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Aboriginal suicide is different : Aboriginal youth suicide in New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory and New Zealand : towards a model of explanation and alleviation


This report is the outcome of a project funded by the Criminology Research Council. The original title of the project, in the name of Colin Tatz was "Aboriginal youth suicide : towards a model of explanation and alleviation". In seeking to gain an understanding youth suicide in Aboriginal and Maori communities, Tatz examines the social and political contexts, the origins of the "new violence", the anthropology of suicide, the prevalence and nature of Aboriginal suicide, and social and contributing factors.


Executive summary

Differentiating Aboriginal suicide

"Think different" is the wording of a current Apple Macintosh computer advertisement. The phrase could well apply to the suicides of Aboriginal youth. Their suicide has different wellsprings, histories, sociologies, patterns, and even rituals. It is qualitatively different, and needs to be viewed and responded to differently. We cannot regard this behaviour as merely a part of the national youth suicide problem. To do so will certainly obfuscate this particular issue, would probably bury it, and would culminate soon enough in a regret or lament that yet another costly national approach to "prevention" or alleviation had failed to "take" in Aboriginal communities.

What is different?

The collective and individual experience of contemporary Aboriginal lives is unique. No other group has endured the panoply of laws, edicts and administrative arrangements established to target an entire people regarded as being in need of care and protection. That the protection was in their "best interests" does not alter the reality that they were designated as a separate legal class of persons - minors in law - with all the attendant disabilities of that status. Accordingly, they were physically isolated, segregated, relocated and institutionalised. Their biological, cultural, political, economic and social lives were regulated by state and church "gatekeepers", mostly in secret, with permit systems to keep Aborigines in and outsiders out of the areas known as reserves or missions.

Regardless of regional, linguistic, tribal, clan, and "degrees-of-blood" differences, Aborigines were, and are, perceived as one people. If there is indeed a one-ness, it lies in a commonality of history - victims of physical killing, settler animus, missionary contempt, decimation by disease, legal wardship, and destruction of their social institutions. History, rather than race, colour or culture, has been their unifying and sustaining separateness.

Aboriginal history in New South Wales is replete with special legislation, wardship status for all adults, Aboriginal Welfare Board control of all children, forcible removal of children, establishment of "assimilation homes", exclusion from the State education system, exclusion from separate Aboriginal schools reserved for "full bloods", and the relocation of clans to "alien" country.

Conservative politics in Australia has been seeking to relegate these experiences to "yesteryear", a period distant from us, with an implied statute of limitations on both immoral behaviour and on guilt or shame. Every Aboriginal person over the age of 50 in this study recalls the "exclusion on demand" practice in State schools. The objection by white parents to an Aboriginal presence in their children's class allowed the headmaster to "exempt" the Aboriginal child from staying at school until reaching the statutory school-leaving age. This was, in effect, expulsion on demand, established by education minister John Perry in 1902, and practised until at least the mid-1970s. Every Aboriginal person in this study has a direct familial connection with the policy and practice of child removal. "Yesteryear" is, in effect, yesterday.

We now see "disordered" communities struggling for existence. The anthropologist Colin Turnbull contends that love, care, respect, good child-rearing and aged-care practice are the luxuries of ordered societies. There are few such luxuries in many Aboriginal communities. Their losses have been catastrophic: a land base, their "country", cultural practices found to be "abhorrent" to white society, decision-making by the elders, discipline and control by elders, birth and mourning rituals, even the traditional employment of men and women as vegetable pickers, or men as railway gangers, fencers or shearers, and much more. These losses are not experienced only by those considered to be traditional people; they have occurred among those Aborigines living in the mainstream suburbs and towns who maintained a strong sub-culture of Aboriginality.

Regrettably, "disorder" has come to the surface as violence: domestic, interpersonal and now suicidal, a phenomenon virtually unknown in Aboriginal societies until 30 years ago. It has also appeared as sexual assault within families, drug-taking, alcohol abuse and corresponding involvement with the criminal justice system.

But "disorder" does not mean disintegration. Many embattled communities - most of them remote from, even denied, services taken for granted in urban centres - are surviving and some are finding paths to a sense of flourishing. There is a new-found determination, especially among the women, to overcome some appalling odds, to fashion lives which have purpose and meaning. I am less sanguine about the youth, too many of whom show a preference for death rather than life.

Why this study?

