Aboriginal people are killing themselves at the world’s highest rates. Why? Premature deaths in Aboriginal Australia are a way of life, mourning and grief a common occurrence, and far too many Aboriginal communities have come to accept the deaths as their lot, refusing to speak about them. Why? Despite the general quiet and acceptance of death and grief in Aboriginal communities there is however a rise in Aboriginal voices calling for change.
The horror of dramatic disproportionate rates of suicide for Aboriginal peoples is played out the world over but Australia’s Aboriginal peoples are at the top of this tragic list.
In 2011, the United Nations State of Indigenous Peoples report found that the world’s Aboriginal peoples made up one-third of the world’s poorest peoples. But their horrific rates of suicide are not limited to the negative drivers contained within impoverishment. But impoverishment does contribute, significantly so, and therefore one of the stressors can be easily resolved.
In the Kimberley region – Western Australia’s tourist mecca, the Aboriginal homelessness rate is sky high – and in some of its towns the suicide rates reached up to 100 times the national average.
The tragedy is endemic throughout Australia – last year, a Northern Territory Select Committee on Youth Suicides tabled its report into youth suicide and found the obvious; that there are significantly higher rates of Aboriginal suicides when compared to the national average.
Between 2001 and 2006, the Northern Territory suicide rate for Aboriginal youth aged between 15 years to 24 was 3.5 times than in the rest of the nation. The report highlighted the young ages at which Aboriginal youth were committing suicide – and the rise of young Aboriginal women suiciding.
“The suicide rate for Indigenous Territorians is particularly disturbing, with 75 per cent of suicides of children from 2007 to 2011 in the Territory being Aboriginal,” stated the report.
“For too many of our youth there is not enough hope to protect them from the impulse to end their lives.”
The suicide rate increased for youth between ages 10 and 17 – up from 18.8 per cent to 30.1 per cent per 100,000 – in contrast to non-Aboriginal youth suicides which dropped from 4.1 per cent to 2.6 per cent.
The report found the rate of suicide among Aboriginal girls had increased – with girls now up to 40 per cent of suicides of children aged less than 17 years.
The report highlighted the underlying causes to Aboriginal youth suicide as mental illness, substance abuses and sexual abuse trauma but failed to highlight acute poverty and a suite of rights denied to this day to Aboriginal peoples in many of these troubled communities. What is missing in many of these communities are the pathways and access to opportunities and to the benefits of education and hard work which the rest of Australia does have access to. These communities continue to be neglected by State and federal government jurisdictions and their agencies – services and layers of community infrastructure have not been grafted into these communities and instead they are dilapidated third-world environments.
In South Australia, there have been 77 Aboriginal suicides in ten years – 2001 to 2011 – it was 99 Aboriginal deaths in custody nationally, from 1980 to 1989, that led to a Royal Commission but 77 Aboriginal suicides in one jurisdiction alone does not rate a mention.
Mr Sansbury said that “only dead people” come into his dreams. The South Australian Nurrunga Elder dreams of the deceased, of young lives lost. Mr Sansbury has dedicated his life to helping troubled Aboriginal youth, in seeking to reduce the horrifically high rate of suicides.
“Death is our life, said Mr Sansbury, describing the state of the Aboriginal landscape Australia-wide, of mourning and sadness for young lives lost far too regularly.
Mr Sansbury works pro bono through the South Australian community group, Garridja – a Nurrunga word which means “to rise”. Garridja works to address all areas of Aboriginal disadvantage. Mr Sansbury has long known that Aboriginal suicide is a national problem but one that is getting relative little national attention. Alongside others he is investigating the 77 Aboriginal suicides.
“I am working with an Aboriginal doctor and a non-Aboriginal doctor in investigating these deaths, as we are working towards collated reports. These deaths have received little attention and this makes no sense.”
At the beginning of last year Mr Sansbury called for a 24/7 Aboriginal crisis centre in Adelaide following eight deaths of young Aboriginal people in and around Adelaide in the first 13 days of the year.
“It is approaching two years later, and the State and federal governments have not responded. Indeed funding promises have been broken and our youth continue to languish with nowhere to go.” He said that an Aboriginal crisis centre, Aboriginal controlled and serviced is vital. Mr Sansbury is a former CEO and general manager in Aboriginal health and employment and is widely recognised for his considerable knowledge and expertise in working for change for Aboriginal peoples, and was awarded an Australian Centenary Medal in 2003 by the Commonwealth in recognition of work as director of the Aboriginal Justice Advocacy Committee and the National Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committee. He is also the chairperson of the Narungga Nations.
