Cultural and social factors affecting drowning risk

Multicultural learn to swim

A person’s cultural background can affect their risk of drowning. That is, behaviours, beliefs and previous life experiences and influences all have a bearing on someone’s attitude and approach to water and the risks it may present as well as the importance they assign to learning how to swim.

This finding, from research work carried out by Royal Life Saving to identify a gap in drowning prevention strategies, highlights a key distinction between overseas-born people and those from different ethnic and cultural groups.

Drowning is one of the leading causes of unintentional fatal injury deaths and it is widely known and accepted that some populations are at greater risk of drowning than others. These ‘high-risk populations’ are overrepresented in injury statistics and are a focus of study to inform the development of more sophisticated and targeted prevention strategies.

High-risk populations in the study cited above included First Nations/Aboriginal people, ethnic minority populations, migrants and rural residents. In the Australian Water Safety Strategy, high-risk populations also include overseas tourists and international students. Current statistics suggest that around one-third of drowning deaths in Australia each year are people who are from high-risk populations.

This paper is the first to be published as part of an industry-based PhD research project led by Royal Life Saving’s National Manager for Research and Policy, Stacey Pidgeon, in partnership with James Cook University to investigate the drowning incidence and risk mitigation strategies for migrant populations living in Australia. It builds on previous Royal Life Saving research carried out to review overseas-born drowning deaths in Australia and highlights the organisation’s ongoing commitment to address drowning in high-risk populations.

Ms Pidgeon says “As part of this work, we want to understand the key social and cultural determinants affecting drowning and how to overcome these broader social and health influences.”

Social determinants refer to the conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live and age, and also includes the forces that might shape a person’s life – for example, cultural/religious customs, economic policies and systems, development agendas, social norms, social policies and political systems.

“There is a huge gap in our understanding. Specifically, we want to identify the barriers in knowledge among high-risk populations and their approach to decision making to establish what our priorities should be for drowning prevention,” said Ms Pidgeon.

Age, gender, environmental context, activity and alcohol consumption are all well-known factors influencing drowning risk among populations in general. Income, employment, education, housing and social support are additional social factors which can also affect the risks associated with drowning. However, contributing factors within specific groups (eg, ethnic minorities) are not as well understood.

Migrants, for example, are considered to be at increased risk of drowning because they may be unfamiliar and unprepared in their new geographical, social and cultural environment. In particular, adult migrants may be more vulnerable to drowning compared with children as children are more likely to access swimming and be exposed to water activities through school. If funds are limited, parents are more likely to prioritise swimming lessons for their children. More research is required to explore drowning among adults from high-risk populations.

In addition, having been used to using waterways as a means to an end as part of everyday life, many high-risk populations may not automatically associate water with recreation and leisure. Their exposure to water and water-related activities is therefore limited.

Ms Pidgeon notes “Feedback from new migrants suggests that when people first move to a new area or country, their priorities are generally to secure housing, employment and education. Learning to swim and participating in aquatic recreation are often not an immediate priority.

“We are also finding that parents’ attitudes to water and their cultural beliefs have an impact on children’s perceptions of water – for example, many cultures have traditional stories or myths specifically designed to keep children away from water by instilling a fear of water and drowning.”

Rural locations are known to be associated with increased drowning risk due to the abundance of natural waterways and geographical remoteness. An added component to this already high-risk population is that migrants in Australia are being encouraged to settle in rural areas and given incentives to do so, which means that a range of drowning prevention strategies may need to be deployed within a single community.

“We need to look beyond traditional strategies. Our aim is to identify communities most at risk and the subgroups within this, all of which we know have unique characteristics. For example, residents and students from the same cultural background may require very different drowning prevention strategies,” said Ms Pidgeon.

Further reading

Identifying a gap in drowning prevention: high-risk populations

A 10-year national study of overseas born drowning deaths

Multicultural populations. Key issues paper – National Drowning Report 2019

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People. Key issues paper – National Drowning Report 2019