Aboriginal suicide first emerged in Australian records in 1960s. In the 1980s, there was a surge of Aboriginal suicide starting with adults, then young adults and now, 30 years later, children.

Suicide among Aboriginal communities is now three to four times the rate of non-Aboriginal suicide. Aboriginal people commit suicide, on average, at a far younger age than non-Aboriginal Australians, with reports of prepubescent children, some as young as eight committing suicide.

The rise in suicide in recent decades is not a solitary phenomenon — it is happening around the globe to many colonised races. The Inuit people of Canada, Native Americans and New Zealand Maoris are exhibiting the same behavioural patterns.

Ironically, all groups began committing suicide in huge numbers in recent decades as they were given greater rights and acknowledgement for past and present wrongs. Academics, experts and Aborigines themselves are trying to make sense of the unprecedented spike.

Ten years ago, professor Colin Tatz, who teaches at the Australian National University, wrote a book: Aboriginal suicide is different. His colleagues were outraged by his differentiation between Aboriginal suicide and non-Aboriginal suicide, seeing it as a form of segregation.  Yet professor Tatz insists “the profiles of the two are completely different” due to the different social and historical factors.

The study is the result of visits to 55 Aboriginal communities in NSW over 2½ years to study Aboriginal youth suicides. He focused particularly on youths but his theories extend to all Aboriginal suicide.

Professor Tatz has spent many years trying to understand why Aboriginal people have started committing suicide in recent decades, when comparatively speaking, life is improving.  One of his theories is that colonised people have started to suicide in greater numbers in recent decades due to the process of “de-institutionalisation”.

“It’s the process of decolonisation: the withdrawal of structures,” he said. “And even though they were lousy structures. And they were draconian and they were nasty and they were oppressive and they were anti-human rights, and all of those things. I am not for a moment suggesting we go back to those things.”

His book argues that in the process of the “decolonisation” as Aboriginal people were given back self-determination, they were not trained to cope with their new found autonomy after being under white rule for 200 years.

“There is another theory and another thesis. When you are engaged in a struggle, a struggle to survive, suicide rates are very low,” professor Tatz said, implying that the worst is over for Aboriginal people in terms of racial struggles.

“In the apartheid era in South Africa there is almost no suicide in black South Africa. I contacted a man who is the professor of psychiatry at Cape Town University and asked him if there were any figures on black or coloured suicide and there was almost none. I asked him to measure it from 1944 on, under freedom, and he’s now writing to me saying ‘yes’.

“When people are consumed by a struggle, whether it is Jews facing Arab enemies, whether it is people in Russia facing Tsars or Stalinist dictators, or civil rights in the United States … when people are involved in a struggle there is a reason to exist.”

But a third theory is that suicide perpetuates suicide: dealing with grief and despair over losing family and friends, leads to further desolation.

The endless death and grief within Aboriginal communities is another contributor to suicide. “The cycle of death and knowing what death is. Aboriginal kids know what death is a lot earlier than any of us. There are sustained levels of grief in such high levels. Not cycles of grief but continuous and this affects children profoundly,” professor Tatz said.

When Aborigines are brought up knowing about suicide and death at an early age, when they have become normalised to deaths of “non-natural” causes, suicide at moments of distress becomes a normal response. “Since the 1960s, suicide has now become ritualised, patterned and institutionalised in Aboriginal communities,” said professor Tatz.

Forty-three-year-old Aaron Stuart was the first generation in his family to be born in a hospital. He comes from a family with strong ancestral ties. He was raised with the knowledge of his culture and who he was, which gives him the support and ability to work with suicidal youth and men in Port Augusta.

Stuart believes the emerging suicide epidemic is due to the complete loss of culture for recent generations and that it is the more sensitive Aborigines who are being affected most. These are the Aborigines who unknowingly feel a tremendous displacement and loss in Australia; they feel a rejection towards the way they are forced to live.

“They are grieving from loss of culture and identity,” he said. “And then they also have to deal with oppression, racism, segregation and assimilation.

“It’s lack of identity people don’t understand. They feel isolated and they can’t see anything ahead of them and there’s a point in their life where they think ‘what am I here for, what am I doing, who am I trying to please? I can’t seem to do anything right’.”

As a result Stuart is a firm believer that the Aborigines who yearn for their lost traditional culture and land will die out. The Aborigines who will survive will be the ones who are able to acculturate to white society.

He talked about the inability for Aborigines, particularly young men, to talk about their feelings in today’s society: “If you’ve been one of those Aboriginal people that have been oppressed and disposed, segregated and assimilated, or a victim of the Stolen Generation or passed down to that, and you’ve always been told what to do and government policy has always told you how to live and what to do, called racism — how are you going to come out and tell me what you feel about that straight away?”Dr Norm Sheehan, from Swinburne University of Technology, runs Link-Up, a social and emotional well-being project based on connective art and yarning circles. Dr Sheehan is a fair-skinned Aborigine who was raised in Catholic missions and has completed a doctorate in psychology, and post-doctoral research into psychiatry and social emotional well-being. Like Stuart, he believes bringing culture back to the Aboriginal person will provide a sense of identity and satisfaction, and reduce the risk of suicide ideation.

“There is a strong connection between cultural cohesion, cultural connection and social emotional well-being,” he said.

Dr Sheehan worked alongside professor Graham Martin and Dr Karoline Krysinka to complete the study Identity, voice, place: suicide prevention for Indigenous Australians — A social and emotional well-being approach with the University of Queensland. The study looks at effective suicide prevention programs for Aboriginal people.

