Professor Steven Larkin: Close the gap on mental health

12 September 2018

Suicide is the leading cause of death among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people.

There have been incidents where children as young as five in Indigenous communities ended their lives.

As a proud Kungarakany man, a leader in my community and a father, I was torn to my core when I learned this.

Through my work with beyondblue, I know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are three times more likely to become psychologically distressed than non-Indigenous Australians.

Twice as many Indigenous people die by suicide than non-Indigenous people and in fact, suicide continues to be the leading cause of death for Indigenous people aged 15 to 34 years.

But it’s hard to imagine that suicide could be the top cause of death among five to 17-year-olds.

I don’t know which statistic is more shocking but these numbers reflect a national crisis that cannot be ignored or rationalised.

This week is National Reconciliation Week; across the country, people will reflect on our Indigenous roots as a nation, our turbulent history, how far we’ve come and the work that still needs to be done.

We’ll celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, our music, art and we’ll share yarns.

But let’s not stop there.

Let’s use this time of reflection and celebration to drive real change that saves lives.

How can we celebrate reconciliation yet not take steps to close the significant mental health gap that exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people?

It can be done.

In 2008, the Coalition of Australian Governments (COAG) launched a national plan to improve health, education and employment outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

That plan was the national Closing the Gap strategy and it includes seven targets – focussing on health and improving life expectancy, education and employment – for us as a nation to achieve.

Ten years on, we’re on track to meet just three of those seven targets.

Life expectancy among Indigenous people remains ten years less than non-Indigenous people.

We know Indigenous communities are at greater risk of psychological distress and suicide yet none of the targets in the plan specifically focus on mental health, maintaining social and emotional wellbeing or preventing suicide.

But there is a rare opportunity to change this.

Right now, the Federal Government is reviewing the Closing the Gap strategy, including its targets and processes.

This is a chance for every state and territory, as well as the Federal Government, to take a new united approach to improving the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Taking steps to improve mental health among Indigenous communities is critical in its own right, but it is also a lynchpin to achieving other targets within the Closing the Gap strategy, such as improving school attendance and employment rates.

How can a young child fulfil her full potential at school if she’s too anxious to concentrate on her studies?

How can people find jobs and succeed in their professional lives if they have depression and are struggling just to get out of bed in the morning?

How can any one of us be there for our families, contribute to our communities and succeed in life if we don’t have good mental health?

Mental health targets must be included in the new National Closing the Gap strategy.

beyondblue calls on all Australian governments to make a new commitment within the revised Closing the Gap strategy to improve mental health outcomes for Indigenous people.

As a nation we should strive to achieve the following by 2028

  • Halve the gap in the rates of Indigenous suicide (currently twice the rate of non-Indigenous people)
  • Halve the gap in the rates of high to very high levels of psychological distress (three times the non-Indigenous rate)
  • Halve the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with a mental health condition reporting problems accessing health services (one in four people)
  • Halve the rates of discrimination towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

The Closing the Gap strategy is a vital piece of work that we need to get right.

Establishing the right targets and holding ourselves to account is essential if we really want things to change.

If we get this right, the new Closing the Gap strategy could potentially save hundreds of lives each year and ensure young Indigenous children have a good chance to reach their potential and live long, healthy and happy lives.

Professor Steven Larkin has been a Board Director at beyondblue since 2009 and is Board Chair of the Healing Foundation.

If you or someone you know is struggling, mental health professionals are available 24/7 at the beyondblue Support Service – 1300 22 4636.