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Migrant suicides – invisible

The migrant population is lost in translation when we discuss this nation's suicide toll, and the limited data disaggregation is a major part of the problem

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11 August 2016

As a young child I remember the absorption of sadness by some of Sydney's Greek community of the suicide by a newly-arrived young male Greek. Years later I would read some of his letters to the homeland, yearning to return someday after he made his quid in a country he believed found it hard to accept him. This is the tale of many newly-arrived migrants to one of the world's most culturally diverse nations. One quarter of the Australian nation is comprised of migrants.

The migrant population is lost in translation when we discuss this nation's suicide toll, and the limited data disaggregation is a major part of the problem. 

But not only are certain layers of migrants at elevated risk to suicide, so too are the children of migrants. Migrant parents are burying their Australian-born children. The risk factors are multifactorial and not the purpose of this article. I have written before on migrant suicides. We must identify the high-risk groups within the migrant population and among the children of migrants.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 26 per cent of the suicide toll is comprised of migrants. More than 60 per cent of these suicides are of migrants from non-English speaking countries.

More than 5.3 million Australians are migrants but the majority have been here for decades. According to the ABS, the median time the migrant population have lived as Australians has been 20 years. The longer the stretch, so too increase the protective factors. Historically, elevated risks were found among the newly arrived.

We have not disaggregated to the highest risk groups where so much evidence and validations are warranted. The ABS lacks information on this because they don't disaggregate far enough. In recent years we have been able to disaggregate further into the layers of the tragedy that is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides. We need to do this in order to tailor- make prevention, responses and support.

In my preliminary estimations, the highest risk groups are most likely Indians and Chinese and then east European females, New Zealanders, and more than likely central Asians in general and eastern Africans.

The majority of Chinese immigrants are relative recent arrivals, with a median of eight years living in Australia. Indians have a median of five years.

According to the ABS, Australia has one of the world's highest proportions of migrants – 26 per cent as opposed to NZ with 23 per cent, Canada 21 per cent, the USA and UK both at 13 per cent each.

Australia has the fourth-highest proportion of migrants in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). The OECD has 34 member states.

Of Australia's 5.3 million migrants, 1.1 million migrants are from the UK, 483,000 from New Zealand, 319,000 from China, 295,000 from India, 185,000 from Italy and 185,000 from Vietnam. These six nations comprise 49 per cent of the migrant population.

Others with around 100,000 migrants include: the Philippines, South Africa, Malaysia, Greece, Sri Lanka, the USA, Lebanon and the Netherlands.

The immigration trends have changed historically from predominately English-speaking countries and the culturally and linguistic diverse peoples from southern Europe to the majority of migrants from Asia. In the last 15 years, 60 per cent of migrants have come from Asia.

When the migrant suicides peak so too does the Australian suicide rate as it did in 1963, at 17 suicides per 100,000 population. 

There was an influx of migrants in the late 1950s and 1960s from culturally and linguistic diverse backgrounds. There was little tailor-made support for them at the time, and language and a sense of isolation were obvious barriers. 

As the incumbent migrant population grew older, certain barriers became less of an issue and the depression and suicide rates lowered. As the migrant suicides lessened so too did the national suicide rate to about 11 per 100,000 by the early 1980s. As waves of culturally and linguistic diverse migrants arrived in the 1990s, the migrant suicides increased and therefore so did the national suicide toll to 14 per 100,000. 

Once again, with time the migrant and national suicide tolls slowly decreased but in recent years the national suicide toll has increased from 10.5 to 12.2 and once again there has been a significant influx of migrants from India, China, other central Asian countries and eastern Africa facing many of the same pressures that newly-arrived migrants do; language and cultural barriers, a sense of racism, economic disadvantage and the sense of isolation.

Some researchers estimate that around 12 per cent of people with severe mental illness suicide and it is more than likely that migrants are at elevated risk of mental illness, and if disaggregated further to migrants coming from significant economic disadvantage, culturally and linguistically diverse ethnicities and from significant trauma, they will be at elevated risk to mental illness. Currently 1.4 per cent of the rest of the population's deaths are registered as suicides. The 12 per cent rate needs validation but it is obvious that someone with a mental illness would be six or seven times more likely to suicide.

We need to disaggregate to cultural groups, linguistic groups in addition to country of origin, to means of migration for instance if by asylum seeking and to length of time in Australia in order to ascertain the elevated risk groups. If we do not disaggregate we discriminate, we make cultural groups invisible. If we do not disaggregate we cannot enable tailor-made support.

Since writing the recent suite of articles on migrant suicides and data disaggregation I have been contacted by a number of Australian migrants. 

Caroline, a Kenyan woman living in Melbourne: "Your articles on migrant suicides touched my heart and especially your comments that we are invisible, which is exactly the case."

The fact is that despite Australia's bent for assimilation, it is a culturally-diverse nation, one of the world's most culturally diverse and therefore it is paramount that no cultural groups should be devastated into invisibility. We need the data disaggregation. Not long ago I listened to a distraught individual who had lost their father to suicide; this was a newly-arrived Indian family. I listened to the same tragedy with a Sri Lankan family. We need to hear them all.

* Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention researcher and advocate with the Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights. He works closely and supports suicide trauma related families. 

For inquiries and further information call Lifeline's 24-hour hotline - 13 11 14

You can also contact Crisis Support and Suicide Prevention Beyond Blue -1300 22 4636

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