“We looked at studies in Canada, New Zealand and Australia that look at the social emotional causation. We have found that studies in other places showed that cultural disconnection was a major cause of suicide especially amongst Aboriginal youth,” Dr Sheehan explained. “So you look at Aboriginal kids who are separated from their culture, who are called Aboriginal, treated as Aboriginals but have no understanding of what being Aboriginal is — it’s an incredible conflict to carry and there is no real cultural education happening.

“The knowledge of Aboriginal culture is very significant for Aboriginal communities as they take away the doubt and they bring a positive cultural perspective to people who have been deprived of that cultural perspective. “Identity and selfhood are important for emotional well-being. Australia has historically denied these basic human needs to Aboriginal people.

“Aboriginal people were deprived of a true understanding of self because their biological make-up was seen as an impediment something that had to be erased. That’s a crime against humanity. But Aboriginal people have had to live with that legacy and develop a concept of self in a zone like that, so understanding what culture is in that context is almost impossible.”

Dr Sheehan sees suicide as the direct result of colonialism: “Colonialism is a set of ideas that still exists today in various forms, definitely as an ideology. Colonialism deprives the colonised of positive self-images and for me, that’s a crucial part of the Aboriginal experience.

“I am a believer in narrative therapies and narrative counselling … with the stuff I do with the images, is it opens up spaces for the narrative and the sharing of stories and everybody who’s a being, who’s an identity, has a got a personal story. What deprives Aboriginal people is that crucial elements to that personal story. Then if you were to feel a little bit alone and a little bit lost and a little bit traumatised, the thing you go to in your life is those personal stories.

“Now if you don’t have one or the one you have is conflicted, then you’re at the end of the rope. Potentially there is no safety net if you don’t have that sort of emotional structuring in your life.”

Dr Sheehan says colonial ideology is still rife in Australian culture today.  But forming and shaping a cultural identity for Aborigines may provide them with support and backing against future damage. “So what we do is we prepare our communities for future devastations so we are not talking about a cure, because perpetration is continuing,” he said.

Dr Sheehan also says suicidal thoughts stem from feelings of isolation in a racist climate and cultural denigration: “If you are discriminated against based on race, that has an incredibly alienating impact on people. It’s a very strong stressor in people’s lives. Some people say suicide is in some way a protest or a political action, and I don’t agree with that. Those sorts of statements come from people who haven’t experienced the personal desolation that comes with being treated differently, that comes with things about yourself you can’t change.

“You’ll find obese kids who are bullied at school have a high rate of self-harm and suicide because they are treated in a particular way because of things about themselves they can’t change, and it’s the same for Aboriginal people and people of colour around the world. They are treated in a particular way because of something that has no bearing on their morality, intelligence or anything else. They can just be used to discriminate against them.

“That sort of power does cause people to harm; experiencing that power is a devastating personal experience. Particularly when there is no power to respond.”

Professor Martin Graham, from the University of Queensland, is a psychiatrist who has studied suicide extensively for more than 20 years and is perhaps the nation’s top expert on suicide. He believes dominant Western medical views are “overly simplistic” and insufficient in explaining suicide, Aboriginal or otherwise. Like professor Tatz, he has many theories around why Aborigines suicide, but no clear answers.

“I suppose you could put forward a number of reasons — the classic sort of white Australian understanding would be that these are depressed individuals that have suffered some kind of loss and can’t get help for that and/or they are abusing medications or drugs. But I think what my understanding is — there is a deep sadness among Aboriginal peoples and that that translates to a sense of anomie perhaps. A kind of deep sense of sadness and boredom and dispiritedness relating to loss of land, loss of culture, loss of languages in some cases and a sense that none of it can be changed.

“So despite all of the government money going in, despite all of assistance that has been offered, despite a whole range of programs like the Life Promotion Program, for instance, this sense of deep despair remains and Norm [Sheehan] would track it back and say it’s probably related to a sense of distress at the genocide that was perpetuated by white Australians from 1788.

“That kind of makes sense to me but it kind of doesn’t make sense to me because if you believe another group is trying to kill you off surely what you do is fight that and try to stay alive and live longer than the bastards?”

Like his co-researcher Dr Sheehan, professor Martin, too, stresses the importance of culture. He also believes in the improvement of relationships within Aboriginal communities: “What actually works is helping the community to revive itself and improve connectedness between family clan groupings.”

Professor Martin disagrees with Stuart’s view that traditional Aborigines, and in turn the culture, will necessarily die out. He looks at other colonised cultures for evidence. “If you go to people in Canada to talk about Inuit suicide, they believe they have some very profound ways of turning cultures around, turning communities around and reducing the suicide rate,” he said.

Professor Martin refers to the research by Canadians Dr Michael Chandler and Dr Chris Lalonde on Inuit people: “Essentially Michael Chandler believes that there are a range of aspects of community that need to be corrected to ensure that a community runs itself drawing on its own strength and culture. He said if you put all of those things into place then that reduces suicide and he has very strong evidence for that.

“There were a number of changes in the Inuit community but it was about taking over community life and running it. You know dealing with issues around the status of women, ensuring that children were brought up in a culturally appropriate way. That’s nothing to do with clinical depression or anti-depressants. It’s about recovering if you like or regaining cultural knowledge or experience and direction and I think that is actually what it is about.

“In Australia I don’t think we are yet doing it.”

*Tomorrow in this four-part series on Aboriginal suicide rates: the case study of Port August in South Australia. Kate Horowitz presented this work as part of masters assessment.

**For help or information visit beyondblue.org.au, call Lifeline on 131 114 or visit this page for a detailed list of support services

Peter Fray

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