In 1989-90, with Australian Criminology Council support, I visited 90 communities across Australia to see whether, or in what ways, sport could mitigate Aboriginal juvenile delinquency. En passant, I found parental distress at the increasing number of suicide attempts by their children. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) was then conducting its investigations into the 99 deaths in custody between 1 January 1980 and 31 May 1989. Many suspected that those deaths would be found to be homicide or "assisted" in some (nefarious) way. Rather, the findings were essentially of suicide. But this in turn left a strong legacy that custody qua custody is the essence of Aboriginal suicide. A literature then spawned on custody issues and their consequences. It dawned on me that suicide outside of custody was much more prevalent, yet little attention was being paid to that phenomenon - hence this study.

This study

We - my wife Sandra and I - opted for a more anthropological approach to this study: longer visits, participant observation, use of one's intuitive understanding (Verstehen), interaction with people, visits to homes, clubs, corporations, institutions, pubs and sports events, lengthy interviews, most often one-on-one, but in perhaps two dozen instances, group meetings requested by Aborigines.

Between 1 July 1996 and 31 October 1998, we undertook fieldwork in 55 locations in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory and visited 7 centres in New Zealand. The NSW-ACT sample comprises 59 communities or "sites", covering (according to the 1996 census) 43,566 Aboriginal people in a combined NSW-ACT population of 109,447. Our sample therefore represents 40 per cent of the Aboriginal population.

We interviewed 388 people (eight of whom were recorded in two capacities): 208 Aborigines; 12 Maori; 41 non-Aboriginal personnel in agencies working for or with Aborigines; 10 non-Maori personnel working for or with Maori; 5 Australian Federal, 5 New Zealand and 66 NSW police; 13 psychiatrists (Australian, New Zealand and South African); the chief medical examiner in Dallas, 31 Australian and 4 New Zealand coroners.

We spent many hours examining local coroners' files and even longer hours poring over the central files in the Office of the State Coroner in Glebe. "Poring" is the operative word: neither police reports to coroners nor coroners reports have, until 1999, had space or place for racial identification of the deceased. Finding Aboriginal suicides has been a major detective undertaking, one which could not succeed without fieldwork involving constant efforts to cross-check with relatives, long-serving coroners and police.

Problems in the study

Several obstacles block the path to discovering of the causes of Aboriginal youth suicide. The first is the near-universal problem of what I call "kind hearts and coroners". Australian coroners may not presume suicide, following, as they do, the British convention and court rulings rather than statutory prohibition. United States coroners and medical examiners are not restricted in this way. In Australia, therefore, a variety of verdicts is possible, from accident to open finding. In country towns, for beneficent reasons, many coroners are predisposed to find everything but suicide: to spare families chagrin, stigma, shame, or real or imagined legal consequences or for concern not to offend religious sensitivities. Some avoid suicide out of their own inner or religious convictions.

Less serious, but still hampering, is the recording and researching of youth suicide within the age group 15 to 24. This is a World Health Organisation convention for reasons of health statistics, but it is unhelpful in our context. Aboriginal life expectation and age structure are quite different. A more realistic cohort to address would be 12 to 18. There is yet another dimension: child suicide, under the age of 14, has to be excluded from the youth cohort, yet there is now a real enough problem of Aboriginal youth attempting, and completing, suicide, from as young as 8.

The data

Youth suicide, unknown amongst Aborigines until three decades ago, is now double, perhaps treble, the rate of non-Aboriginal suicide. In 1997, the male youth rate was five times the already high national rate of between 24 and 26 per 100,000 of the population.

In a 30-month period from 1 January 1996 to 30 June 1998, there were 43 definite Aboriginal suicides amongst just over one-third of the Aboriginal population of New South Wales and the ACT. This equates to a rate of 40 suicides per 100,000 Aborigines per year.

It is possible that there were a further 31 suicides in 1996-98. However, their Aboriginality was uncertain. My cautious view is that 16 of that group of 31 were Aboriginal, based on clues, hints, geographic location, commonality of family names, and method and place of suicide. I have deliberately excluded all of these from the rates listed above. If they were Aboriginal, then the dimension of the problem is that much greater than I have portrayed.

The 15 to 24-year-old Aboriginal cohort in New South Wales is 20,592. In 1997, ten suicides in that group amounted to an annual rate of 48.56 per 100,000, double the national figure. For males, the youth rate in 1997 (including two under 14) was a staggering 127.8 per 100,000, among the highest recorded in the international literature I surveyed. In the 5 to 15-year-old cohort, the annual rate was 15.6 per 100,000 - three times that of the next highest I could find, 5.25 for "Manitoba aborigines".

