National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Strategy

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide: origins, trends and incidence

Page last updated: 2013

While suicide is believed to have been a rare occurrence among the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia in pre-colonial times, it has become increasingly prevalent over recent decades, accelerating after the 1980s, albeit with variations in rates and in geographical distribution from year to year (ABS, 2012).

For example, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in custody (RCIADIC, 1991) drew attention to the links between substance misuse and mental health disorders in the years and months before most of the deaths that it investigated. It also highlighted the disproportionate number of these deaths (over three-quarters) where there was a history of having been forcibly separated from natural families as children. The interconnected issues of cultural dislocation, personal trauma and the ongoing stresses of disadvantage, racism, alienation and exclusion were all acknowledged by the Commission as contributing to the heightened risk of mental health problems, substance misuse and suicide (Working Together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health and Wellbeing Principles and Practice; 2010).

The mobility of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples between remote communities and regional centres, particularly in the more remote areas is another anomaly of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide that needs to be recognised. This means that these locations need to be considered as part of a larger system when considering the occurrence of suicide and its impact on communities.

The age distribution of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population is much lower than that of the non-Indigenous population because of higher child-to-adult ratios and shorter than average life expectancy. This has important implications for understanding the psychological impact of suicide on families and the available community response capacity in terms of supports and services for treatment and prevention. It is also relevant to another distinct feature of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide: the phenomenon of ‘suicide clustering’, where an unusual number of suicides and episodes of suicidal behaviour occur in close proximity to one another within a particular community or region (Working Together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health and Wellbeing Principles and Practice; 2010).

It should also be noted that there have been significant peaks and clusters of suicides in some regions in the context of a generally wide distribution across most states and territories, particularly those with significant remote populations. There are significant fluctuations in rates from year to year in some states (De Leo et al, 2011).

Reducing suicide and suicidal behaviour among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is now a public health priority for all Australian governments (SCRGSP, 2009; 2011). The most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data on suicide in Australia reported that an average of 100 people of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin ended their lives through suicide each year over the 10 year period from 2001-2010 (ABS, 2012). In 2010, suicide accounted for 4.2% of registered deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (NSW, Qld, WA, SA and NT combined). After adjusting for the different age profiles of the two populations, the suicide rate or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples was 2.6 times the rate for non-Indigenous Australians.Top of page

The 2012 ABS data for the period 2001-2010 show the overall (all ages) rate of suicide for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples was twice that of non-Indigenous people, with a rate ratio of 2.0 for males and 1.9 for females. However, there was also significant variation in the age-standardised rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous suicide between the five jurisdictions having reliable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mortality data. Due to small numbers it is difficult to detect significant variation by geography. Figure 1 shows that the Northern Territory appears to have the highest Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide rate of all jurisdictions, followed by South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland, all with substantially higher rates than New South Wales.8

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples also take their own lives at younger ages than non-Indigenous Australians, with the majority of suicide deaths occurring before the age of 35 years. Figure 2 shows that in the period 2001-2010, the greatest difference in rates of suicide between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians was in the 20-24 years age group for females and the 25-29 years age group for males.

The highest age-specific rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide was among males between 25 and 29 years of age (90.8 deaths per 100,000 population), four times the rate for non-Indigenous males. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander females, the highest rate of suicide was in the 20-24 age group (21.8 deaths per 100,000 population), five times the non-Indigenous female rate for that age group. For the non-Indigenous population, the highest rate of suicide occurred among males between 35 and 39 years of age (25.4 deaths per 100,000) and for non-Indigenous females (6.6 deaths per 100,000) at consistent rates across the age groups between 35 and 54 years of age.

The prevalence of self-harm presents a different picture, with rates of hospitalisation for intentional self-harm many times higher than the rate of completed suicide for both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous persons, with females hospitalised at higher rates than males (Figure 3). In 2008-09, the rate of hospitalisation for non-fatal intentional self-harm was higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (3.5 per 1000) compared to non-Indigenous people (1.4 per 1000) (SCRGSP, 2011: 7.68). For this same period, a higher rate of hospitalisation for non-fatal, intentional self-harm was recorded for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander females (3.9 per 1000) compared to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males (3.0 per 1000), with both rates higher than hospitalisation rates for non-Indigenous males and females. Hospitalisation for self-harm was also higher in remote areas (4.1 per 1000) compared to major cities (3.5 per 1000) (SCRGSP, 2011: 7.68). A recent survey found that the estimated proportion of the population that would self-injure at some point in their lifetime for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples was 17.2%, which was 2.2 times that reported by non-Indigenous participants (OR 2.2, 95% CI 1.5-3.3) (Martin et al, 2010: 15). Because of limitations in sampling (random telephone survey), this study almost certainly significantly understates differences in lifetime prevalence of self-injury between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous persons.Top of page

Figure 1: Age-standardised rates of suicide by jurisdiction and Indigenous status, NSW, QLD, SA, WA and NT, 2001-20107

Refer to the following table for a text equivalent of figure 1: Age-standardised rates of suicide by jurisdiction and Indigenous status, NSW, Qld, SA, WA and NT, 2001-2010

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (2012) Catalogue 3309.0 Suicides Australia, 2010

Text version of figure 1

JurisdictionAboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rate of suicide*Non-Indigenous rate of suicide*
NSW
12.4
8.9
Qld
22.5
11.9
SA
26.7
11.2
WA
26.2
11.3
NT
30.8
16.4
Total
21.4
10.3

* Rate of suicide per 100,000

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (2012) Catalogue 3309.0 Suicides Australia, 2010

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Figure 2: Age-specific suicide rates by Indigenous status and sex, NSW, QLD, SA, WA and NT, 2001-2010

Refer to the following table for a text equivalent of Figure 2: Age-specific suicide rates by indigenous status and sex, NSW, Qld, SA, WA and NT, 2001-2010

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (2012) Catalogue 3309.0 Suicides Australia, 2010

Text version of figure 2

Age group (years)Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males*Non-indigenous males*Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander females*Non-indigenous females*
15-19
43.4
18.7
9.9
3.2
20-24
74.7
21.8
19.2
4.0
25-29
90.8
18.1
22.1
5.4
30-34
75.0
13.1
25.0
5.8
35-39
60.1
15.7
25.4
6.6
40-44
44.7
7.9
23.2
6.6
45-49
25.5
7.1
23.2
6.6
50-54
18.3
5.6
20.3
6.6
55-59
13.6
16.2
5.5
60+
17.6
19.2
5.0

* Rate of suicide per 100,000

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (2012) Catalogue 3309.0 Suicides Australia, 2010

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Figure 3: Age standardised non-fatal hospitalisations for intentional self-harm, NSW, VIC, QLD, WA, SA and public hospitals in the NT.

Refer to the following table for a text equivalent of Figure 3: Age standardised non-fatal hospitalisations for intentional self-harm, NSW, Vic, Qld, WA, SA and public hospitals in the NT

Source: SCRGSP, 2011: 7.68

Text version of figure 3

YearIndigenous males*Other males*Indigenous females*Other females*
2004-05
2.6
1.1
3.5
1.8
2005-06
3.1
1.1
3.8
1.8
2006-07
3.2
1.1
3.7
1.8
2007-08
3.1
1.1
3.7
1.8
2008-09
3.0
1.1
3.9
1.8

* Rate per 1000 population

Source: SCRGSP, 2011: 7.68

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Footnotes

7 Age-standardised rates take into account differences in the size and structure of the population and are therefore more reliable for comparison purposes.

8 Note: Due to small numbers recorded in Vic and Tasmania, data for these states are not shown to protect privacy.