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  • Several structural causes explain the high suicide rates among Australia's Indigenous peoples.

    Several structural causes explain the high suicide rates among Australia's Indigenous peoples. | Photo: Reuters FILE

Published 5 December 2018

The suicide rate for adults in Aboriginal and Torres Islander communities is three times higher than non-Indigenous adult Australians, says Senate inquiry committee.

A final report released Tuesday on the Australian Senate's inquiry on mental health, conducted in rural and “remote” areas, shows that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have been experiencing a suicide “crisis” for an extended period of time.

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The inquiry highlighted that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults are three times more likely to suffer from psychological distress compared to their non-Indigenous Australian counterparts; while the suicide figure is slightly higher, four times, among aboriginal youth versus non-Indigenous youth.

“...that this has been allowed to continue unchecked for so long is to Australia’s shame,” the report indicates.

There are structural causes that explain the high suicide rates among these populations. “In too many cases, the causes of suicide for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is not mental illness, but despair caused by the history of dispossession combined with the social and economic conditions in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples live,”  the report further explained.

The lack of housing is one such cause, according to Cheryle Kaesler, Yura Yungi’s Medical Services manager of the emotional wellbeing unit. “There’s an extensive waiting list on the housing commission, up to four to eight years,” a factor leading to “frustration,” and correlated with suicide.

The report also found that, in the areas addressed in the inquiry, there was very little access to mental health services and where they do exist they do not have the “cultural competency” to be effective. “In the worst cases, these services traumatize and re-traumatize the very people for whom they are supposed to provide therapeutic treatment.”

Another factor which affects the government's ability to implement policies to address the issues affecting the minority group is the dispersion of competencies and funding among several state bodies.

In response to the high suicide rate among the at-risk population, the Senate recommended, in the report, that the federal government develop a national rural and remote health strategy, including a budget reform to increase the continuity of services and feedback from locals that can help in their design.

Experts on the issue of suicide among Australia’s Indigenous communities agree that preventing alcohol and drug abuse, which are highly prevalent in the population, is just part of the answer. However, tackling the structural causes of suicide would require addressing the disconnection from their land and traditional cultures.

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