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 have tragically the world’s highest suicide rate. In the last five years the suicide rate of the region 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
Other articles and media on the extensiveness of suicides and on suicide prevention by Gerry Georgatos: