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Suicide prevention

About this topic

Every life lost to suicide is a tragedy for family, friends, kin and communities. Although suicide and intentional self-harm are complex issues, they can be prevented. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare respectfully acknowledges those who have died or have been affected by suicide or intentional self-harm.

Connection to community

Connection to community is 1 of the 7 domains of social and emotional wellbeing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (Indigenous Australians).

Social and emotional wellbeing is a holistic way of looking at relationships between individuals, family, kin and community in the context of land, culture, spirituality and ancestry. Cultural groups and individuals each have their own interpretation of social and emotional wellbeing (Gee et al. 2014).

Self-governance and support networks can help build connection to community (PM&C 2017). People can be disconnected from community through a lack of meaningful support networks, disintegration of the family, lack of recognised role models, and the persistent cycle of grief due to the many deaths in communities. These factors may contribute to occurrences of suicide (Silburn et al. 2014).

Suicide and self-harm behaviours arise from a complex web of personal, social and historical factors (Dudgeon et al. 2017). Experiencing the sorrow and loss of family and community members in short succession can mean being in a constant state of grief and mourning (Silburn et al. 2014).

Suicidal behaviour can appear in clusters—this is a rapid increase in the number of suicides in a few months or years, or within a certain geographical area. Exposure to suicidal behaviour may be a factor contributing to increased suicides.

Historical factors may also contribute to suicide. Suicide among Indigenous Australians is considered a post-colonisation phenomenon that markedly increased in prevalence from the 1960s (Hunter & Milroy 2006; Silburn et al. 2014). Understanding the ongoing effects of colonisation and the importance of culture is important for individual and communal healing (Silburn et al. 2014).

Effective suicide prevention requires a multi-sector approach that includes health, education, employment, welfare agencies, law-enforcement agencies, housing providers and non-government organisations (AIHW 2020). Programs and care can be delivered to:

  • a whole community (regardless of their level of suicide risk)
  • those at imminent risk of suicide
  • those who need follow-up after a suicide attempt (AIHW 2018).

Postvention services support people who have been exposed or bereaved through suicide. These services aim to help reduce distress and the risk of suicide (AHA 2014).

The Centre of Best Practice in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention (CBPATSISP) develops evidence for effective suicide prevention strategies for Indigenous Australians and communities (Dudgeon et al. 2019). The CBPATSISP research shows that effective suicide response is multi-layered. It includes prevention for individuals, tailored responses for high-risk groups, and multi-level suicide prevention activities for individuals, families and communities. These activities include:

  • raising community awareness of mental health and suicide
  • addressing substance use and employment issues
  • promoting healing in families by strengthening social and emotional wellbeing.

Suicide prevention strategies are more likely to succeed if they are co-designed and implemented with Indigenous community leadership. Communities understand the lived experience of community members at risk of suicide and are best placed to design suicide responses (Dudgeon et al. 2019).

Key statistics

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In 2019, 195 Indigenous Australians died by suicide (a rate of 27.1 per 100,000). The age-standardised death rate for suicide was 39.4 per 100,000 for Indigenous males and 15.2 per 100,000 for Indigenous females (AIHW 2020).

Data from 2015–2019 show that the rate for suicide of Indigenous Australians is almost twice the rate of all non-Indigenous Australians (24.6 per 100,000 and 12.5 per 100,000, respectively). Suicide was the fifth leading cause of death among Indigenous Australians and the 13th leading cause of death for all Australians (ABS 2020). It was the leading cause of death for Indigenous children aged 5–17 years.

Data from 2015–2019 by state or territory show the annual age-standardised suicide rates among Indigenous Australians in New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory. The rate was highest in Western Australia (34.6 per 100,000) and lowest in New South Wales (19.3 per 100,000). For non-Indigenous Australians, suicide rates were lower than for Indigenous Australians in all 5 states and territories (ABS 2020).