“At this time many of us have immersed ourselves in working with others, specialists and experts, in finding the ways forward to address all that is wrong, and to give hope to our people, to our youth, and to ensure governments pay attention and fund what should be funded. If we have to call a national march on Canberra then we will do this, it will happen. 77 suicides in South Australia alone, and 8 deaths in 13 days January last year speak it all. It is time for those who can help us to listen,” said Mr Sansbury.
As a result of my own research into Aboriginal youth suicides, and suiciding in general, and because of my role with The Stringer, we have decided to highlight the horrific rates of Aboriginal youth suicide, and the high rates of Aboriginal deaths. It was my comparative global data research only a few years ago that confirmed that the prevalence of spates of suicides among Australian Aboriginal youth are the world’s worse statistics, and that these spates are becoming more prevalent and tragically settling in to higher medians year in year out. I have found that despite the spikes in Aboriginal youth suicide, and the rise to the medians, there has been no spike or median increases in government funding to help reduce Aboriginal youth suicides.
The Stringer has taken it upon itself to assist in establishing a truly national council that will highlight and seek to address the horror of these spates of suicide in the world’s 12th largest economy and 2nd wealthiest nation per capita.
Well known education and researcher Kabi Kabi Elder and Central Queensland University Bundaberg campus coordinator Cheri Yavu-Kama-Harathunian said she is devastated by the rising disenfranchisement of Aboriginal youth, and the world’s highest rate – of Australia’s Aboriginal children.
Eighteen months ago, Mrs Yavu-Kamu-Harathunian said, “Across my desk came a study that reported the number of completed Indigenous suicides (in the Kimberley) last year exceeded the Australian Defence Force fatalities in Afghanistan. I cannot comprehend this statement. It is too much.”
Mrs Yavu-Kamu-Harathunian has Bachelors in Applied Sciences, Indigenous and Community Health, and with majors in mental health and counselling, and a Masters in Criminal Justice.
She asks what motivates our young people to disconnect from themselves and what motivates “our brothers and sisters to disconnect from themselves and then move into that helpless hope of perhaps finding themselves in their sleep of death.”
Western Australian Aboriginal communities, challenged only by communities in the Northern Territory and Queenlsand, have the highest suicide rates not only in the nation but in the world.
Mowanjum is one of those Kimberley communities that has suffered a spate of suicides 100 times the national average. Mowanjum Council chairperson, Gary Umbagai despairs at the death tolls. “There is something dreadfully wrong in our community, but what can we do?”
Mrs Yavu-Kamu-Harathunian said, “All around this community (Mowanjum) there is so much progress, production, this affluence. What is progress, this production, this affluence stealing from our people?”
“To read about this painful crisis, to recognise the layers of disconnection, the internal anguish, community sorrow, pain, trauma, suffering is like a microcosm of the inherent legacy of pain, torment, and suffering that our people are immersed in.”
“This is a culturally collective crisis, and it impacts upon all of us who say we are First Nations peoples. To think that this tiny little community possibly has the highest rates of suicide not just in Australia but in the world is insanity,” she said.
“I remember a beautiful strong Aboriginal woman from Bardi Country way – Wendy. I respectfully do not use her surname here, mid 1990s, who developed for the first time in my lifetime, a great understanding of alcohol and its use and abuse amongst our people.”
“I remember her words of warning then, that because of the use of alcohol amongst our people, alcohol users would begin using at a younger and younger age. Her gravest concern way back then was about the rise I suicide.”
“We are now picking up the pieces of our loved ones.”
“How many suicides, how many more deaths will it take to open our eyes, and open our ears to the silent screaming that is coming from the hearts, and souls of those who are gone, and of those who grieve and keep screaming ‘Help…’”
In NSW, with Australia’s largest Aboriginal population, the youth suicide rate is one in 100,000, in the Northern Territory, the rate is 30 deaths in 100,000. In the Kimberley, with an Aboriginal population of 14,000, the rate is 1 death in 1,200, over 80 per 100,000.
Stephen Nulgitt is from the community of Mowanjum. He works with Mowanjum’s youth to deliver pride into their lives, from within their cultural identity. Mr Nulgitt’s younger brother was one who took his life.
“He was a happy little boy. A beautiful smile.”
“That night after another brother’s birthday party Darren was found hanging from a tree.”
Such is the despair in Mowanjum that no can see who is suffering, who is the next to die.
“When you hold a lot of things inside, and you hold things in and you don’t talk to anyone, it just builds up into depression and anger,” said Mr Nulgitt.
The tree Darren hung himself from was cut down.
“My uncle came with a chainsaw and just took it away, because it kept affecting my mother.”
