Self-harm and suicide

What is self-harm?

Self- harm, also known as self-injury, is when a person deliberately causes physical harm to themselves. Self-harming behaviour often takes place in secret and can therefore go on for a long time before it is noticed. The act is not usually intended to result in death but sometimes when a person self-harms (without meaning to end their life), they go too far and death results, this is called accidental suicide. If a person self-harms and does not receive help, they are likely to continue self-harming and are at an increased risk of accidental death or intentional death.

In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, some cultural practices may be misread as self-harming behaviours. It is important that people working in the area of social and emotional wellbeing understand the differences between ‘ceremony’ or ‘sorry business’ and self-harm. For example, ‘sorry cuts’ are often practiced as a sign of grief for the loss of a family member. It is important that the warning signs for self-harm in individual communities are understood.

Self-harming behaviours can include:

  • cutting , scratching, or tearing the skin
  • burning the skin with cigarettes, matches, or hot water
  • banging or punching to cause bleeding or bruising
  • pulling out hair and eyelashes
  • overdosing on medication
  • eating or drinking toxic products.

What are suicidal behaviours?

Suicidal behaviours include:

  • Suicide: when a person physically hurts themselves with the aim of ending their life and which results in their death.
  • Attempted suicide: when a person physically hurts themselves with the aim of ending their life but the act does not result in death.
  • Suicide ideation: when a person has thoughts about ending their life – which they may or may not have a plan for – but does not act on these thoughts.

Attempted suicide and suicide ideation are much more common than suicide.

How common is self-harming behaviour and suicide among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?

The nature of self-harming behaviour, and the stigma and secrecy connected to it, makes it hard to get a true picture of how common it is among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. As a result of the social, emotional, and economic disadvantage faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, self-harm is more common among Indigenous people than it is among other Australians.

Intentional self-harm was responsible for around 4,300 hospital admissions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people during 2013-15 [33073].  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were hospitalised for intentional self-harm injuries at three times the rate of non-Indigenous people. It is important to remember that these figures are likely to underestimate how common self-harming is because not all self-harm injuries require hospitalisation; some injuries can be treated by a general practitioner or nurse at the local medical service and other injuries may not require any medical treatment.

In 2016, the death rate from intentional self-harm for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander was twice as high as that for non-Indigenous people [33961]. It was the fifth leading specific cause of death among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

These overall death rates conceal the very high rates of suicide among young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who die from suicide at much younger ages than non-Indigenous people [33961]. In 2012-2016, intentional self-harm was the leading cause of death for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15-24 years and 25-34 years. The median age of death among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was 29 years. The level of deaths from intentional self-harm was highest among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males aged 25-34 years and 35-44 years, but was also very high among young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander females.

Research in NSW, Qld, WA, SA and the NT has highlighted the increasing impact of suicide among young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and a trend among young Indigenous males [32347]. Research in the Kimberley region of WA between 2005-2014 found the age-adjusted rate of suicide per year in this region to be 74 per 100,000, and of these, 68% of people were less than 30 years old and 71% were male [31553]. The level of intentional self-harm has been recognised as a key indicator of Indigenous disadvantage [32347].

References

Key resources

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