I have travelled to a great many homelands and communities throughout this continent. In the fog of my memories the deep cut through the mist is the connectedness, the meeting of people. One community I have had much to do with but had not been to until only recently is Beagle Bay. It is a beautiful sub-tropical pristine community of 400 residents. There is no police station, there are no police officers, there are issues as would be anywhere but the residents sort through them.

The community is nestled slightly inland from the Indian Ocean and is the gateway community to Djarindjin and Lombardina communities, to Bobeiding and Ngardalargin communities. The main access from Broome is without bitumen and when the wet season has its say, the road can be inaccessible. We flew in a little charter, a ten-seater.

My climbing down from the charter to the red ochre tarmac was an emotional experience. A smoking ceremony greeted the eight visitors. Elder Mary O’Reeri heralded us in. However, Mary had not been informed that I too was one of the visitors.

There was a time of the worst of grief in Beagle Bay. The pain never leaves but at least it can be contextualised and those who remain prepare for the generations unborn. In 2009 Beagle Bay held a five day suicide prevention summit. Suicide is a leading cause of death for people throughout our world. Beagle Bay, the whole of the Kimberley is burdened by this scourge – the descendants of the First Peoples of the Kimberley have to deal with among the world’s highest rates of suicides. It is my view, from the comparative global data I have explored that the Kimberley’s First Peoples do indeed often succumbs tragically to the world’s highest suicide rate. At this time the Kimberley’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders suicide rate is nearly 80 per 100,000 population and second highest in the world behind the tragedy of 92 per 100,000 population for Greenland’s Inuit peoples. In the last five years the suicide rate of the Kimberley region for the descendants of its First Peoples has doubled the rate of the preceding ten years.

Beagle Bay’s Victor family grieve those gone. Two brothers were lost to suicide at the turn of the century – others too. The brothers hung themselves from the same fan in the family home. They were only 22 and 25 years old. If you are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander in this nation, and aged 15 to 35 years, nearly one in three deaths is a suicide. It is the leading cause of death for this age group. A friend who found one of the brothers would take his life less than two years later, aged 21, at nearby One Arm Point.

The father of the young men, at the time of the second son’s death said, “If only we could have seen the symptoms.”

“We had no help after my first boy’s death.” He said that the family had not recovered from the first death when the loss of another son came to pass. Years would pass and the grief remained. The father said, “We have to find ways for our youth not to kill themselves.”

In mid-2009 the five day suicide prevention summit was held at the Beagle Bay outstation, Billard. Those who attended included Western Australia Supreme Court Chief Justice Wayne Martin and the State Coroner, Alistair Hope. Affected families and communities came from throughout the Kimberley. They slept in tents.

Coroner Hope had overseen the inquest into the Balgo, Mowanjum, Fitzroy and Derby suicides that should have shocked the nation. In his coronial report he concluded, “It appears that Aboriginal welfare particularly in the Kimberley, constitutes a disaster, but no one in government is in charge of the disaster response.”

In the twelve months to the Beagle Bay summit there were recorded 14 suicides, with the youngest 13 years old. But the last two years, yet to be published, will report more suicides. The suicide rate has doubled.

Mary O’Reeri helped drive the summit. Mary is the sister of the two Victor brothers. At the time of the summit Mary said, “We want our people to die the proper way, to die naturally in old age. We do not want them to keep on going through depression, through the agony that leads many to this.”

Mary has often talked about the restoration of hope for her people, of opportunity and engagement.

Beagle Bay, which is on Nyul Nyul Country, was established by French monks in 1890 and its history is intertwined with lodgings for Stolen Generation children – Beagle Bay mission. In 1918 Catholic missionaries built a church that stands today and was the signature piece site for the film Bran Nue Dae.

Six and half years ago, Beagle Bay led the way, where governments had failed, with a suicide prevention summit. They were responding to the racism of neglect, to the racism of oppressive policies, to the racialised economic inequalities. Despite Beagle Bay fighting hard in standing solid as a paradise-like community, once again I remind that the suicide rate throughout the Kimberley has doubled. The Kimberley Aboriginal suicides account for more than 10 per cent of the nation’s Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander suicides. Western Australia accounts for one in four of the nation’s Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander suicides.

