“Please return our son because my wife cannot go on without him, she will suicide, please return our son,” wrote a Noongar father and husband to the Western Australian Government’s Chief Protector in 1905.
The fundamental issues which underpin suicide rates nationally vary from cultural group to cultural group, geopolitically and demographically. The fundamentals that underpin suicide rates of some First Peoples communities are vastly different to those of non-Aboriginal communities. The Western Australian Government’s recent statements that 100 to 150 remote Aboriginal communities should be closed makes it clear that lessons from the past have not been learned. Indeed to this day, far too many within our parliaments act as if remote living First Peoples are inferior and should be assimilated. Once again they make ones identity a liability. Governments continue to abominably fail to heed the lessons from the Stolen Generations eugenics, with the impacts including psychosocial devastation. They carried on at the time that they were doing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a favour – by trying to breed out the ‘Black’ from those with Aboriginal blood and non-Aboriginal blood and then to segregate into extinction the ‘Black’. This was what the Stolen Generations was about, but it was sold by White Australia that it was about the best interests of First Peoples when in fact it was about White Australia and their racist eye. In 2014, the agendas are still about White Australia, not about Black Australia. The closing of remote communities are being sold as about positively assimilating remote living peoples into larger regional towns but as with the Stolen Generations there will be the horrific legacy of immediate and longstanding impacts and suffering. At the time of the Bringing Them Home Report, 1997, half of First People in prisons were Stolen Generations victims. The Stolen Generations did not make life any better in Western material terms for the abducted children, there was no increase in university qualifications and high office for removed children as opposed to children brought up by their natural families. The negative impacts have been horrific – with horrific rates of arrest and imprisonment rates of Stolen Generations victims and of their children. The negative impacts include psychosocial breakdown and horrific suicide rates.
In recent weeks, the mainstream press has highlighted the national shame of Aboriginal child suicides, which are tragically disproportionate to the rest of Australia’s population of children. The child suicide tragedy has been known for a long while but Governments, State and Commonwealth, have failed to adequately respond to these suicides and to the subsequent community distress. Why? Governments have failed to set up alert systems that make known immediately suicides and the community distress to Governments and to their myriad service providers. This is vital information if there is to be an immediate response possibly preventing the contagion effect and importantly to minimise community distress, to heal and harmonise community. Communities need to be well supported and well-resourced if they are to respond on a 24/7 basis.
Far too many families report that following the suicide of a loved one, they have received no counselling or any other support. People need people.
The loss of an eleven year old to suicide is tragic and tears through family, washes through extended family and ripples through community. It is only weeks since this child was laid to rest in Yamatji earth but now another child will soon be laid to rest in a country town in Western Australia’s south west. The loss of a 14 year old child has impacted on this country town. In recent years there has been an increase in suicides among First Peoples in Western Australia’s south west. Yet the south west of Western Australian is affluent, with its country towns at most only hundreds of kilometres from Perth. So why does the south west have a high rate of youth suicides not dissimilar to some of the remote community regions that have been portrayed as isolated and barren? This is an important question, because it demonstrates that the reasons for high suicide rates among First Peoples are about the liabilities that their identity has been wrapped up in by the intolerant and racist normative of the western cultural setting.
In September, I spent nearly two weeks in the Kimberley, and during the fortnight, there were two tragedies of young people – two suicides – one of a 13 year old, the other of a 20 year old. A couple of months earlier there was the tragic loss of an 18 year old in a Pilbara town. These are but few of the tragedies. The tragedy continues on after the passing of a loved one. The familial and community distress languishes. Two days before the New Year, in a southern Perth suburb, there was the tragic passing of a teenager but to this day the family is undergoing counselling and similarly so some of the local community.
How extensive is the child suicide crisis in Western Australia? Why are First Peoples in the nation’s wealthiest State, the mining boom State, suffering the highest suicide rates, the highest homelessness rates, the highest arrest rates, the highest imprisonment rates, and to the most extensive chronic poverty in the nation?
A century ago, suicide was a rare occurrence among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In this fact rest the premises to the ways forward. From within the reasons for this this we can identify where and what needs to be done to reduce the suicides and self-harms. The Stolen Generations had a soul destroying impact on families, on mothers and fathers. The stealing of their children, hurting the very essence of their existences, their purpose and meaning in the world. Oppression, segregation, impoverishment and racism have traumatised First Peoples but the taking of their children catapulted fathers and mothers into the darkest pains and the children into the loss of self and identity. The loss of family whether of a child or of a parent, is a risk factor to mental ill-health and suicidal ideation but this has not generally been singularly identified as a major cause to the spiralling suicide rate. The Stolen Generations did more to erode the identity and the sense of self of First Peoples than did all the apartheid, racism preceding. Even when people were shunted off their Country, had their Country stolen, had abuses smashed upon them, had racism flung at them and all around them, at least their family units had been left alone, that is till the Stolen Generations. The legacy of the Stolen Generations trauma does not end with the victims alone, but is passed on to their children. In each year since the Bringing Them Home Report, 1997, there has been an increase in the number of children removed from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families.
