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By Professor Tom Calma AO. Professor Tom Calma is the Co-Chair of Reconciliation Australia and believes strongly in the link between reconciliation and the overall health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Image:“R U OK Griffith” by ruokday is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

It is estimated that one Australian attempts suicide every 10 minutes. For every completed suicide, 30 more attempts are made. It is the leading cause of death for Australians between the ages of 15 and 44. These statistics are shocking, they are frightening, they are a family member or friend and they should prompt a discussion.

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. As a nation often described as the lucky country, and one where we pride ourselves on a fair go, we sometimes need reminding that part of that fair go means taking care of each other. As a nation we need to be sure that we are taking care of and checking in on our most vulnerable.

The social and emotional well-being of all Australians is important and adversity affects people in different ways. It is well documented and known that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people face higher rates of health problems, barriers to education and employment and suffer the impacts of poverty, racism and exclusion.

The rate at which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people commit and attempt suicide is far greater than that of their non-Indigenous peers. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported in 2013 that the suicide rate is 2.1 times higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males and 2.4 times higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander females.

Rates of suicide, attempted and completed, are an indicative of greater hardship within a community. Issues that have a negative impact on the wellbeing of communities and individuals range from high rates of unemployment, lower levels of educational success, racism and lack of services to name a few. The correlation between the negative impacts and issues faced by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is inextricable.

In 2014, I contributed to the paper What Works in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention? It reported that a strong sense of cultural pride by young Aboriginal people will assist them through times of hardship and build their resilience. In our work places, schools and faith groups we often come across phrases like, ‘embrace Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and histories’ or ‘increasing the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment’ and ‘ensuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children complete schools’. If nothing else, the rates of suicide should be one social indicator as to why reconciliation between the broader community and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians is so important.

Learning about and celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures will show young Indigenous peoples that we acknowledge, respect and cherish their culture. We will be reminding them that their culture has a unique and significant place in Australia’s history and our future. By doing this we will build a stronger community, and a stronger nation where all of our children feel valued and respected.

Through employment and education, people can have access to a support network that would have otherwise been unavailable to them. On days like today—the coinciding of R U OK? Day and World Suicide Prevention Day—these networks can save a life.

With attempted and completed suicide rates so high, as a broad Australian community we must take action, support each other and ask “R U OK?”

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