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Mind the gap on indigenous health

By Billi McCarthy-Price - posted Thursday, 30 May 2013

There remains a 10-year gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Australia.

Around 12 per cent of this difference has been attributed to mental health conditions, with four per cent to suicide and six per cent to alcohol and substance abuse.

Australians must start paying attention. What's more, they must be made more aware of the phenomenally high rates of Indigenous youth suicide that contribute to this gap.


Male Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth aged 15-19 are more than four times more likely to attempt suicide than non-Indigenous males. Meanwhile, female Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth are almost six times more likely to attempt suicide than non-Indigenous females.

To put this in real terms, between 2000 and 2010 there were 106 young Indigenous men and 43 young Indigenous women who committed suicide.

That's 149 kids.

That's 149 grieving families, 149 devastated communities, 149 classrooms with an empty desk, 149 sports teams missing a player, and 149 bright futures with endless possibilities extinguished forever.

A combination of individual, community, and societal factors contribute to the risk of suicide. Risk factors are characteristics associated with suicide. They may or may not be direct causes.

These include personal, family or community history of suicide, history of poor mental health including depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. They can also include a history of alcohol and substance abuse, isolation, loss, grief, and discrimination.


In Indigenous populations, mental health is referred to as 'social and emotional wellbeing' (SEWB). This incorporates the idea of mental health, but also acknowledges the importance of factors outside the individual, such as cultural identification, spirituality, and the community.

Indigenous youth in Australia are at a high risk for developing poor SEWB. This is due to their increased exposure to risk factors, experiences of life stressors, and social and economic disadvantage, when compared to non-Indigenous youths.

Poor SEWB in youth populations is linked to a number of negative outcomes like increased likelihood of smoking, drug and alcohol use, and suicide, poorer social skills and physical health, and lower education attainment. Moreover, poor SEWB in Indigenous youth is severe across continents and cultures and reveals a true gap in health. Governmental and non-governmental agencies worldwide are attempting to address this issue through various research initiatives and by funding an increasing number of programs.

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About the Author

Billi McCarthy-Price is a student at The University of Western Australia and a Global Voices delegate to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues underway in New York.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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