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Nat Cromb: the anomalies in the 2016 ABS Causes of Death data

Nathalie Cromb

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Natalie Cromb is a Gamilaraay woman from Burra Bee Dee Aboriginal Reserve outside Coonabarabran in Warrumbungle country.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has today released its 2016 Causes of Death data which includes annual national suicide information. Analysis provided by Mindframe revealed that 162 (119 male, 43 female) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people died by suicide, which is slightly higher than the 152 recorded in 2015.

Suicide was the 5th leading cause of death for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across NSW, QLD, SA, WA and NT, compared to the 15th leading cause of death for non-Indigenous people in these states. In these states, the standardised death rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (23.8 per 100,000) was more than twice the non-Indigenous rate (11.4 per 100,000).

Limited data is available for VIC, TAS and the ACT due to relatively small numbers in comparison to the other states.

According to Gerry Georgatos, a suicide prevention researcher and prison reform advocate, the data fails to take into account deaths classified as “Other”, which are often through drug or alcohol use, overdose or misadventure. The data, if it truly reflected the reality on the ground, would depict the real number as 1 in 10 Indigenous deaths is by suicide, not 1 in 18 as the national data suggests.

Georgatos says: “We are failing because the government is focusing only on the tipping point of suicide when we need to be looking at the causal narrative also. The causal narrative, of course is the deep, deep poverty and inequality.” He says that the government is doing next to nothing to address the fact that there is gross inequality not only between Indigenous and non-Indigenous, but even within Indigenous communities themselves.

“We need to not only address suicide and trauma, but we need to give people something to live for by lifting them out of entrenched poverty and support them through addressing their trauma with treatment from a place of opportunity,” he says.

Georgatos is of the view that the systemic failures are translating as clear toxic racism: “When you see remote non-Indigenous communities provided with services and infrastructure, but Indigenous communities a mere 50km away with nothing – it is a clear indication that racism is at play.”

Georgatos says that the crisis is not improving, as many governmental advisers and stakeholders tend to suggest, but worsening with children as young as 9-years-old taking their life through suicide, as well as countless others experiencing depression and suicidal ideation. He believes that we do Indigenous people a disservice if we continue with the falsehoods of improvement.

Mangarayi and Torres Strait Islander and Black Rainbow Founder, Dameyon Bonson says that while it is important to obtain data on the suicides that occur in Australia, it is more critical now to obtain qualitative data on whether suicide prevention programs that are having government funding funnelled into them are having a positive effect. “It’s time for evidence. We need evidence of what programs are being run and what their effect is in reducing the incidence of suicide in our communities, and there needs to be investment in Indigenous people to gather this data,” he says.

Bonson says that the approach to Indigenous health needs to be addressed and we need to stop homogenising the problem to a one dimensional issue needing a single approach. He says that governmental advisers often fall into the trap of approaching the narrative of suicide, or mental health issues more generally, as a black issue and that we simply need to be strong in culture and the problems will go away. He points out that there are members of remote communities who are strong in culture, who participate in ceremony on country, and these brothers and sisters are still losing their lives to suicide. The fact that such culturally strong people are losing their lives in this way suggests that the culture paradigm is not accurate in assessing risk factors for suicide, he says.

Bonson recounts his time in remote communities when he was gathering data for the National Advisory Committee for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project in remote communities where the men and women he spoke to who lived on country and practiced ceremony were not concerned with any cultural shortage in regards to suicide deaths, but rather housing, jobs and means in which to survive.

Bonson considers that if the one size fits all approach continues, we will not see any change. He compels those in the decision making capacity to look at the evidence and not convenient narratives. “Look at where the bulk of the suicides occur, it is not through a culture deficit that the majority of Indigenous people are taking their lives,” he says. Bonson suggests that the individual approach and evidence-based solutions is the more difficult approach to take, but one that will ensure we are not homogenising suicide.

Meanwhile, the suicide statistics continue. And they tell us the numbers are rising. What the government is and has been doing is not working, and those who have been on the ground listening to communities are telling us all that suicide is not a ‘black’ problem – it is a poverty problem. Without immediate governmental response to the poverty crisis, we will see a continuation of the worsening statistics and more ill-conceived policies that attempt to address the tipping point, but not the causal narrative.

If you or anybody you know needs help, crisis support services can be contacted on: Lifeline on 13 11 14, Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800, MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978, Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467, Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36, Headspace on 1800 650 890

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