We cannot continue to live in the silences and dangerously internalise the tragedy of suicide and the multifactorial issues that contribute to self-harming and suicide. Suicide is an increasing toll for all Australians. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders it is a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. The internalising of grief and loss – the silences – are toxic. I have travelled to hundreds of homeland communities and the people who are losing their loved ones are crying out to be heard, they are screaming. It is a myth and predominately a wider community perception that there is a silence, shame, taboo. It’s the listening that is not happening. This humanitarian crisis needs to translate to a national priority.
There is no greater legacy than to improve the lot of others, to the point of changing lives and saving lives.
There has been a short-fused political and media storm around the tragic loss of a 10-year-old girl. May her soul be in peace and may her families find strength and go well. There are no words for her loss, no words to any family for the loss of a loved one other than we must remain solid, in our ways and in our thinking. The political and media interest in this child’s loss was because it appeared to them that it should be unimaginable that one so young should contemplate suicide. But suicide is a leading cause of death for Australia’s teenagers. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 14 years and less they are 9 times more likely to ideate suicide than non-Aboriginal children. It should be unimaginable that children should want to end their lives but to me it is not unimaginable – there have been younger children lost. It is not unimaginable to children trapped in acutely impoverished lives, to the children living in racial inequalities, in Third-World-akin conditions. Australia is one of the world’s biggest and most thriving economies.
The media and political interest has been important, indeed vital and it needs to continue – the media can serve the public interest by sustaining the coverage.
I wrote two pieces on what will it take to radically reduce the disproportionate suicide rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, at least reduce them to parity with non-Aboriginal suicide rates. One piece was for the West Australian newspaper – ‘Reduce regional poverty and trauma to save lives’ Following this article I received just over one hundred emails and messages thanking me for going straight to the heart or as one person wrote “to the engine room” of the tragedy instead of skimming the surface as so many indeed do. Many of those emails and messages came from within the Kimberley. The Kimberley region has the nation’s highest suicide rate standalone to Aboriginal peoples and from that racialised lens among the world’s highest suicide rates. I received a phone call from Looma, the 400 people community where the tragedy was displaced to. I was thanked for the context and meanings in my opinion piece. These emails and messages vividly portrayed people crying out, screaming to be heard.
The second opinion piece, not dissimilar to the first piece, was published by NITV Online through Stan Grant’s The Point. In that article I once again called for a Royal Commission into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides. A Royal Commission is long overdue. If you are an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander on this continent, aged 15 to 35 years of age, one in three deaths within that age group will be a suicide. It is this age group’s leading cause of death. This statistical narrative is an indictment of the national consciousness, an indictment of our governments – of one government after another. It is an abomination – moral, political and otherwise. I received scores of phone calls, messages and emails after this opinion piece was published. The real silences are the Australian silences, they are not Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander silences. We are being sold shame and taboo as silence but wherever I travel to, whomever I sit with, they are talking, reaching out, seeking, begging for help. The problem is not with them, it is with those who should be listening. Instead those who should be listening are shutting them down – those who should be listeners are instead reductionists and redactors.
Sometimes those in the middle, the funded responders, seek to shut down the voices – sometimes through some sort of well-meaning, in respect to perceived sensitivities to families while grieving, and other times diabolically because they nonsensically fear being scrutinised, held to account. On both counts, there should never be gagging. Let the affected be heard. We hear everyone else; including the blamers, the victim scapegoating. But those who religiously fail to listen are our governments – one parliamentarian after another. Shutting down the affected is at first tried by censorship by omission but when their story does break into the news then it is censorship by disinformation, by means of the blaming the victim.
My good friend, Kamilaroi language speaker, Dr Marcus Woolombi Waters cried when talking to me about the tragedy of this young child.
Woolombi wrote of some of the blamers, “We are meant to love one another beyond difference to the point that those in need are not just people but our own brotha’s and sista’s struggling to cope. I have not been able to finish an article written on this poor child. Emotionally, I just can’t.”
“But already in what I have read is that there are social commentators lining up to blame the victim. What is wrong with the world? What do they not understand when a young child loses hope to the point that they plan and then go ahead with ending their own life?”
