Issues in Educational Research, 4(1), 1994, 31-33.

Suicide amongst Aboriginal youth

Rod Ogilvie
Halls Creek


SUICIDE: "The act or an instance of killing oneself intentionally"
"The self-inflicted ruin of one's own prospects or interest"
In the first definition the key word is "intentionally" and in the case of Aboriginal youth it is not common for them to set out with such intent. But in a lot of cases the intention would be to send out a signal to others that "I" the individual am going to attempt suicide as a desperate measure to attract attention, make someone aware that "I" need help, and in some cases that half-hearted attempt becomes a full-on suicide.

The second definition, to my way of thinking, would be that the sociology behind the key motivation to suicide by Aboriginal young people in its simplest form is: if you are black, poor, uneducated, have a low opinion of yourself and feel that you don't fit within society then an easy way out is, sadly, suicide. If you don't want to kill yourself then create chaos and mayhem upon the rest of society (authority figures). In some cases the result of this form of anti-social behaviour is the death of the perpetrator/s or an innocent bystander. To gain an insight into this type of mindset, you need to have experience working with Aboriginal young people at the community level for a long time and contact with Aboriginal young people who may be contemplating suicide.

Possible causes

One of the most influential factors in Aboriginal suicide is the use of alcohol. Coinciding with alcohol are: the well-being of the young people, their state of mind and their own perception of their past, present and future situations. In their state of insecurity are the options they perceive that they have or don't have. In many cases Aboriginal young people have someone to talk to, someone to take care of them and be around, when things seem to be closing in. However, there are times when they do not have anyone whom they trust to talk to or confide in.

Most issues that would relate to non-Aboriginal young people contemplating or actually going through with suicide would most definitely apply to suicide among Aboriginal young people. From my vast experience as a youth worker for the past nineteen years, and most of that time involved in hands-on, face-to-face youth work with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal young people, I have come to the conclusion that we all respond to the same needs (food, shelter, love), yet as individuals we have our own measure and standards by which we set our requirement of these needs. Another factor in this equation of life is the other party/ies involvement (mum, dad, brother, sister, partner, friends, enemies or debt collectors).

I have found that a number of Aboriginal young people flirt with suicide, but from my experiences in this area that's all it has ever been, just an act of pretending, showing off and in a lot of cases a chance to gain attention from whomever. As youth workers we do not know for sure, do we? Many of the deaths in custody, deaths in the streets, deaths in flats, and deaths in high speed crashes may have been caused through various forms of suicide attempts.

Some other matters which should be highlighted are that young Aboriginal men are more likely to become a statistic than young Aboriginal women. Young men are more prone to the lifestyle of substance abuse and other related social problems, and they are more inclined to find themselves in the grips of depression and perhaps, contemplating suicide. This is not to say that all Aboriginal young men have suicidal tendencies, but if all the conditions are right, the chances are very high. Most of the young Aboriginal men I have worked with as a group worker and peer group leader have not had the positive role model on whom to pattern confident social skills and behaviour. The dilemma of not knowing the make-up of their own identity, can cause further problems, particularly in the early stages of adolescence.

The need for cultural awareness

A further point that I must stress is that although there are common symptoms for all young people at risk, youth workers working with Aboriginal young people should be aware of cultural differences which may be associated with their suicidal tendencies. Other areas where youth workers must gain awareness and understanding are in history, kinship and family, cultural identity, language and communication.

If there was a list of do's and don'ts then I guess we who are working in the field would be better off. Unfortunately there are no such lists around, and the issues are more complex in the Aboriginal world because of the vast diversity of our cultures, and what may seem to be acceptable behaviour in the non-Aboriginal world will have less meaning to Aboriginal young people, particularly in the north of our state and remote communities. By this I express and highlight the cultural, social and impoverished position of Aboriginal young people in 1993.


A final scenario to contemplate is that education plays a role in the situation I have described. People who are at the lower rung of the social scale are generally the least educated. A low education, coupled with the onset of the magnitude of social problems which will form in the early stages of social development, problems like poor health, low or nil income from employment due to the lack of schooling, reinforces the processes of poverty in a large proportion of the Aboriginal population in Australia. This endemic cycle is, for many, hard to break out of.

With the tabling of the Burdekin Report on Mental Health in 1993, the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody, the National Aboriginal Education Policy - 21 Goals, set down by the Department of Employment, Education and Training and sanctioned by the Aboriginal Education Consultative Group, hopefully this will raise the awareness in education of the Indigenous peoples of this country.

If Aboriginal people are empowered to be in the 'drivers seat' in implementing these strategies, then education, social justice, land rights and equitable reconciliation should form a solid foundation for young Aboriginal people to become economically viable, with a future of hope rather than depression.

Author: Rod Ogilvie is a Yamitji who has worked for a number of years in the Department for Community Development, mainly on location at the juvenile institutions, Hillston, Riverbank and Longmore. He has also spent a number of years in the educational institution at the Derby School Hostel. In 1993 Rod was employed by the Youth Sector Training Council to promote cross cultural training and how to work effectively with young Aboriginal people. Now he is Manager of Skillshare at Halls Creek.

Please cite as: Ogilvie, R. (1994). Suicide amongst Aboriginal youth. Issues In Educational Research, 4(1), 31-33.

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