The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project (ATSISPEP) is an important Australian Government funded initiative to identify what programs and services are most effective in helping reduce high rates of suicide among Indigenous Australians. It is particularly important because suicide among Indigenous Australians has emerged in the past half century as a major cause of their premature mortality and a contributor to the overall health gap. Indigenous suicide was almost unheard of prior to the 1960s.
Yet in 2014 it was the fifth leading cause of death among Indigenous peoples and the age-standardised completed suicide rate was around twice as high as the non-Indigenous rate.
Critically, there has been no significant change between 1998 and 2012 in the formally recorded rates in NSW, Qld, WA, SA and the NT (where data is deemed reliable).
From 2001 to 2010, about 100 Indigenous people died by suicide each year in Australia.
Since then, the situation appears to be getting worse. In 2012, 117 Indigenous suicides were reported; in 2013 the number was 138; in 2014 it was 143. This shows that Indigenous suicide rates are increasing. However, a small part of this increase might be due to improvements in data collection and reporting. More accurate data collection is a positive outcome of the significant and ongoing changes which have been made in recent times. However, data collection particularly real time data remains an important issue. There needs to be a focus from the growing number of Indigenous suicides and the need for multisectorial action on the collection and reporting of data.
- Without comprehensive, meaningful, timely and accessible data, all jurisdictions lack a clear understanding of the scope of suicide behaviours, and the ability to take appropriate and targeted action in preventing suicides.
- It is also imperative that policies aimed at preventing suicide are developed based on good quality information and evidence.
- The design and implementation of effective preventive measures will be greatly enhanced by timely information on the characteristics of those who have suicided and the identification of possible current causative influences in specific populations in each state and territory.
- There is no doubt that work to improve the speed of availability of data, and its quality is being actively pursued locally and internationally.
- One can’t underestimate this effort – if timely knowledge of a suicide saves just one further life, its value cannot be denied. It may be that the most beneficial mechanism to establish best practice will be to combine different approaches.
- The positive potential of the use of social media as a monitoring tool could be combined with the comprehensive data collection being established by the WACSIS. Clear protocols would be required to ensure identification of suicides of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and what action would then be taken,and by which agency or service to prevent further self harm in that community. A successful trial in WA could then be replicated nationally, perhaps utilising the Australian Health Ministers’ Council.
From the viewpoint of suicide of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – both for the loved ones of those left behind, and those who can be protected – effort to improve real time reporting of suicide data must be maintained.