By Lisa Zengarini
A newly released report in Australia has shown that suicide was the leading cause of death for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 5 to 17 during the years 2016 to 2020. The report published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) also found almost one-third of deaths of Indigenous children was due to suicide.
The data recorded that in 2020 alone a total of 223 Aboriginal minors took their own lives, with a record number of 70 in Queensland.
Higher suicide rates
Moreover, suicides still represent a significantly higher proportion of deaths in young Indigenous Australians age groups compared to non-Indigenous Australians.
Data showed the rates of suicide deaths per 100,000 people among Indigenous Australians were 16.7 and 45.7 in those aged 0–24 and 25–44 years respectively. These rates were 3.2 and 2.8 times as high as in non–Indigenous Australians in the respective age groups.
A national disgrace
Catholic Social Service Australia (CSSA) has described the findings as a national disgrace.
“Indigenous people are telling us what the problem is and we need to listen,” said Francis Sullivan, Chair of CSSA. “While causes of Indigenous suicide share some similarities to the rest of the population including untreated mental illness, trauma from childhood abuse and substance abuse, Indigenous people also suffer the devastation caused by loss of land and culture, trans-generational trauma, racism, and social exclusion.”
Intergenerational trauma caused to First Nations
According to Sullivan, the findings only confirm that Australian Indigenous policies have failed to find a solution to the trauma caused to First Nations peoples by over 230 years of colonisation.
He noted that one approach that appears to be working for CSSA is ensuring a high proportion of Indigenous people are employed and trained to work in Indigenous communities. He quoted the example of CatholicCare in the Diocese of Wilcannia-Forbes where 35% of the social services workforce are Indigenous, and they are represented at all levels of management.
“This genuine commitment to facilitating Indigenous solutions to Indigenous issues is invaluable and needs to be replicated across the board,” he said.
Church commitment to reconciliation
The Australian Church has long been actively committed to healing the historical wounds of First Nations communities. Solidarity and reconciliation with the Aboriginal peoples is one of the main topics in the agenda of the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia which started early in October. Bishops have also recently endorsed the “Uluru Statement From the Heart”, a landmark document calling for the establishment of a ‘First Nations Voice’ in the Australian Constitution.
On 24 September, Australian Bishops’ president, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, recalled the marginalization, discrimination and hardships Aboriginal people have had to endure over the past two centuries, remarking that “only a heart of stone” could allow them “to become aliens, exiles, and refugees in their own land.”