What’s behind high Aboriginal youth suicide rates?

Pat Dudgeon explains why suicide rates among young Aboriginals are so high and what can be done to stem the tide.

Pat dudgeon - Aboriginal suicides

Young Aboriginal Australians are four times more likely to commit suicide than non-indigenous Australians and in one remote community in the country’s Kimberley region, the Aboriginal suicide rate is estimated to be seven times the national average.

Experts and Aboriginal elders believe this can be attributed in part to a feeling of disconnection from the land and traditional culture and that the solution rests in restoring that, rather than solely in combatting drug and alcohol abuse. 

Professor Pat Dudgeon, from the Bardi people of the Kimberley, was the first Aboriginal psychologist to graduate in Australia and is the woman behind Australia’s first national suicide prevention strategy that specifically targets Aboriginals.

She talks to Al Jazeera about the mental state of Australia’s indigenous youth and what can be done to battle the suicide rate. 

Al Jazeera: You were the first Aboriginal psychologist to graduate in Australia. What inspired your career path?

Pat Dudgeon: Growing up as an Aboriginal person, I became increasingly aware of the social and historical disadvantage that my people had suffered. I became determined to help them. 


I wanted to help people with their mental health problems. Life at times can be very difficult – for some groups more than others. And I felt we needed to heal to become a happier, more positive and functional people.

Al Jazeera: Has anything changed since we spoke to you for our 2012 documentary “Australia’s Lost Generation”?

Dudgeon: Apparently, the national suicide averages have stabilised or even gone down. But for indigenous suicides, there’s been no change; it’s stayed the same and there’s still a lot of suicides happening.

However, I think there’s more awareness. There is a greater voice demanding more programmes, but that isn’t being provided as well as it could be. And also, it’s going to take a while. It’s taken us a long time to get to this point. 

Canadian professor Michael Chandler used to say that high youth-suicide rates are, in a sense, the miner’s canary; it tells you that things aren’t good. It’s the sharp end of a very bad situation telling us that things aren’t good in a society. We need to work to turn it around. But for some communities, that might take a long time.

Pat Dudgeon is determined to help Australia's Aboriginal youth [Jawahir al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]
Pat Dudgeon is determined to help Australia’s Aboriginal youth [Jawahir al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Al Jazeera: Are indigenous children at a greater risk of suffering from mental health issues than their non-indigenous peers?

Dudgeon: Indigenous Australians are twice more likely to commit suicide than other Australians. When you break it down by age groups, certainly our youth are more vulnerable to suicide.

We live in a society that is often very racist and doesn’t give them much opportunityBut there’s a whole range of different reasons why our youth are suffering from mental health issues and are taking their lives, among them an intergenerational trauma.

Youth suicide is not just an issue for Australian indigenous people but other indigenous people from Canada, the United States and New Zealand, as well. And the one thing that we have in common is the story of colonisation.

Al Jazeera: Do you believe that the high suicide rates are a result of this colonisation process?

Dudgeon: The difference between us and other Australian people is that we’ve gone through a process of colonisation. It was quite a brutal and horrible process that has disempowered indigenous people.

Often, there were genocides committed. People were forcibly removed from their countries, from their lands and put into reserves and missions.

Children were forcibly separated from families and put into institutions where they were trained to be menial workers, and so on. Aboriginal culture was looked down upon and discouraged. So, as well as colonising the lands, Aboriginal culture and people themselves were, in a sense, colonised psychologically.

That had a lasting impact. Certainly, if you’ve been removed from your family and culture, there’s a whole lot of trauma that goes with that. Sometimes, that trauma is carried down from one generation to the next, so that’s something we do need to heal from.

It’s only recently that Australia has accepted responsibility and we had the national apology given by the then-prime minister, Kevin Rudd. For us, that was a big healing moment, a very big healing moment.

But certainly I think that the “stolen generations”, as we call it when people were removed from their family, is a big issue that we need to grapple with and a lot more healing needs to happen.

Al Jazeera: What needs to be done to help people heal?

Dudgeon: We have a national healing foundation that supports and encourages people from all across the country to undertake healing programmes, enabling them to heal and to reinstate a strong, healthy culture.

We know from our own research that for a programme to be effective, the local Aboriginal community must be involved.

And there needs to be a range of different programmes: from clinical services, to back to country, to cultural programmes. And we need a whole range of different services.

We need to support our youth, listen to them, hear what their issues are. We need to make our cultures strong to ensure that the youth has opportunities – that they have people to speak to and show them a way to engage in our culture, as well.