Twenty-two suicides were considered at the Alastair Hope coronial inquest but what has translated from what should have been learned? The racism of neglect, the racism of oppressive policies and the obscene racialised economic inequalities continue. The narrative remains constant, but the rates of high levels of psychological distress, self-harming, suicide attempts and suicides are increasing.

The summit drew more than 200 people, the majority were affected families. It was opened by the then Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin. She said all the usual things, made all the usual promises, but continued on as one of the worst Indigenous Affairs ministers of the last half century.

The people of Beagle Bay are the ones who hold the community together, who give hope, who are there for one another. Governments are yet to do their long overdue bit.

In October 2013, four years after the summit, the Kimberley’s state parliamentary member, Gija woman, Josie Farrer, presented to her parliament the ‘Baton of Life’. The baton was symbolically handed to Josie by nine Beagle Bay families who had lost loved ones to suicide. During her presentation of the baton in parliament Ms Farrer implored her colleagues that it was crucial for the State Government to at long last invest resources into remote communities to right the inequalities, to address the racialised economic inequalities. Remote Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander communities are denied an equivalency to the services and infrastructure enjoyed by non-Aboriginal remote communities.

During her parliamentary speech, Josie said, “The baton was carved from a special medicine tree by a Walmajarri Elder.”

Suicidal behaviour does not mean that someone wants to die, this is a dangerous myth. Suicidal behaviour is a scream for help – people need people. It is a fallacy to presume ‘self-responsibility’ as a way forward for someone in a dark place. People need people to strengthen their resolve to the ways forward. Suicidal behaviour is destructive behaviour that can lead to impulsive actions such as a suicide attempt.

Access to emotional support can save lives. It may never be realised this was the case but person to person support is a huge factor in the improving and saving of lives. Resilience and empowerment are gradually accumulated over time, to the point there comes a time that there is no looking back. It is not true that once someone has exhibited suicidal behaviour that they are forever trapped in the heightened vulnerability to recurring suicidal behaviour.

It is true that a powerful indicator to future risk of suicide is a prior suicide attempt however this does not mean that the heightened risk shall be there for life. Indeed, with the coming together of emotional wellbeing and meaningful contexts, there develops resilience within the individual that can make one stronger than ever before. With the right sort of support, protective factors can guard people against the risk of suicide.

Suicide prevention should not be focused alone on reducing risk factors but just as focused, if not more so, on increasing protective factors. The most powerful protective factors include building a connectedness with other people – they do not need to be about direct and targeted support. This connectedness with other people should include the types of engagements that allow the individual to directly and indirectly draw information about wellbeing, about navigating ones journey through society, and thereafter predominately focus on self-worth, identity and conflict management.

Most importantly, healthy relationships will contextualise a meaningful life, an honest life, and this in itself is a relief from the conflict and discord that arise from unhealthy levels of expectations. Personal relationships are important, where the support person can understand that they are about support and not about any particular targeted responsibility for the individual. More research needs to be disaggregated on suicidal behaviour and mental disorders, but it appears the majority of suicidal behaviour is not linked to mental disorders and rather to a sense of deep unhappiness. Therefore families and communities can contribute significantly to the improving of the life understandings of a troubled person.

Destructive and self-destructive behaviours should be understood as situational and that individual, familial and community attitudes determine the length of these behaviours. Governments investing their attention in helping resource communities for instance to support others is imperative. Most suicidal behaviours are linked, and usually exclusively, to unhappiness. Therefore suicidal behaviour is preventable. I would argue that suicidal behaviour is a major health problem and of all our major health problems suicidal behaviour is the most preventable. Yet adequate suicide prevention is not prioritised by Governments.

In nations, especially high and middle income nations, with relatively recent colonial oppressor histories, the descendants of First Peoples have been degenerated to discriminated minorities. Unless the descendants of First Peoples accept homogeneity and hard edged assimilation they consequently experience a deep sense of discrimination. This goes to the heart of identity, to self-worth and esteem and their historical and contemporary identities become a liability. These disaggregated groups have the world’s highest rates of depressions, unhappiness, self-harms, suicidal behaviour and suicides. It’s all about identity, whether for a vulnerable child, young adult, cultural group – the answers lay in respecting one another, being there for the other, empowering each other through meanings, relationships, freedoms and attitudinally.