“I have been there… so lost in pain, isolated in misery with no hope that ending my life seemed the only option. I wasn’t 10 years old. What that experience taught me is that when you have reached this level of grief, the last thing of relevance is some article on supposed Aboriginal victim mentality.”
“You understand what I am saying? To try and turn this around and lay blame on those who spend their lives trying to educate mainstream Australia about the ongoing trauma, depression and hopelessness felt in some of our communities is as shocking as the crises.”
“I have written many articles where people comment personally on how brave I am to highlight personal aspects of my life, time in jail, selling drugs, domestic violence and sexual abuse. It’s brave – it is healing and allows me closure of the times when I felt helpless.”
“If only that young girl was able to meet herself as a 48 year old who could have told her that one day she would overcome the pain. That she would meet someone beautiful and fall in love and have children who loved her unconditionally.”
“I was in my thirties when I tried to commit suicide. I had already been in hospital twice for depression and every minute I was awake was misery so I tried to stay asleep for as long as I could without having to face the day.”
“My amazing wife would ask me in the morning if I wanted to get out of bed. I would just grunt back. She would prepare breakfast for our three kids and pack their lunches and go to work. I would just sleep all day.”
“She would pick the kids up from school, come home, prepare dinner and come into the room and ask me if I got out of bed that day. I would just grunt back, or worse cry and she would ask me if I wanted a feed and I would just turn my head and go back to sleep.”
“My angel did that for 18 months.”
“It was love, caring and sharing that got me out of bed – no hard line austerity, no taking away what little money we had as a penalty or denying me cigarettes or drinking. No, it was love and compassion. I never used to smoke regularly before my depression, only when mixing it in a chop for yarndi.”
You can read the full article here.
Another good friend and colleague is Mangyari and Mabuiag man Dameyon Bonson, one of the nation’s most relentless Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander LGBQTI advocates. He recently wrote, “A few weeks ago I shared that I live with depression and anxiety. There have been periods in my life, several periods, where I would’ve been clinically diagnosed as suicidal – wanting to end my life. I’ve never ‘attempted’. At my most depressive times I’ve just wanted to lay down and go to sleep with the idea of waking up to things to somehow better.”
Dameyon has remained solid-in-his-thinking and focussed on the ways forward because he knows all too well the sense of hopelessness that many feel, the abject hopelessness that many feel they cannot rise out of, as Marcus Woolombi describes.
Dameyon wrote, “One particular story that still sticks in my mind and weighs heavily on my heart is one from a respected Aboriginal Grannie, an Elder, asking, ‘What do we do? What do we do when they grab the rope and run up the hill to hang themselves? Our legs are too old to chase them. What do we do?’”
You can read Dameyon’s story here.
My good friend, Narungga Elder, Tauto Sansbury has spent five decades fighting for his peoples. Tauto is the incumbent NAIDOC Lifetime Achievement award recipient. He was brought up on a mission on the Yorke peninsula where he suffered in abominable ways as a child, where everyday the Black was ‘beaten’ out of the children, where his mother tongue was denied, where historical and traditional identities were a liability. This strong man who fights for so many on so many issues I have seen break down in tears and then pull himself together, again and again, and to this day sees a psychologist to deal with the wrongs of the past – and the present.
ABC journalist Courtney Bembridge recently wrote a profoundly poignant story about former policeman, Noongar man Charlie Kickett. “In 1997 he walked out of his family home, leaving behind his wife and children, knowing he might be gone forever unless he put some distance between himself and his rifle.”
Ms Bembridge reported that Charlie was “from a small town 220 kilometres east of Perth called Doodlakine” and that he “was part of the Stolen Generation and abused while on a mission.”
Charlie had been battling trauma – situational, multiple, composite and complex – but with no support.
Charlie said to Ms Bembridge, “I thought ‘where am I going to go? Who am I going to go to?’ That’s when I got to the stage where I contemplated suicide.”
“In fighting that feeling I walked out of my home and away from my family and things that were there that was a danger to me.”
“Being in the police force, my work colleagues picked me up and sat me in front of the sergeant and I was a mess – I admit I was a mess.”
Charlie was advised to see a psychologist. “I never cried so much in all my life. She helped me through the roughest time of my life. I wouldn’t be here talking about it if it wasn’t for her, if it wasn’t for that sergeant giving me an order.”
