Issue 24 / 27 June 2016

A LEADING expert is calling for a Royal Commission into suicide and self-harm in Indigenous communities, after a new report published in the MJA revealed that rates in the Kimberley region are among the highest in the world.

Suicide prevention researcher and director of humanitarian projects at the Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights, Mr Gerry Georgatos, said that “suicide takes the lives of 5.2% of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population – a moral and political abomination and a catastrophic humanitarian crisis”.

“A royal commission can shift the national consciousness, educate the nation as to the underlying issues while also smashing myths and stereotypes. [This] has the strongest prospect of galvanising the ways forward,” he told MJA InSight.

The MJA report was based on a retrospective audit conducted by staff at the Kimberley Mental Health and Drug Service (KMHDS).

The authors analysed their internal suicide and self-harm database and identified 125 suicides in the Kimberley region from 2005 to 2014, including 102 Indigenous people. This equated to an age-adjusted suicide rate of 74 per 100 000 population per year in the Kimberley Indigenous population. Analysis showed that 72 of the 102 Indigenous individuals were male, 69 were less than 30 years old, and 28 were less than 20 years old.

The authors found that 70% of Indigenous people who committed suicide were never known to or referred to the KMHDS. In 95 cases, hanging was the method of suicide.

“During 2014, 553 people presented with suicidal behaviour (deliberate self-harm, or suicidal ideation and plans)”, and 86% of this group identified as Indigenous.

“Our audit presents evidence of high rates of suicide and self-harm in Indigenous people of the Kimberley region, and highlights the need for multidisciplinary, culturally appropriate, innovative and youth-focused approaches to suicide prevention activities,” the authors wrote.

Mr Georgatos said that while the Kimberley rates of suicide, self-harm and depression among Indigenous people are the highest in the country, Indigenous communities across far north Queensland are experiencing similar and increasing trends.

“Simply, the more west we journey across the continent and then the more north, the rates for suicide and self-harming increase dramatically,” he told MJA InSight.

The most recent publication by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that across Australia, suicide rates among Indigenous Australians were around twice as high as corresponding rates for non-Indigenous Australians.

Among Indigenous Australians, rates of self-harm are about 2.5 times and two times higher than rates for non-Indigenous men and women, respectively.

Mr Georgatos said that the driver of these trends was socio-economic disadvantage, which is “a cesspool from wherein a sense of hopelessness is borne from near the beginning of life”.

“Remote communities and towns have been degraded by one government after another, and poverty has become acute and entrenched,” he said.

Dr Murray Chapman, co-author of the MJA report and clinical director of the KMHDS, told MJA InSight that these trends are deeply connected with the actions of colonisation and enduring racism.

“Non-Indigenous people can often be nonplussed by this, but we are not out of the woods when it comes to racism.”

Dr Chapman said that when there are these environments with higher suicide rates, death can even be normalised as suicide becomes a common mechanism for resolving issues.

“At a genetic level too, we’re starting to see that trauma does get incorporated into the genome. So there is intergenerational trauma.”

Mr Georgatos agreed, saying that this “constancy of traumas” required tailor-made, multiple responses.

However, many remote communities are without the full suite of counselling and health services that are needed to make a difference.

Mr Georgatos said that urban hospital providers also lacked adequate level of crisis support units for Indigenous people, and that low levels of contact between patients and specialists were driving the premature discharge of patients.

“In effect, ongoing and thorough care does not exist,” he said.

Dr Chapman said that it was essential to provide the right tools and resources to enable local communities to develop their own services, based on their own needs.

“It’s about empowerment and capacity building in communities – as opposed to imposing on the communities.”

Mr Georgatos agreed, adding that Indigenous people “should have the opportunity to navigate their two cultural settings, that of their own and of the mainstream, without impost to either”.

He said that a Royal Commission would be best positioned to identify ways of overcoming the underlying social determinants of suicide and self-harm. This includes improving living conditions and housing, as this is a significant step towards providing stability in their lives.

“There are many solutions, and some are obvious, but they are not being invested in or underfunded by governments – while other solutions have not been widely identified.”

Mr Georgatos estimated that due to under-reporting issues, suicide could actually account for up to 10% of deaths in Indigenous people.

“It is the pressing issue of our time and is yet to translate into a national priority.”


A Royal Commission should investigate Indigenous suicide
  • Strongly agree (55%, 72 Votes)
  • Agree (13%, 17 Votes)
  • Strongly disagree (11%, 15 Votes)
  • Disagree (11%, 14 Votes)
  • Neutral (10%, 13 Votes)

Total Voters: 131

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6 thoughts on “Indigenous suicide rate needs Royal Commission

  1. Gerry Georgatos says:

    My explanation as to why a royal commission – 13 minutes only please – much respect, Gerry:

    The onus has to be on the ways forward and tailor made, as we have been disaggregating to the elevated risk groups for some years:



  2. Elizabeth Pickworth says:

    It’s a stain on humanity and an absolute failure of our government. We can not just sit idle while we allow and watch our founding people die. This is a disgrace and we need to act – now! 

  3. Anne Russell says:

    Before anything else is looked at we must reduce the rate of FASD.  This will invariably reduce the rates of mental health problems, substance abuse, crimininal justice contact, incarcration and suicide and will improve the general health and wellbeing of community members.

  4. Lois Achimovich says:

    I agree with the work on Dr Murray Chapman regarding racism and continuing colonialism. The recent way in which Stan Grant, Nova Peris(especially  and Rosalie Kunoth-Monks have been treated indicates that we have far to go. 

    My background is child psychiatry. There are many ways to work with children and their parents – see Port Community School in Fremantle, but there must be adults who are willing to go to the mat to get the local MP  to get on board, and many more, eg academics, juvenile justice,family and children services.

    Our group was successful with great teachers, a board which assisted the young people (and the teenagers were on the baord and had a say in school issues), a good administration. The school is blooming – the latest thing is a house next to the school where adolescent mothers can have their babies in the creche so the mothers can conitnue their 

    Good luck with the Royal Commission

  5. Pauline Cole says:

    I believe that a way forward is to apply what we know from treatment into creative early prevention strategies. There is a clear evidence base that shows Dialectical Behaviour Therapy reduces rates of self-injury, substance use and suicide. Hot off the press is a book by Mazza et al that has put together a plan of how to teach DBT in schools for the purposes of prevention and early intervention for emotional distress. What we need are enthusiastic leaders for project like this to utilise the expertise that we have in metropolitan centres. There are passionate DBT clinicans willing to assist with a program to bring this to Kimberley classrooms if there are people on the ground in the Kimberly to run with this… We don’t necessarily need more money thrown at this problem – we need to invite our teachers to do just what is needed in the classroom to get material from DBT to the existing social and emotional learning programs. 


  6. Brian Tollner says:

    Gerry Georgatos has been doing amazing work in this field for years, a lone voice that is now is rolling and gathering moss.

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