I think we could see change in our generation if we put in place good systems that supported the Aboriginal community, gave them a whole range of different services – including encouraging and supporting local communities to be involved in any programmes. And to develop local healing and cultural programmes.

So it’s not insurmountable. But I think it requires the government to change the way it views Aboriginal communities and their right to self-governing.

Al Jazeera: Why is the local approach so important?

Dudgeon: For a lot of Aboriginal people, or any person really, one of the things I’ve seen as a mental health professional is the emergence of the consumer movement. People who are consumers of mental health services now have a voice. 

To improve a service, those who will be using it need to be actively involved in deciding what it should be and how it should be delivered. So, if you empower people, the change will be much more effective than if they’re just receiving through some professional high up, an outsider who doesn’t really understand the issue.

This applies to either indigenous or non-indigenous people, but particularly for indigenous people because of their history of colonisation.

Al Jazeera: What’s being done to help communities and individuals tackle mental health issues?

Dudgeon: There are a lot of programmes, including Gatekeeper Training that helps people identify the signs or symptoms of possible suicide and suggest strategies on how to deal with that.

Usually, people from within the community are also asked to go and see someone if there are concerns.

I think in today’s society, both indigenous and non-indigenous, we’re much more comfortable talking about suicide, addressing it and helping each other.

It was a very taboo subject some years ago. But now it’s OK to say that you’ve got problems. It’s OK to talk about it and to go and seek help. I think it’s good that we’re moving in that direction.

Suicide isn’t just indigenous, it’s mainstream, as well. So, if we are all conscious about our mental health, acknowledge that different groups need different solutions and different approaches, and do our bit to ensure that everyone is healthy, that’s an important first step.

Al Jazeera: Could you tell us more about different suicide prevention programmes that are needed?

Dudgeon: There needs to be a whole range of different projects. When we started the Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander suicide evaluation project, we looked at the different types of services needed.

When people are very unhealthy they might need clinics that can provide urgent care, they might also need medication. So, you need programmes that can provide immediate relief.

You also need programmes that can help them build resilience and strengthen their culture.

The main message that came through at the round tables that we undertook across Australia was that people were saying, “We need to build up our resilience.” And the big thing that everyone was concerned about was self-determination. That Aboriginal people, or indigenous people themselves need to be in charge of any developments in the community.

According to some research done in Canada looking at First councils tribes, those with low suicide rates had a higher level of self-determination and cultural reclamation. So, those are important factors for indigenous suicide prevention. Feeling like you belong and you’ve got a future is important and empowering for any human being.

Al Jazeera: How do you empower communities and people?

Dudgeon: I was involved in a project called, “The National Empowerment Project”. It started in response to the suicides that were happening, so we developed a programme to help build a relationship with the communities we wanted to engage with us.

The communities chose people, we trained them as co-researchers, and then, they went and asked everyone in their community, what were the main issues and what were the solutions. And after, that we reported our findings to each of the communities. 

We developed a programme from all those consultations called “the Cultural, Social and Emotional Wellbeing Project”. It’s basically from an indigenous point of view, so it’s very much about indigenous wellbeing, culture and self-awareness.

The funding is provided by the government, and it enables people to deal with mental health issues and come up with psychological strategies, as well as strategies to navigate normal challenges of life. It also stresses the importance of elders and culture in a community. So, it’s all about self-awareness and cultural strength.

Al Jazeera: Is there any specific case that has stuck with you throughout the years?

Dudgeon: Yes. When we organised a big suicide prevention conference in Alice Springs, we decided to have it in Central Australia. There was a community that had suffered a high number of suicides.

They were giving a bursary for a couple of them to go to Alice Springs and attend the conference. But instead, they used that bursary to hire a bus for 12-15 people to go from Leonora all the way to Alice Springs, and they stopped in other communities along the way to exchange stories with them.

That stuck with me and it illustrates that the community is concerned about the high suicide rate, they will take action, and they’re determined to try and address things themselves.

Al Jazeera: Do you believe that this increased awareness can reduce the suicide numbers?

Dudgeon: I do get concerned that perhaps not enough funding is being put into Aboriginal communities and that’s probably where the Centre for Best Practice in Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention comes in.

I’m the director of the centre, and we’re setting up a clearinghouse with all the best practice programmes and services for indigenous suicide prevention. There will also be a lot of advice for communities. So, if they want to develop a programme and have it evaluated, they’ll be able to come to our website for that. 

We can provide good strategies and when communities do get funded, they’ll be able to look at what’s happening on our website and connect with other programmes that they might think will be useful for themselves – in their own time, in their own way.

Source: Al Jazeera