The method of suicide is, in itself, significant. Hunter-Reser et al, in their May 1999 report on Aboriginal suicide in three North Queensland communities, state that the choice of hanging is especially meaningful. It is dramatic and confronting, with culture-specific meanings and symbols involving notions of martyrdom, pathos, capital punishment, the legal system, and injustice. It is "paradoxically an expression and statement of no control at the same time that it is a statement of control." I share the authors' view that it is also a rebuke - to "uncaring relatives", and to "us" in white mainstream society.

In my sample, 58.2 per cent died by "hanging", a misnomer for what is really asphyxiation by strangulation. Relatively "new" is death by gunshot, 16.3 per cent of the sample. Then followed 9.3 per cent by drowning, 7 per cent by jumping, and 2.3 per cent each for overdose, carbon dioxide, train, and "cause not available". The contrast with a ten-year retrospective of 335 suicides in the ACT, of which only one was Aboriginal, is marked: nearly 30 per cent were by carbon monoxide, 26 per cent by hanging, 14 per cent by overdose, 4.5 per cent by jumping, and 2.4 per cent for each of chemical ingestion, fire or electrocution, and so on.

The attempted suicides, or "parasuicides", must be recognised as being on a continuum leading towards completed suicide. Some researchers suggest that there are six to eight attempts for each completed suicide; others go as high as between 50 and 300! I cannot quantify these actions and there is no need to do so. One doesn't need to know precise numbers to recognise a rampant epidemic.

The nature of Aboriginal suicide

Suicidology is now a recognised discipline. Within it, theories abound. However, "unravelling the causes after the fact is well nigh impossible", wrote an esteemed American scholar, Joseph Zubin. In the absence of a coherent suicide letter, we can never really know why someone thought his or her life was not worth living. We all guess, literally, post mortem, and then seek to explain (rather than understand) a seemingly incomprehensible phenomenon which so intrigues and repels us.

Law, theology, sociology and medicine have perspectives which see suicide as offending against, or breaching, norms or conventions. Today's almost standard biomedical approach - that youth suicide is occasioned by, or accompanied by, "psychiatric disorder" - is, in my view, inapplicable in the great majority of Aboriginal cases. The great majority of Aborigines I know, both inside and outside of this study, reject the "mental health" approach. It is hardly an appropriate response to say, as we might once have said, that they must embrace our Western approach.

Theories of explanation or alleged causality, and categorisations of suicide, are not in themselves diagnostic or prognostic tools. They do, however, provide a framework for speculation. I have found much of value in Louis Wekstein's ten-fold "typology" of suicide and have added several new "pointers". In Wekstein's list, three are relevant to this study. First, the notion of chronic suicide, the masking of an orientation towards death by excessive use of alcohol or drugs. Second, focal suicide, or self-mutilation, the idea of "partial death", where a limited part of the body - limbs or sexual organs - are "killed". Third, and of greatest value in this Aboriginal context, is existential suicide. This, in turn, is based on Albert Camus' notion of ending the burden of hypocrisy, the meaninglessness of life, the ennui, and lack of motivation to continue to exist. Victor Frankl, the psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor, would have described this as people having no will to meaning, or those with no purpose in life.

My additions include:

James Ellroy, the tough American writer who explores the underside of Los Angeles, says that suicide takes imagination. "You've got to be able to conjure up an afterlife or visions of rest - or be in such unbearable pain that anything is preferable to your suffering". Aboriginal and Maori youth, I believe, have that kind of imagination and that kind of pain, rather than mental illness.

Some aspects of Aboriginal suicide are sometimes universal, and some unique. There is an omnipresence of yaandi, cannabis, not so much as a psychological addiction but as a "sociological" obsession with the substance. Illiteracy and deafness are, I believe, potent factors which bear further examination and redress - for their own sakes, let alone for their relevance to suicide.

Contributing factors: community values

The all-too-visible existential distress in and across communities is caused by factors both within and without Aboriginal lifestyles. Some contributing factors can be mitigated or resolved by Aborigines alone; others need some assistance from those who engage with Aborigines on a daily basis, those whose job it is to treat - legally, medically or socially - their Aboriginal clients.

