• Ten-year-old Peter Gregory Jr, from Doomadgee, Queensland, celebrates a successful ride in the Poddy Ride final event Mount Isa Mines Rotary Rodeo. (AAP Image)Source: AAP Image
OPINION: Combating the scourge of youth suicide calls for young people to be respected and heard.
Professor Pat Dudgeon, Tanja Hirvonen, Tiarnee Schafer, Tania Dalton

17 Apr 2019 - 3:04 PM  UPDATED 17 Apr 2019 - 3:04 PM

Content Warning: This article discusses suicide.

Every life is precious, and that is why there is profound grief when we lose a child to suicide. It is a loss of the future and of hopes and dreams that, as a society, we hold for our young people. 

We know that developmentally, the years between childhood and adulthood represent a critical period of change, spiritually, mentally and emotionally.  

Tragically, we are losing too many people to suicide across the nation, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth particularly vulnerable as they grow and move into adulthood.

Losing people to suicide is not exclusive to First Nations people within Australia. Evidence is showing that other countries’ Indigenous suicide rates are – like here in Australia - about twice that compared to the mainstream population. So too are these tragedies carried out by young people. The rate of First Nations’ youth taking their lives around the world is a global concern.

Culture is Life Ambassador and Griffith University student, Tiarnee Schafer explains it is a sad fact "we are attending many funerals".   

“When you think about it, some of our community’s largest celebration gatherings are funerals,” she says.

“We need to make sure we are balancing this, like making the most of happy and positive celebrations such as our kids getting awards at school, coming first in a race, going fishing, or out to country and special cultural occasions.”

Connection to family and culture are important protective and preventative factors of Indigenous youth suicide, as gaining a sense of belonging and cultural identity builds resilience.   

Programs and supports for our youths should be multilayered and based on needs and context, as our nations and needs are diverse.

It’s something that The Centre of Best Practice in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention (CBPATSISP) at the University of Western Australia is pioneering, namely to ensure there are opportunities for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s voices to be heard in suicide prevention.

Young people themselves need to be acknowledged, validated, listened to and acted upon when compiling solutions. Professor Pat Dudgeon says "our Aboriginal youth are our future decision makers and as such, we must listen to what they say about their own situation and circumstances, insisting that young people must be involved in any design and have input in the delivery of suicide prevention programs". 

One place where youth are sharing their thoughts that should not be overlooked is social media, according to Darwin-based clinical psychologist, Tanja Hirvonen.

“Social media allows us to connect with others across distance, have a voice and it can be very positive for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth.”

Conversely, some youth are using social media when feeling vulnerable to the extent that their posts can disclose that they are actually reaching out for help.

Disclosures are becoming more frequent and strategies will need to work out what a helpful approach might look like.

However, it’s important to note that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people using social media may also be exposed to negative and racist views, creating a negative impact on their wellbeing.

Counselling can be helpful to build self-efficacy, however, national approaches to combat the online bullying and racism are critical.

Our youth need to know, they are the light in someone's eyes.

We are the oldest living culture and we should be the oldest living people too.

Psychologist Tania Dalton, from the Australian Indigenous Psychologists Associations says, “We support a social and emotional wellbeing approach which ensures that we work with our young people, educators, health practitioners, Elders and communities.  This is to ensure more people have support for recovery, healing and resilience.”


Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact: Lifeline on 13 11 14 or a local Aboriginal Health Service. There are resources for young people at Headspace Yarn Safe. Indigenous Australian psychologist services can be found here.  


Professor Pat Dudgeon is from the Bardi people of the Kimberley in Western Australia is the Project Director at the Centre of Best Practice in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention (CBPATSISP). 

Tania Dalton is a psychologist along with being the Chair of Australian Indigenous Psychologists Association.

Tiarnee Schafer is a Griffith University student and a Culture is Life Ambassador.

Tanja Hirvonen is a Jaru and Bunuba woman, living in the Northern Territory.  Tanja is a Clinical Psychologist and works as the Mental Health Academic for Flinders University.