Suicide prevention is about the positive self and any comprehensive response includes everyone. A comprehensive national response for suicide prevention requires understanding the above.

The point is that suicides, our leading cause of violent deaths, which receive little mention in the news, are the most preventable violence. Self-destructive behaviours that can culminate in suicidal behaviours and distress families and communities are in fact a leading cause of familial breakdowns and of community distress. Once again, the point is that this behaviour is the most preventable of the various destructive behaviours that impact families and communities. These need to be prioritised in national conversations, by the media, by our Governments.

I stepped on to the red ochre. I loved the balmy wrap, and could inhale the smoke from the ceremonial fire. The Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, walked up first to be greeted by Mary and others. My suicide prevention colleague, Bunuba Gija woman, Adele Cox, was eager to meet up with family. Adele and I have been travelling the continent meeting communities and carrying the voices of the people with us in the crafting of national projects that may improve the lot of others, that may save lives. Nigel Scullion has listened to us these last couple of years and has stood out among his own colleagues in arguing for more to be done, He has been responsible for funding for some of these projects. There is no greater legacy than in the saving of lives, in the giving of the light of hope. But of course much more needs to be done. I am not in Government, I wish I was because that is the only place where the big difference can be delivered from. Government is responsible for the inequalities, therefore Government is responsible for the redress, for the righting of wrongs, for the fairness.

Mary welcomed each person of our party. She spoke of the lia. Mary put her hands over the eyes of those whom she welcomed, and then over their ears. She asked them to listen to what the people have to say, to see what they see and to carry back to where they came from what they have heard and seen.

Mary and I met in person for the first time. I smiled at Mary. Mary looked at me as if she knew me from somewhere. She asked my name. I said, “Gerry Georgatos”. We fell into an embrace. There shed tears. Mary would say, “I have wanted to meet you for so long. I read everything you write, share it around our community.”

“You are welcome here.”

“You do listen. You do listen, you do hear us, you do see us. You carry our voices.”

My emotions ran high. I said, “You are a hero for your people, to all people. Much love.”

It was my honour to walk the earth that rests Beagle Bay.

 

Declaration of impartiality conflict – Gerry Georgatos is a leading suicide prevention researcher and participatory in several national suicide prevention projects.

 

Lifeline’s 24-hour hotline, 13 11 14

Crisis Support and Suicide Prevention Beyond Blue – 1300 22 4636

 

Listen to: ABC interview with journalist Nadine Maloney – spreading the love

 

Other articles and media on the extensiveness of suicides and on suicide prevention by Gerry Georgatos:

Three youth suicides, buried next to each other – we were not put on this earth to bury our children

From my father’s death bed to the must-do to end the suicides | The Stringer

Risk of death high after release from prison

Child suicides higher than reported

Recovery the focus

40 million life years lost to suicide

Hidden truths – it is worse, not better

Some want to portray things on the improve

Suicide in people numbers instead of comparative rates Oppression is the cause of the majority of the suicides

It is not a competition but suicide is the leading cause of death

Do not play with peoples’ lives

It is not like me to cry

Call for a national inquiry

Catastrophic suicide crisis will escalate “unless”…

One in ten Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have been to jail

An eleven year old suicides – nine months later his mother takes her life

Understanding the abominable jail and suicide rates

The issue of our time – 1 in 3 deaths by suicide

When the right people lead then lives will be saved

Truth, not lies on Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander suicide prevention rates

A moral abomination – a narrative that is racialised; of human suffering and misery

Plato said engage with our politicians or risk being governed by the dumb – the suicide crises

Stop selling resilience 

Another misguided reductionist plan to reduce rates of suicide self-harm

The leading cause of death – for 15 to 44 year old Australians – is suicide | The Stringer

People strengthening people focus on suicide prevention

Understanding difference and unfairness is a first step in suicide prevention | The Stringer

Taboo, stigma and shame need to get out of the way for suicide prevention | The Stringer

Suicide is heading to a humanitarian crisis – it is a leading cause of death | The Stringer

Suicides are preventable – here is what we must begin to do | The Stringer

The extensiveness of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander suicides – 1 in 20 | The Stringer

Preventing suicide – “no greater legacy” | The Stringer

Understanding Australia’s suicide crises

Shame job Australia – they came through the gate with my boy’s body 

Suicides, high among overseas born and second generation Australians

Child suicidal ideation on the increase

It is racism killing our people – suicides born of racism

Kimberley suicide rate – one of the world’s highest – Yiriman is the way to go

My Country – But look how I am forced to live

What will it take to end Aboriginal disadvantage, the inequalities and the various crises?