Mowanjum’s Elders and parents are shell shocked, the situational trauma has led to myriad anxieties. Mowanjum’s community director Eddie Bear said every loss is felt right throughout the community. “Everybody feels hurt, we all go through it.” He worries so much about Mowanjum’s youth that when his young grandson goes bush he will follow him.
“When he takes off into the scrub, I will follow him and have a talk with him, sit with him there and talk.”
You got to live life. You are only a young bloke I tell him.”
Mowanjum is typical of many remote communities, where many children are not in school – and that they see around them is dejection and despair, joblessness and aimlessness. What they see on television all around the rest of Australia is not what they live in Mowanjum – they go without much.
“Poverty is a big issue.”
Mr Bear often sees the community’s youth out of school, including his grandson, Angelo.
“I tell Angelo, come here, why are you not in school?”
Mowanjum community CEO Steve Austin said more needs to be done by governments.
“Family structures are breaking down and the government agencies are not here to help them.”
“We are doing what we can to employ our people.”
Government support is needed – but that support must include the full suite of funding that would raise communities out of third-world conditions. They do not need piecemeal funding or a Northern Territory Intervention.
Despite the deaths there is no effective suicide prevention strategy being funded and administered in the Kimberley. Mr Austin said that the West Australian government last year spent $150 million on the Derby prison – an ‘Aboriginal prison’ – while applications by the organisation seeking funding for a youth coordinator to work with Aboriginal youth were rejected.
“We get no help,” said Mr Austin.
“It is as if the bureaucrats do not have any idea what we are up against.”
According to Mr Austin when his community lost the Commonwealth Development Employment Program (CDEP) there followed a spike in suicides. Aboriginal peoples employed fell from 140 to 30.
The Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre (KALACC) coordinator Wes Morris has slammed the lack of State and federal government responses. He said far too little has been invested in prevention programs and that the current strategies disregard Aboriginal peoples, further disempowering them, compounding problems.
“Have you read the State Suicide Prevention Strategy (2007)? It is underwritten by only $13 million for all Western Australia for four years for the whole of the program. What a joke.”
Mr Morris pointed out that Aboriginal peoples have not been adequately included in the delivery of strategies, and he said the current strategies fail to understand Aboriginal culture and identity. He also said that in reference to mental health the State Government has failed to address the needs of Aboriginal peoples. “The State Government can only pony up $22.47 million for the psychiatric and psychological treatment of Aboriginal peoples with severe and persistent mental illness.” He said this is not enough, but it got even worse for suicide prevention, with only the $13 million.
Mr Morris said that the State Government’s 2001 Suicide Prevention program was much more sensitive to the cultural and identity needs of Aboriginal peoples “but, all too predictably, the recommendations within it have never seen the light of day.”
Mr Morris said that Aboriginal peoples need Aboriginal peoples with knowledge of Aboriginal peoples, not Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples disassociated from the lived experiences of communities with underlying issues that give rise to the horrific spates of suicides realised in recent years.
He identified generic premises made by non-Aboriginal peoples in authority which indeed undermine authentic solutions. Mr Morris referred to a recent proposition by the Children’s Commission for an independent Youth Justice Service to help reduce the high rates of juvenile detention. But Mr Morris said bureaucrats continually miss the point of “Aboriginal owned and controlled services.”
“There is no room in their world for an Aboriginal controlled youth justice service as per recommendation 50 of the 2006 Law Reform Commission (Final Report on Aboriginal Customary Laws). A specific agency is not the answer (if it is not Aboriginal controlled),” said Mr Morris.
He said whether it is to address incarceration rates or to reduce rates of suicide the answers lay with Aboriginal control of the response services.
“KALACC has been intimately involved in the three coronial inquests in the Kimberley. We gave rise to the first of these inquests,” said Mr Morris.
He said that mental health is not the major underlying issue and indicated that attacks on cultural identity and disempowerment were significant contributors. “Nowhere in the three coronial inquiries does the Coroner identify mental health as a major issue.”
Mr Morris said the State government’s “misguided approach” to presume the current spend on mental health can incorporate suicide prevention is crazy. Mr Morris said Aboriginal counsellors are needed to heal cultural wounds, to bring about “cultural healing.”
“Until these fundamental realities are addressed, the suicides will continue.”
Right around the world suicide rates of First Nations peoples are disproportionately higher than the rest of their nations’ populations and this is underwritten by not only the general poor living conditions of First Nations peoples, but by degrees of dispossession and the governmental driven, whether inadvertent or otherwise, erosion of cultural identity. Where there has been a failure to allow and support the preservation of culture and historical identity people have been put at risk of suicide.