Locating factors within communities is not an exercise in blaming the victim. Whatever the manifold origins and explanations of what I call "disorder" in many lives, several of the consequences can only be addressed, or redressed, by those in distress. Only Aborigines can seek help to deal with the widespread sexual assault of children - even if "dealing" means reporting the matters to police and testifying against family members. Only women can report, and prosecute, the men who engage so heavily in domestic violence, a behaviour Ernest Hunter considers to be "the flipside of suicide". Only Aborigines can declare their areas "dry", or reduce their alcohol intake, or seek AA assistance. Only Aborigines can control the use and misuse of drugs, especially the obsession of their youth with yaandi.

Internal animosities, corrosive factionalism and jealousy are endemic. There is no "treatment" other than learning how to defuse these situations, by using techniques such as conflict resolution.

A new "tribe" has emerged in Aboriginal life - the men and women who comprise the legal association or incorporation, such as the land council, legal aid service, health service, and housing association. The people in their legal vehicles are capable of achieving what Vine Deloria Jr, a renowned American Indian leader, calls "revivalism". They can "do business with white society". They can also marshal internal resources to make social decisions, adjudicate disputes, impose discipline, set standards of acceptable behaviour, raise revenue, and "treat" with white corporation men and women on roughly equal terms.

The corporations can help develop purpose in life, in the way that the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) has given moral and personal uplift to people whose lives once consisted of waiting for fortnightly social security benefit payments. They now work to, and for, the value of their entitlement, at once establishing dignity and abolishing boredom and helplessness.

Parenting skills, grief counselling and literacy programs - all factors in the youth suicide pattern - need some outside assistance, initially. The success of these contributions will hinge on the willingness of non-Aboriginal professionals to take their skills to the communities, rather than expecting, or demanding, that "they" come to "us", to the places where we consult, teach and train.

Contributing factors: societal values

Societal values impinge - in degrees of seriousness - on youth suicide: endemic racism, the ambience of contempt and denigration of all things Aboriginal, the attitudes of service personnel, and the wilful and perhaps unconscious divide-and-rule philosophy of institutions which deal with Aborigines.

Racism - not merely as an idea or an epithet - is all-pervasive: explicit in "them" as opposed to "us", in phrasings such as "these people" and "you people"; in denial of employment, housing rentals, and sporting competition; in attitudes of teachers and schools, and in any town's social life.

A high degree of alienation towards Aborigines produces alienation amongst Aborigines. It can often be, and often is, a spur to achievement. But the limits to change in Aboriginal life are daunting. Youth hate leaving home for any period and so migration to the places of likely achievement and purpose, the "big smoke", is not an option. Alienation has to find its place and space within towns which are declining, turning inward, and which are desperate for economic, cultural or even sporting "blood transfusions". Some towns have no doctors, let alone access to specialist medical and "helping profession" services. Town misfortune is often externalised as the fault of governments "spending too much on Aborigines".

Youth show existential distress and despair. They engage in aggressive, often violent behaviour; they drink, take drugs and commit break-and-enters. They take enormous physical risks and are often careless about life. To want to leave such a life is not to be mad, or bad.

This distress is not a mental disease. Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic, as Victor Frankl tells us. Such existential despair cannot forever be treated by "dosages to dumbness", as James Hillman calls it, or "buried under a heap of tranquillising drugs", as Frankl argues.

There is value for individuals who seek therapy or assistance of any kind. I repeat my pleas for counselling where it will enable people to exercise their choices and to help themselves from within. What must be re-thought is the pejorative and singular "mental health" approach to diagnosis and treatment, and the blanket ascription to whole communities of a diagnosis of being "mentally unwell".

The corporation model is significant. However, government unwillingness to refuse applications for incorporations from small clans or factions has resulted in an explosion of such bodies - to the point where Aborigines in New South Wales, have, on average, one corporation per 272 people! "Empowerment" has become "disempowerment" through a surfeit of such bodies, each fighting (often each other) for a share of the diminishing "bucket of money".

Lessons from abroad

The North American suicide literature tends to be distant, statistical and non-contextual. Social, historical and political factors are often ignored. Rarely is "cultural conflict" evaluated, or discussed. There is no detail about lifestyle, or lifestyle differences, only of differences in geographic domain. The research papers are models of Western, urban concerns: high unemployment, low educational levels, low self-esteem, psychiatric disorders, substance abuse, availability of guns, and stress.

