Cultural connection may help lower youth suicide in First Nations communities

Indigenous dancers at the Australia Day ceremony at Barangaroo Reserve in Sydney on January 26, 2020. Photo: Isabella Porras / Sydney Morning Herald

The suicide rate among young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is 44% lower in communities with high levels of cultural connection compared to locales with low cultural and social capital a new Griffith University study has found.

The first to investigate how community level empowerment and cultural connectedness affects suicide rates of First Nations young people aged 10-19 years old, the study analysed recorded deaths in the Queensland Suicide Register from 2001 to 2015.

PhD candidate Mandy Gibson from AISRAP.

“Community Elders and First Nations scholars have long promoted community strengths and community level protective factors as a way to foster the wellbeing of children and adolescents to prevent suicide,” says research lead PhD candidate Mandy Gibson from the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention.

“Communities with high levels of cultural social capital were shown to have lower rates of youth suicide, these included social contact with family and friends to involvement in cultural events like ceremonies and community activities.

“We think this gives young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a strong cultural identity to support their sense of self during the change and turbulence of adolescence, where we see the biggest gaps in the suicide rate between First Nations and non-Indigenous young people.”

The researchers calculated the suicide rate at 21.1 deaths per 100,000 persons per year for First Nations young people, far higher than the 5.0 deaths per 100,000 persons for non-Indigenous young people.

The study also found the suicide rate was twice as frequent in communities with high levels of discrimination.

“The impact of racism and discrimination is not limited to those directly affected by it.”

Ms Gibson said future suicide prevention strategies needed to focus on reducing culturally specific risks such as systemic disadvantage and increasing protective mechanisms.

“We need to support cultural connectedness programs by valuing them as suicide prevention activities. We also need to urgently curb the prevalence of racism and discrimination faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”

“Our findings expand on the established relationship between experienced racism and discrimination on suicidal ideation among young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, by showing it also influences community-level suicide rates.”

Suicide rates for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people: the influence of community level cultural connectedness is published in The Medical Journal of Australia.