671,000 Australians identify as Aboriginal but if we standalone the poorest 150,000 of our Aboriginal peoples, a significant proportion of them are living in third world akin conditions in the world’s 12th largest economy. Per capita, Australia has the world’s highest median wages and once again per capita Australia is the second wealthiest nation in the world. These statistics underwrite research I have titled “The Aboriginal Clock.”
Thirty years ago Aboriginal youth was not killing itself at the rates we have today, nor was this the case twenty years ago, and ten years ago the suicide rates were much lower than today. The suicide rates are on the rise, the median ages of suicides are getting younger – this evidences the sense of h hopelessness felt by many. Much of the hope of previous generations invested in the Black Power movements, in the Land Rights movements, in the striving for Treaty and equality has dissipated for many Aboriginal peoples who have waited and nothing positive has eventuated for them, and for many the belief is that they have less now than they did two decades ago. I have interviewed more than 100 Territorian Aboriginal Elders, and similarly more than 100 Aboriginal Western Australian Elders for research titled “Climate of Death” and “People are not the Property of People; the Northern Territory is Prison built brick by brick by the Commonwealth” and the overwhelming majority described beliefs that all they or their parents struggled for two and three decades ago has now vanished. They despair at being effectively forced into surrendering culture, their homelands, their right to their historical identity.
They have no trust in ministries of Aboriginal Affairs or in a Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs, they do not believe any longer in the presumption these arguable affirmative actions will deliver what is now long overdue. The majority of those I have spoken with, hundreds, inherently fear these ministries which they believe are responsible for corralling them and extinguishing many of their rights and freedoms. They see these ministries, as I do too, as covert, whether inadvertent or not, social engineering attempts by Governments and their bureaucracies, and that the colonialist attitudes continue.
“We need our people helping our people, we have programs that work, such as Yiriman, acknowledged by many, evaluated by universities, and these need to be funded, and adequately so,” said Mr Morris.
The Yiriman project includes KALACC, and is a partnership between four Kimberley language groups. Each year, approximately 400 young adults, between 15 to 30 years of age, participate in Yiriman activities. The project centres on trips to Country with Elders. Senior Elders meet together to make decisions about the location, activities and purpose of each trip. Young people self-nominate or are nominated by their parents, the community, youth workers, juvenile justice workers and in some instances through the Courts. The nature of each trip is determined according to Traditional law. Yiriman workers and cultural advisers engage with the youth on the trips to Country.
Remote communities are enduring higher rates of youth suicide than in big towns and metropolises, through Aboriginal suicide rates are disproportionately high Australia-wide. Employment, education, health and community, infrastructure are invaluable to reducing both imprisonment and suicide rates but with suicides it is not just underlying issues related to impoverishment – my research and investigations have found that disempowerment is a major contributor. Despite the majority of Aboriginal youth suiciding or attempting suicide who are unemployed and dejected by the sense of hopelessness, far too many despite not being the majority were indeed employed but they too reported a sense of hopelessness or crippling dejection – the situational trauma of one’s cultural identity rubbished by the majority of Australia, misguided do-gooder bureaucratic programs, by the forces of assimilation. Cognitively, all this generates situational trauma, and degenerates into continuing traumas and stress disorders, disempowering far too many into a sense that their historical and contemporary identities are a liability.
We have long known what Canada’s Dr Michael Chandler and I have validated – that the rates of Aboriginal suicides, the world over, are higher than that of non-Aboriginal populations. Each life lost should have been a message to get our state of affairs in order – this is the best prevention strategy, to allow people their full suite of rights, the right to equality, the right to be who they want to be within a normative setting of their own. Each life lost reminds us of our prejudices, our biases, our racism, our failure to resist the simple mindedness of assimilation. Between 1994 to 2006, the rate of Aboriginal suicides averaged 25.7 per 100,000, that is 70 per cent higher than in non-Aboriginal Australia.
For Aboriginal children younger than 15 years, during that twelve year period, the suicide rate was seven times higher than for non-Aboriginal children. Therefore minimalist suicide prevention strategies have failed. Alcohol and drug abuse are factors but they are not drivers, other factors underlie the use of alcohol and drugs, and therefore for a radical reduction to drug and alcohol use and in reducing suicides we have to address the factors that lead to the use of alcohol and drugs and other aimlessness and self-destruction. As long as we continue to deny that ethnicity and connectedness with historical and cultural identity do not matter then we will continue with suicide rates that are the world’s worst, and indeed continue with the veils and layers of racism.
Whose child will be the next to die?