What sort of Australia is this? Seven homeless children in an asbestos slum

Six homeless children fighting for a better tomorrow

Quality of life for Australians 2nd only to Norway but for Aboriginal Peoples 122nd

Dumbartung convenes suicide crisis summit

Suicide attempts among women on the rise

Australia’s Aboriginal children detained at the world’s highest rates

Culture should not be denied – change needs unfolding, not impost

Everyone in the Territory doing well, except for Aboriginal Peoples

Australia’s Aboriginal children, the world’s highest suicide rate

Wes Morris slams government suicide prevention programs

How many more suicides will it take? How many more deaths?

Hopelessness in suicide riddled communities

More government neglect of Aboriginal children

In identity lay the answers – ATSI suicides

$25.4 billion spent on Aboriginal disadvantage is a lie

Beagle Bay to State Parliament – Farrer speaks out on suicides

Government to address Aboriginal suicides

Empowerment

996 Aboriginal deaths by suicide – another shameful Australian record

996 deaths by suicide – one in 24 die by suicide

Australia’s Aboriginal suicide epidemic – whose child will be the next to die?

77 Aboriginal suicides in South Australia alone

Kimberley’s Aboriginal peoples old at 45 years

Australia, the mother of all jailers of Aboriginal people

Close the gap failed

Despite what’s being reported, life expectancy not improving for ATSI peoples – 1 in 3 dead by 45 years of age

Tumult of death – 400 suicides in last three years

30 suicides in the last three months as we wait for promises to be kept

Suicide crisis – genocidal numbers

Suicide crisis – from tragic to catastrophic

Suicide crisis needs real funding and actions

Hundreds more will suicide if we wait for 2015

Nothing will be done about suicides crisis

Scullion bent on saving lives

Elders across Australia say governments need to listen to them on how to address youth suicide

Suicides – western society and ancient cultures clash

If we are serious about suicide prevention

Australia’s suicide crisis should not be played down – the media must highlight it

From my father’s death bed to the must-do to end the suicides

Governments promise on ending suicides must come good now

More confirmation of what everyone knows, was suicide prevention inadequate

The must-do need to listen and trust if suicides crisis is to end

Working together – mental health and suicide prevention roundtable

Break the taboo around suicides, we reduce suicides

Suicide crises born of Australia’s inhumanity

Suicides – children

Suicides crisis linked to incarceration

Wes Morris urges funding for cultural methodologies

The betrayal of our children – the Northern Territory

New project offers hope to reduce Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides

Depression and suicide prevention must be top of the agenda this century

World Suicide Prevention Day – suicide takes more lives than war

Western Australia – 1 in 13 in a jail, a bullshit state of affairs

Forgotten children of the promised land – the fight to save rural Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

Yiriman saving lives in the midst of the Kimberley’s suicide crises

Healing Halls Creek

The smaller a community, the less likely a suicide

Overcoming disadvantage report shows disadvantage not overcome

600 Black deaths in custody by 2025 – jail numbers to soar

Get out of the way – Aboriginal suicide rates will drop

A nation shamed when the solution for its children is homelessness

Christmas, a period of vulnerability for many

Stop peddling lies $30 billion spent on Indigenous disadvantage is a lie

To end our trauma government must stop the assault on our people and our culture

In Australia there is the Aboriginal rights struggle

Kirstie Parker, Mick Gooda say enough of fine words – close the gap a big fat lie

Highest child removal rates in the world worse than Stolen Generations

Stop examining the oppressed – instead examine the oppressor 

CAAMA Radio – Speaking out on Aboriginal suicide

CAAMA Radio – We need to be there for them 

ABC News Breakfast – Suicide prevention – Christmas period a vulnerable time