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Speech: Indigenous Suicide

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 29 Feb 2012

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (15:29): I move:
That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (Senator Ludwig) to a question without notice asked by Senator Wright today relating to Indigenous youth suicide.

We know that Indigenous communities experience disproportionate and unacceptable rates of youth suicide, and we also know that these rates have been increasing over the past 30 years. At present, suicide rates among young Indigenous males are approximately three times higher than those of the non-Indigenous population, and the suicide rates experienced by young Indigenous women are approximately five times those of non-Indigenous young women. The incidence of Indigenous youth suicide has recently been highlighted by the Northern Territory inquiry into youth suicide and was previously recognised by the 2010 Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs report The hidden toll: suicide in Australia. Sadly, this tragic phenomenon has recently been increasingly reported in the media, with accounts of Indigenous girls as young as 11 committing suicide in the Northern Territory. In my own state of South Australia I was deeply saddened to hear the news earlier this year that a young Indigenous girl aged only nine had taken her own life. It beggars belief that she really understood the consequences of what she was doing at that time.
The situation is horrific and calls for an urgent response, as we understand that we have a whole generation at risk. However, our response must be carefully considered and developed on the basis of extensive informed consultation with those most affected and with those who are most expert about their own circumstances. As Suicide Prevention Australia has cautioned, the risk factors for suicide in Indigenous communities cannot be assumed to be the same or to have the same correlations as for non-Indigenous communities. For example, the link between mental illness and suicide is less evident in Indigenous communities than the general population, with other factors such as alienation, grief, social disadvantage, sexual assault, family violence, unemployment, lack of meaningful engagement and substance abuse compounded by social, cultural and historical factors contributing to increased risk.

It is vital that any response to Indigenous youth suicide effectively takes into account the complexity of this issue, and the absolute importance of community involvement in developing and delivering programs in response. Indeed, such programs should be locally initiated, accountable and culturally appropriate, taking into account the norms, values and traditions and structures of the specific Indigenous communities involved. Unfortunately, our history is dotted with examples of well-meaning but ultimately futile-or worse, damaging-interventions that have not been developed or owned by the communities affected. A very recent and ongoing intervention comes to mind in that regard.

An adequate and effective response to the endemic levels of youth suicide in Indigenous communities must be a priority for our governments. As the Aboriginal peak organisations of the Northern Territory say, if societies are to be judged on how they treat their elders then surely the converse is true; we should be judged also on how successful we are at protecting the lives of our young people, our future. It is with great interest that I will be awaiting and then considering the strategy developed by the Indigenous Suicide Prevention Advisory Group.

This speech was given in response to questions asked during senate question time, a transcript can be found here.

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