Charlie’s wife Helen said, “We have had family members take their lies and to this day we don’t know why.”
Indigenous Mental Health Commissioner, Professor Pat Dudgeon said to Ms Bembrdige, “It is an Australian national story – it is not restricted to one town, one state or one community.”
I have visited hundreds of communities, sat with one affected family after another right throughout this continent. They all want to tell their story and they all want to be heard. All of them do not want more lives lost, more loved ones lost. But we are not listening.
In January I flew into the Kimberley’s Beagle Bay community – despite having travelled most of the Kimberley over many years, it was the first time I visited Beagle Bay. However I had written widely about Beagle Bay; followed their lot, the suicides, the Blank Page Summit. We chartered a ten-seater into Beagle Bay. At the tarmac we were met by Elder Mary O’Reeri, who lost two of her brothers to suicide and who coordinated the Blank Page Summit some years back. People came from all over the Kimberley and Western Australia to the Summit, converging on Beagle Bay.
Mary was by the tarmac waiting for our party. She did not know that I was with the party. There was a smoking ceremony. 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 leave behind what they have heard and seen and instead 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 from somewhere. She asked my name. I said, “Gerry Georgatos”. We fell into an embrace. There shed tears. Mary said, “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. You can read the story here.
It is the listening that has not been happening. The business of shame and taboo, the silences around suicide, are exaggerated and belligerently sold to us. I have not met any mother, father, aunty, uncle, child who does not want to talk. But if they talk they do want to be heard, not dismissed, disregarded and forgotten.
I am a believer that there is no other way forward than a Royal Commission. Nothing that is happening should be paused, and every support in place must continue in addition that much more always needs to be done. But if the abominable suicide rates are to be significantly reduced from the catastrophic humanitarian crisis that we face then only a genuine national conversation has to be had, and only a Royal Commission can deliver this, enable this. It is often said that Royal Commissions are a waste of monies. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody is often referred to as a missed opportunity. But despite the failure to enable the majority of recommendations from its Final Report, it was nevertheless a shining of the light, a validation of the underlying issues, and a national discourse that has opened up the ways forward. Some of its recommendations have been enabled and lives are being saved. Yes, there is a very long way to go but the Royal Commission was a must-do. So too the Royal Commissions into vile sexual abuses in the Australian Defence Forces and in the Churches. These Commissions have validated people, have put to an end to rampant abuses in the Defence Forces and within the Churches, and are putting to an end the conspiracy of silences. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have every right to be heard about why they are losing their young people to suicide, to unnatural deaths. They must be listened to. A Royal Commission will finally ensure that the Australian nation will listen to them and through this alone much will change for the better. The lives that many of us have improved within our microcosms, in our on the ground experiences, the lives we have saved is because we listen. So too now the Australian nation must listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Despite the number of lives saved, there are a number of issues rarely examined that are flooding desperate people past us. Recently, I was in a big regional community where we buried three young people in five days, the youngest a 15-year-old-girl, and another was 17. Their graves in a row, an image burnt into my memory that will never leave me. I wailed on the inside that these young ones surrendered more than half-century of potential life years.
During the last several years, I willed away my academic research on the extensiveness of suicide and on suicide prevention into the public domain. Colleagues were aghast at what I was doing, blowing away the potential to build up an academic career, blowing away titles and the accolades, blowing away the opportunity for a profile of peer reviewed journal publications. But in reference to the common good I saw this as doing in momentum and going nowhere fast for the affected. We were not put on this earth to betray each other, to misspend our days. It matters what we do in the present, the future is defined by it. For real change, we needed a cultural shift; this is now beginning. We need to translate the pressing crisis into a national priority. So I contributed to the prospect of a cultural shift with publishing, relentlessly, in the public domain – more than 300 articles in three years and coupling this with campaigning, lobbying and project building. It was the right decision – though I have screwed up altogether my academic career potential, with others like-minded, we, as a growing band, have set something in motion. We need to keep the momentum going, and the next urgent step is the Royal Commission. Anyone who suggests that there is no need for a Royal Commission or genuine national inquiry is wrong. Without the Royal Commission we will fail to have the national conversation, fail to bring along the nation, fail to save lives.
People need people.
Declaration of impartiality conflict – Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention researcher with the Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights and a member of 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: