Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, suicide and grief

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples who bear an existing burden of disadvantage, chronic illness and premature death, the death of a loved one through suicide can intensify a deep sense of existing loss and grief. Grief is a response to the death of someone that you have cared about or loved. Everyone will grieve differently and experience different emotions as they cope with loss. Grief following a suicide can be particularly hard; it can last for months and can sometimes last for years.

With the rate of suicide rising in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people, particularly young men, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are more likely than non-Indigenous people to have been affected by suicide at a young age.

Some young people from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities have a long history of grief and tragedy, including deaths by suicide. This history can have a severe impact on their grief responses: grief piles on top of grief and it can be hard to see an end to the sadness. It also means that a young person may react strongly to the death of what may seem to be a distant relative or family friend.

Following the death of a young person by suicide, there may also be a fear that the suicide will be ‘contagious’ and that suicides of other young people may follow.

If accumulated grief becomes overwhelming, it may be more difficult, particularly for young people, to talk about their feelings and get the support they need.

Sorry business

For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the period of mourning after a death in their community is a very significant time. It may be important for them to observe cultural and spiritual practices in line with the beliefs of their kinship group and local culture.

Returning to country may be vital and there may be traditional ceremonies to be carried out to express grief and help the spirit of the person who died on its way.

There may be obligations to attend the funeral, even  for those only distantly connected to the person who died, which can clash with work and other commitments. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people may find that they are attending one funeral after another, which can add to their emotional distress.

There may be reluctance among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experiencing grief to seek help from non-Indigenous support services, for fear of racism and stereotyping. But if feelings of hopelessness or persistent and disabling grief do not improve over time after a loved one dies, it is important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to access culturally safe support. The role of Elders, family, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander counsellors can be very important.

Recognising and acknowledging the grief is an important step in learning to cope with its impact.

About suicide in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples

The high rate of suicide reported among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples is the result of many individual, social and historical factors coming together. In combination, these factors can result in high levels of trauma and unresolved grief. These factors include:

  • The impact of colonisation. This has a profound and ongoing effect on the social, emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Historically, government policies have dispossessed and disempowered Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, causing lasting damage to their connections to land, culture, family and community.
  • The impact of the disconnection and trauma faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, which is made worse by the social, economic and health inequalities, continues today. Elders believe that youth suicides, in particular, can be linked to feelings of disconnection from cultural identity, and not having the sense of belonging that comes with a spiritual connection to country.
  • Intergenerational grief following the removal of children from their families. The impact of this grief contributes to ongoing disadvantage for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, particularly in the areas of income security, employment, health, housing and education.  These ongoing impacts may lead to disruption of parenting and family life.
  • The experience of institutionalised racism. This compounds both existing grief and trauma and social disadvantage, making Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples particularly vulnerable to mental ill health. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people report experiencing levels of psychological distress almost three times greater than that faced by non-Indigenous Australians.
  • Significantly higher rates of stress, anxiety and depression increase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ risk of suicide and self-harm and make it less likely that they will access mental health supports. This may result from mistrust towards health systems that are not culturally safe, but it may also result from difficulties accessing services, which may be non-existent in some rural areas, or stressful and complex to access in metropolitan areas.

Other factors which may contribute to the high suicide rates, particularly among young men, include:

  • Alcohol and drug use. The use of alcohol, cannabis and ice in many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities can be linked to the high numbers of community members who die by suicide. This can be because alcohol and drugs act as means by which people take their own lives or because they lower a person’s protective abilities against impulsive behaviour.
  • Imprisonment. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are over-represented in jails, and can suffer extreme mental distress when they are imprisoned.
  • Poverty and unemployment. It has been shown that Aboriginal people who live above the poverty line are at significantly lower risk of suicide and self-harm.

Supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People bereaved by suicide

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are strongly connected to family and extended family communities, and may seek comfort in these networks as they face their grief after someone close takes their own life. However,it is important not to make assumptions, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in rural and metropolitan communities may be very different in their ways of coping with loss and grief.

For non-Indigenous people to provide culturally sensitive and appropriate support it is vital to have, and to show, genuine respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and to understand:

  • the concept of community for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples
  • the importance of Sorry Business
  • the particular cultural beliefs and practices of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people they are working with.

As more attention is turned to preventing suicide among Indigenous communities, and to supporting those who are grieving, suggested strategies include:

  • Cultural continuity. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, having a sense of their past and drawing pride from their cultural identity can be protective against the risk of suicide and self-harm. For young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in particular, having a sense of themselves as bearers of culture can support a sense of hope.
  • Indigenous emotional wellbeing. A model of wellbeing that emphasises community relationships, the roles of Elders and connections to country, spirituality and ancestors can be supportive.
  • Community empowerment. Policies and practices that strengthen culture, language and self-determination can support wellbeing, hope and resilience.