Indigenous youth suicide rates

A new systematic review has shed light on the risk factors and prevalence of suicide, self-harm and suicide ideation among Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth.

The review, which included 22 empirical articles, highlights substantially increased suicide rates among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth compared to non-Indigenous Australian youth, confirming the emergence of a suicide crisis among young Indigenous populations.

Rates are far higher than the national average

Lead researcher, Joanne Dickson from Edith Cowan University (ECU) says the term “crisis” is appropriate, as young Indigenous Australians are not only dying by suicide at significantly higher rates than their non-Indigenous peers, but they are also suiciding at increasingly younger ages, particularly in regional and remote areas.

“Suicide rates for young Indigenous Australians aged 15-24 years (39.4 per 100,000) are far higher than the national rate for young people (10.7 per 100,000), and higher than the global suicide rate among young adults 15-29 years, which accounts for 8.5% per 100,000 of all deaths.

“As shown in the review, this crisis extends beyond mental health and encompasses wider social, cultural and emotional factors,” Dickson says.

A startling finding was the suicide rate for Indigenous children aged 10 years and under in particular, is substantially higher than non-indigenous peers.

Another key finding was that self-harm and suicide ideation is higher among Indigenous youth than non-Indigenous youth.

The greater risk of suicidal ideation among Indigenous youth was associated with being incarcerated, experience of racial discrimination and emotional and social distress.

Regional and remote residents at higher risk

It was found that a greater risk of suicide was was associated with living in regional and remote areas. Substance use, being incarcerated and high levels of social and emotional distress were also associated in these areas.

Given the high proportion of Indigenous people living in regional and remote areas, and the high incidence of youth suicide in such areas, research agendas aimed at understanding the unique psychological, social and cultural needs of these communities in relation to suicide and self-harm are required.

However, researchers found that there was a surprising lack of empirical research literature on the antecedent risk factors for suicide, self-harm and suicidal ideation among Indigenous youth.

Research aimed at studying self-harm, suicide ideation, and suicide among incarcerated youth awaits further investigation.

1909010 indigenous youth indigenous community remote community
Credit: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

Aboriginal communities should lead research agendas

Dickson says the findings highlight some key priorities for future research and public health policy.

“Improvement in routine collection of self-harm information by hospitals, GP’s and health clinics, along with standardised reporting systems, would allow for national statistics to improve prevalence estimates,” she suggests.

Large-scale longitudinal studies would also provide a better test of predictors of risk, for both suicidal ideation and self-harm.

“It has been shown that psychosocial interventions can help reduce self-harm risk, but trials of culturally sensitive and adapted interventions that specifically target self-harm in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations are sparse,” Dickson says.

“Aboriginal communities are best positioned to identify their specific research questions to better understand the antecedents of youth self-harm, suicide ideation and suicide, and the development of more effective preventive strategies and public policies, within their specific communities.”

Given many of the risk factors identified in the review are social or societal in nature, broader social policy initiatives may also be an important step in reducing self-harm and suicide.

“These may include initiatives to reduce discrimination, increase social cohesion, preserve culture, promote quality of life and self-determination in the community,” Dickson says.

The full report can be read here.

If you, or someone you know needs help with mental health, help is available from Lifeline on 13 11 14 and Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.

This article was first published on Australia’s Science Channel, the original news platform of The Royal Institution of Australia.

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