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Indigenous suicide crisis needs urgent action: review

Thursday, 26 September 2019


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.

Lead researcher, Edith Cowan University’s (ECU’s) Associate Professor Joanne Dickson, 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,” Professor Dickson said.

Key findings

  1. The suicide rate for Indigenous youth, and Indigenous children (10 years and under) in particular, is substantially higher than non-Indigenous peers.
  2. Prevalence of self-harm and suicide ideation is higher among Indigenous youth than non-Indigenous youth.
  3. Greater risk of suicidal ideation among Indigenous youth is associated with being incarcerated, experience of racial discrimination, and emotional and social distress.
  4. Living in regional and remote areas is associated with greater risk of suicide, alongside substance use, being incarcerated, and high levels of social and emotional distress.
  5. There is a surprising lack of empirical research literature on the antecedent risk factors for suicide, self-harm and suicidal ideation among Indigenous youth.


Professor Dickson said 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,” Professor Dickson said.

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,” Professor Dickson said.

Regional and remote residents at higher risk

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.

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

Aboriginal communities should lead research agendas

“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,” Professor Dickson said.

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,” Professor Dickson said.

The paper A Systematic Review of the Antecedents and Prevalence of Suicide, Self-Harm, and Suicide Ideation in Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Youth is published in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (IJERPH). Authors Joanne M Dickson, Kate Cruise, Clare A McCall and Peter Taylor.


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