Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians
The Indigenous media has an important role to play in influencing social attitudes towards, and perceptions of, suicide and social and emotional wellbeing. Most Australian media professionals report these issues responsibly.
For over 10 years, Australian community broadcasters have been actively involved in working with Mindframe and the suicide prevention and mental health sectors, in helping to promote suicide prevention and address stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness.
Mindfame also works closely with the Australian Indigenous Communications Association (AICA), and has been a sponsor at the last three national conferences.
Indigenous Media and Programs
Quick reference information for suicide
and social and emotional wellbeing.
Issues to consider when reporting suicide
- Why should I run the story? Consider whether the story needs to be run at all. A succession of stories can normalise suicidal behaviour.
- Language: Check the language you use does not glamorise or sensationalise suicide - eg consider using ‘non-fatal’ not ‘unsuccessful’; or ‘cluster of deaths’ rather than ‘suicide epidemic’ and limit the use of the term ‘suicide’.
- Don’t be explicit about method: Most members of the media follow a code that the method and location of suicide is not described, displayed or photographed. If it is important to the story, discuss the method and location in general terms only.
- Suicide by a prominent figure: A story about the suicide of a prominent person can glamorise or prompt imitation suicide. Harm should be minimised wherever possible.
- Positioning the story: Some evidence suggests a link between prominent placement of suicide stories and copycat suicide. Position the story on the inside pages of a paper, or further down in the order of reports in TV and radio news.
- Interviewing the bereaved: The bereaved are often at risk of suicide themselves. Be sensitive to those who knew the person and allow community members time to grieve before participating in a story.
- Naming the deceased: In many communities the depiction or mention of a person who has passed away can cause great distress, as can showing their image. Consult with community members or the family about appropriate language and visuals and place a warning on the program.
- Place the story in context: Reporting the underlying causes of suicide can help to increase understanding in the community. The story may be improved by canvassing both expert comment and the opinions of the local Indigenous community.
- Include contacts for support services: Include contact details for medical and support services. This provides immediate support to those who may have been distressed by your story.
Snapshot of suicide in Indigenous communities:
Suicide rates are substantially higher in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, accounting for 5.2% of all indigenous deaths compared with non-Indigenous at 1.8%1. The standardised death rate from suicide for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders was more than double the rate for non-Indigenous people at 25.5 per 100,000 compared with 12.5 per 100,000. In the five years from 2011 to 2015, suicide was the leading cause of death for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people between 15 and 34 years of age1.
Issues to consider when reporting on social and emotional wellbeing
- Privacy: Media guidelines stress the right to privacy. Does the fact that this person has a mental illness really enhance the story? Are your sources appropriate? What is the possible impact of disclosure on the person’s life, especially in small communities? Should the illness be mentioned in the lead?
- Language and Stereotypes: Most media are conscious about using appropriate language. However
Australian research shows that terms such as ‘lunatic’, ‘schizo’, ‘crazies’, ‘maniac’, and ‘psycho’, are still used by the media.
This language stigmatises mental illness and can perpetuate discrimination. This will also apply to
similar words in the local language. Remember people with a mental illness are not inherently violent,
unable to work, weak, or unable to get well.
Most people with mental illness are able to recover with treatment and support. Referring to someone
with a mental illness as a victim, suffering with a mental illness is outdated. Mental illness is not a life
sentence. A person is not ‘a schizophrenic’ – they are currently experiencing, being treated for, or have
a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
- Context: Remember that no one person can speak for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Astory may be improved by canvassing both expert comment and the opinions of the local community.
- Interviewing: Interviewing a person with a past or current mental illness requires sensitivity and
discretion. Follow CBAA codes of conduct on appropriate interviewing (www.cbaa.org.au/codes).
- Include contacts for support services: Include phone numbers and contact details for medical and
support services. This provides immediate support for those who may have been prompted to seek
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander support services
For further support services, please visit our help-seeking information webpage.
Facts and Statistics
Caution must be exercised in examining information and data on patterns of mental illness and suicide in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as accurate statistics and population estimates are unavailable. Data that are available are limited in quality. Discussion in the field draws both on available Australian research and limited data on hospitalisation and mortality rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The following information is presented to move towards an understanding of the factors that influence and impact on the mental health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
An Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander person is a person of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he or she lives.
Population Context2, 3
- According to estimates at 30 June 2011, there were 669,881 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians2; approximately 3.0% of the total Australian population. The number of people identifying as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander had been increasing. This is due to a range of factors such as changing social attitudes, political developments and improved measurement3.
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are a young population with a median age of 21.8 years compared with 37.6 years for the non-Indigenous population. This difference in age distribution reflects the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s higher mortality rates and higher fertility rates3 (See Figure 1).
- More than half of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live in either New South Wales (31.1%) or Queensland (28.2%). A further 13.2% live in Western Australia. Although the Northern Territory has only 10.3% of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population in comparison, they represent 29.8% of the entire Northern Territory population, which is the highest proportion in any state or territory. Victoria has 7.1%, South Australia 5.6%, Tasmania 3.6% and the Australian Capital Territory 0.9% of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. For all states and territories apart from the Northern Territory, the Indigenous population makes up an average of 2.9% of the total population within each2. (See Figure 2).
- In contrast to the non-Indigenous population where 90.0% live in major cities and inter-regional areas, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population is evenly distributed across Major cities (34.8%), Inner regional (22.0%), Outer regional (21.8%) and remote to very remote areas (21.8%)2.
- The estimated life expectancy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is much lower than for non-Indigenous Australians. In 2011, the median age at death for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was 55 for males and 59 for females compared with non-Indigenous Australians (79 for males and 85 for females)2.
Note: Suicide data drawn from the ABS (2016a) Causes of Death, 2015, are preliminary and subject to revision. Totals include data for NSW, Qld, WA, SA and NT. Data regarding the level of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths and mortality in Australia may be underestimated. For more information, see ABS Explanatory Notes, Sections 56-66.
- In 2015, there were 152 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons who died by suicide. The standardised suicide rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was 25.5 deaths per 100,000 compared with 12.5 deaths per 100,000 for non-indigenous people.
- Suicide accounted for a greater proportion of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths at 5.2% compared with non-Indigenous at 1.8%.
- In the five years from 2011 to 2015, suicide was the fifth leading cause of death for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people overall, and the leading cause of death for those aged between 15 and 34 years.
- The median age at death by suicide for Torres Strait Islander people was 28.1 years compared with non-Indigenous people at 45.1 years.
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander females had a lower median age at death by suicide than males; 26.9 years for females compared with 29.0 years for males.
- Age specific suicide rates are particularly high among younger Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. Rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians between 15-44 years of age are between two to four times those of non-Indigenous Australians of the same age group.
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians who are 55 years of age plus, recorded a lower age-specific suicide rate than the non-Indigenous population.
 Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2016a). Causes of Death, Australia, 2015. Catalogue Number 3303.0. Belconnen, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia. Accessed September 28, 2016 from http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/DetailsPage/3303.02015?OpenDocument
 Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2016b). Experimental estimates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, June 2011. Catalogue Number 3238.0.55.001. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia. Accessed September 29, 2016 from http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/DetailsPage/3238.0.55.001June%202011?OpenDocument
 Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2013). Measures of Australia’s Progress, 2013. Catalogue Number 1370.0. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia. Accessed September 30, 2016 from: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/1370.0main+features72013?OpenDocument&Tab=7
Last updated: Friday 30 September 2016.