, widespread use of drugs and other substances, substance misuse leading to mental health problems, imprisonment, and the upsurge of suicide rates[1]. The imitation phenomenon is frequently seen in this context. 

[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2017).  Suicide in  Australia, 2016 (Catalogue number 3303.0). Retrieved from http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/3303.0~2016~Main%20Features~Intentional%20self-harm%20in%20Aboriginal%20and%20Torres%20Strait%20Islander%20people~8

[2] Martin, G., Swannell, S., Harrison, J., Hazell, P., & Taylor, A. (2010). The Australian National Epidemiological Study of Self-Injury (ANESSI).Brisbane, Australia: Centre for Suicide Prevention Studies.

[3] Hunter, E. (1997) An Overview of Indigenous Suicide. Australasian Psychiatry, 5(5), 231-232.

Issues that impact on community wellbeing in isolated communities are limited resources, low levels of continued care, a lack of rapport and maintenance of ongoing care because of service providers changing due to fly-in-fly out service provision.  In addition, understanding appropriate means of addressing ‘women’s business’ and ‘men’s business’ are important factors that need to be considered.  If the local community health workers are also related to the people at risk, a wider support team needs to be established.

Self-autonomy, traditional rights and self-harm/suicide reduction

Research is in its early stages regarding the link between self-autonomy, traditional rights and self-harm/suicide reduction.  In Indigenous communities, research needs to be by local people addressing their own needs in their own communities.  There are two examples that shed some light.

The first is the community of Yarrabah in Far North Queensland.   Yarrabah was founded as a mission in 1892.  Although Yarrabah and its surrounding area did and continues to have their own traditional owners, the Yarrabah community which evolved from then was not a natural grouping.  As many Aboriginal people were removed  from traditional lands and relocated to Yarrabah, it is an artificially created community.   “…enemies often found themselves as neighbours.  The high population density within the main settlement increased social tensions and led to the introduction and a rapid rise in social problems such as excessive drinking and violence.”[1]  This contributed to a destabilisation of the family as an agent of social control.  With very high rates of suicide through the early 1990s, the people of Yarrabah themselves explored a range of approaches.  This involved setting up a community based suicide response capacity, creating resources locally, employing ‘life promotion officers’, developing men’s health groups and other relevant activities, which still exist and operate today. After this intervention, the suicides in this community reduced substantially.

The second striking example is from the experience in the Indigenous communities in British Columbia in Canada.   A very clear association has been demonstrated between suicide rates and the number of community services under local community control.[2]  The youth suicide rate was found to be lower in communities where these factors of cultural continuity were present than in communities where the factors were absent. See Figure 4.


Figure 4. Youth suicide rate in Indigenous communities in British Columbia, Canada in relation to the number of Community services under local community control.  Each community may have 0 – 6 of the above factors under community control.

Since the first part of the Canadian research was conducted resulting in the naming of the original six community factors, further research has identified two more cultural continuity factors.[1] These are (1) local control over child welfare services and (2) elected councils composed of more than 50 percent women. The presence of these factors in a community has also linked with lower youth suicide rates.

A 2013 systematic literature review of research conducted in countries of the northern polar region examined protective factors and causal mechanisms that enhanced Indigenous youth mental health. It identified 40 protective factors at individual, family, and community levels. Family and community level protective factors were found to positively create and impact on social environment, which interacted with individual level factors to enhance resilience.[1]   


[1] Chandler, M. J., Lalonde, C. E. (2008). Cultural continuity as a protective factor against suicide in First Nations youth. Horizons - A Special Issue on Aboriginal Youth, Hope or Heartbreak: Aboriginal Youth and Canada’s Future, 10(1), 68-72.

[4] [Craig, D. (1979) as cited in] Hunter, E., Reser, J., Baird, M., & Reser, P. (2001). An analysis of suicide in Indigenous Communities of North Queensland: The historical, cultural and symbolic landscape.  Canberra, Australia: Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care.

[5] Chandler, M. J., Lalonde, C. E., Sokol, B., & Hallett, D. (2003).Personal persistence, identity development, and suicide: A study of Native and non-Native North American adolescents. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 68(2), 1-130.   

Useful contacts for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

[1] Petrasek MacDonald, J., Ford, J D., Cunsolo Willox, A., & Ross, N. A. (2013). A review of protective factors and causal mechanisms that enhance the mental health of Indigenous Circumpolar youth. International Journal of Circumpolar Health, 72, 1-18. doi: 10.3402/ijch.v72i0.21775





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