Most tribes and groups have high rates, as high as 98 per 100,000 for Shoshone and Bannocks in Idaho, and 230 per 100,000 among the Shoshone-Arapaho. By contrast, the Lumbee of North Carolina have a low of 4 per 100,000. Generally, the rates are between five and ten times the national rates. Several school and after-hours school "prevention" programs have succeeded in reducing suicide, attempts at suicide, drinking, teenage pregnancy, gang membership and delinquency. Indian hostility to researchers, especially anthropologists, is now legion, and there is much trepidation about trespassing and invading "Indian country".

Pacific Islands research, particularly from Western Samoa, makes three striking points relevant to this study:

"Little is known about suicide and self-harm by Maori". Despite this disclaimer by the Maori Suicide Review Group, much is to be learned from New Zealand.

Although the Maori suicide rates are half that of the nation's extremely high rates for the 15 to 24 age group - 35.2 for males and 6 for females per 100,000 - the Maori female rate has doubled, and the male has trebled, these past 35 years. Suicide in custody is alarming, with 71 per cent of Maori suicides in the 15 to 49 age group, between 1980 and 1988, being by hanging. Between 1971 and 1995, 47 incarcerated Maori suicided.

Several factors distinguish Maori and Aboriginal suicide: first, suicide is embedded in Maori culture; second, as many as one in four suicides have been gang members and/or youth with long, serious criminal histories; third, there is much mate Maori, Maori sickness, with specific names and symptoms, which is not "mental disorder" in our Western sense; fourth, Maoritanga, love of being Maori, pride in Maori-ness, the Queen Movement in the Waikato district and Mormonism appear to provide youth with purpose in life.

There is a tension between Maori and Pakeha models of suicide research and strategy, and some contention about ownership of this "domain". However, the professional, inquisitive rather than descriptive research, by people who work in the field virtually full-time, is valuable.

The coronial system is admirable, albeit with the same problems of under-reporting and difficulty of "race-" or "group-specific" identification as we have. There is much more Maori clout, and topics such as "secondary victimisation" (of Maori in institutions) are given more attention, and hearing, than occurs in Aboriginal Australia. Several alleviation strategies appear most promising, and we need to import the Maori and Pakeha people who are engaged in this work, if only for information and demonstration.

Towards alleviation

My report contains a long chapter explaining and validating a veritable raft of actions which could lead, not to "prevention", but to alleviation of suicidal behaviour. We can't prevent what we don't know, and we still don't know why people take their lives. But we can alleviate group behaviours which look like movements towards self-destruction.

I address theories of suicide, the need to liberate ourselves from a singular "mental disorder" model and the need to embrace a political, historical, social, cultural approach to Aboriginal suicide in general. New research directions include more attention to female suicide and the female propensity for "slashing up". Alleviation projects include two New Zealand imports: a sport-based program of life goals and life skills which could have implications for suicide deflection, and a Maori "smoke-free" system which stresses the "coolness" of not smoking rather than the scariness of the lung-cancer advertisements. Given its success to date, this project could be adapted to a "coolness in living".

A host of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal co-operative initiatives could mitigate the incidence and effects of youth suicide: grief counselling, conflict resolution training, parenting advice, greater sports involvement, greater interaction with the Police and Community Youth Clubs, and the adoption of Ann Morrice's literacy program which can achieve literacy in a matter of months.

We need to consider changes in the coronial system: who is appointed, their training, possible removal on the restraints of not being allowed to presume suicide, and consideration of a national and uniform coronial system. The involvement of police in suicide is crucial: because police, especially the Aboriginal Community Liaison Officers (ACLOs), are closer, on a day-to-day basis, and more available than anyone else, to Aboriginal people and their needs.

Finally, there must be a widespread series of "capacity-based" workshops for those who work in, or can travel to, rural and remote areas, people who can contribute greatly to alleviation: for coroners, police, ACLOS, custody officers, pharmacists (because of problems of dispensing pharmaceutical drugs to many illiterate people), lawyers, schoolteachers, mental health and related social welfare personnel, and first, rather than last perhaps, for psychiatrists and psychiatrists in training.

Alfred Alvarez has a strong admonition: he says that "modern suicide has been removed from the vulnerable, volatile world of human beings and hidden safety away in the isolation wards of science". I would hope that my research has gone some way towards rescuing youth suicide from that isolation.


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