From 2010 to 2019, the rate of suicide among Indigenous Australians increased by about 36% (from 19.9 to 27.1 per 100,000 population). In contrast, it increased by 15% for all Australians (from 11.2 to 12.9 per 100,000 population) (ABS 2020).

In 2019:

  • suicide accounted for 5.7% of all deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples while the comparable proportion for non-Indigenous Australians was 1.9%
  • 30% of all deaths by suicide among Indigenous people were female, this was greater than that seen in the non-Indigenous population (24% females) (AIHW 2020).

age-standardised rates remove the influence of age differences when comparing data from different groups. Populations often do not have the same age structure; for example, the Indigenous Australian population has a younger age profile and the non-Indigenous population has an older age profile. To remove the influence of population age differences from the data, the age distribution of these populations has to be standardised before rates can be compared (Earyes 2008). This method is called age-standardisation.

This information was compiled from the following data sources: National Mortality Database and the ABS Causes of Death collection. More information about this data source and its data quality is available in Data sources.

For more information about causes of death and suicide rates in Australia, see the AIHW National Suicide and Self-harm Monitoring System and ABS Causes of Death, Australia 2019.

Data on Indigenous Australian deaths by suicide are compiled by jurisdiction of usual residence for New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory. Indigenous identification is considered adequate for mortality reporting in these jurisdictions.

Deaths due to external causes, such as suicide, are usually referred to a coroner for investigation. As coronial investigations are affected by a lag in registration time, not all deaths are registered in the year which they occur. Initial data for causes of death are subject to change. Each year, data are updated as more findings from the coroner are established.

Causes-of-death data may underestimate the number of Indigenous Australian deaths in Australia. In 2019, there were 1,362 deaths registered in Australia in which Indigenous status was not given: this was 0.8% of all registered deaths (ABS 2020). Caution should be exercised when interpreting data for Indigenous Australians, especially with regard to year-to-year changes.

See ABS Causes of Death 2019, Methodology for more information.

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2020. Causes of death, Australia, 2019. ABS cat. no. 3303.0. Canberra: ABS.

AHA (Australian Healthcare Associates) 2014. Evaluation of suicide prevention activities: final report. Melbourne: AHA.

AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2018. Australia’s health 2018. Australia’s health series no. 16. AUS 221. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2020. Suicide and self-harm monitoring 2020 web report. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 09 June 2021, https://www.aihw.gov.au/suicide-self-harm-monitoring/data/populations-age-groups/suicide-indigenous-australians

Commonwealth of Australia 2017. National Strategic Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ Mental Health and Social and Emotional Wellbeing. Canberra: Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Dudgeon P, Calma T & Holland C 2017. The context and causes of the suicide of Indigenous people in Australia. Journal of Indigenous Wellbeing 2(2):5–15.

Dudgeon P, Holland C & Walker R 2019. Fact sheet 5 What works in Indigenous suicide prevention. Perth: Centre of Best Practice in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention (CBPATSISP) & Poche Centre for Indigenous Health, School of Indigenous Studies, University of Western Australia.

Earyes D 2008. Technical briefing 3: Commonly used public health statistics and their confidence intervals. Association of Public Health Observatories. York, UK.

Gee G, Dudgeon P, Schultz C, Hart A & Kelly K 2014. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social and emotional wellbeing. In: Dudgeon P, Milroy H & Walker R (eds). Working together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health and wellbeing principles and practice. 2nd edn. Canberra: Australian Government, pp. 55-68.

Hunter E & Milroy H 2006. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide in context. Archives in Suicide Research 10(2):141–157

PM&C (Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet) 2017. National Strategic Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ Mental Health and Social and Emotional Wellbeing. Canberra: Australian Government.

Silburn S, Robinson G, Leckning B, Henry D, Cox A & Kickett D 2014. Preventing suicide among aboriginal Australians. In: Dudgeon P, Milroy H & Walker R (eds). Working together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health and wellbeing principles and practice. 2nd edn. Canberra: Australian Government, pp. 147-64.

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