There are 14,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children currently removed from their families. There are also nearly 8,500 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults in prison. There are tens of thousands more that come before the Department of Child Protection and the criminal justice system. If we tally up the number of children who have been removed from their families since 1997, tally up the number of First Peoples that have been imprisoned or come before the criminal justice systems since 1997, tally up the number who are homeless, we have more than 200,000 affected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. That is one third of the total Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. This translates to an affective reach to the majority of all families of First People on this continent. If there are 14,000 children removed today and 8,500 adults in jails today, that is 22,500 removed and jailed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders – today. By the most conservative estimation, that would translate to 15,000 affected families which extrapolates to thereabouts some 70,000 affected family members, more than ten per cent of the whole Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. But in fact it is hundreds of thousands who are affected, indeed the majority of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. The damage done again and again by non-Aboriginal Australia, by its assimilationist western settings and subsequent policies is incomprehensibly unbelievable. The way forward is for them to not only step back but to get out of the way and to leave the First Peoples alone.
The empowering of communities cannot be achieved by external factors, only by various internalisations which in turn will naturally incur protective factors. If we stand in the way of their empowerment, leadership and healing then the crisis will escalate. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population comprises less than 3 per cent of the total national population but Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children comprise nearly 6 per cent of Australia’s children and therefore in line with this trend, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will comprise 6 per cent of the Australian population. Unless we abate the suicide crisis then the overall national suicide trend will rise.
The majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides occur before the age of 35 years and this has a detrimental psychological impact on families and leads to community distress. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the most vulnerable age-specific category are the 25 to 29 year old Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males – 91 suicides per 100,000, nine times the overall national rate of 11 suicides per 100,000.
Nationally, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males aged 15 to 19 years have a suicide rate of 44 per 100,000 compared to non-Aboriginal males 15 to 19 years of 19 per 100,000.
20 to 24 year old Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males have a suicide rate of 75 per 100,000 compared to non-Aboriginal 20 to 24 year olds, 22 per 100,000.
25 to 29 year old Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males have a suicide rate of 91 per 100,000, compared to non-Aboriginal 25 to 29 year olds, 18 per 100,000.
30 to 34 year old Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males have a suicide rate of 60 per 100,000 compared to non-Aboriginal 30 to 34 year olds, 15 per 100,000.
Importantly, if we disagreggate further region by region we will find that in some regions some of these age-specific categories will have suicide rates more than 100 per 100,000 and more than 200 per 100,000. There have been spates of suicide in some communities in recent years which when this tragedy occurs, in terms of suicide rates the spate can translate to 1000 to 2000 deaths per 100,000 for the period of the spate. Several years ago, one spate of suicides in a part of the Kimberley reached 182 times the national suicide rate.
Western Australia has a high child suicide rate. From 2007 to 2011, there were 36 reported suicides of 13 to 17 year olds alone. 13 or 36 per cent of these 13 to 17 year old suicides were Aboriginal but in Western Australia Aboriginal children make up 6 per cent of all children aged 13 to 17.
Broader statistical analysis also clearly reflects the crisis – with Aboriginal and Torres Strait youth, aged 15 to 24 years enduring a suicide rate of 42 per 100,000 compared to 8 per 100,000 of non-Aboriginal 15 to 24 year olds.
It is important to note that all but one of the Aboriginal children in this group were attending school prior their suicide. There are myriad psychosocial factors at play, predominately the attacks, historical and contemporary, on identity and culture and therefore which deny empowerment. Other factors, predominately impoverishment, assimilation and racism, are intertwined.
Suicide rates are much higher for 15 to 24 year old Aboriginal youth living in the remote and regions. But if we disaggregate the statistics to community by community we will find that the majority of the remote communities do not have disproportionately high suicide rates or any record of suicide at all. The majority of communities are harmonious and rich in the best of their social fabric, while even the most affected communities are majorly functional and healthy in their communal understandings and identity. Empowerment is about bringing people together in communities to help those who are vulnerable. But closing down communities such as has occurred in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, relocating the residents has only displaced the social ills and compounded problems in the larger relocated towns. It has also given rise to a contagion effect of social ills in these larger centres. The majority of remote communities are not disproportionately affected by suicides and community distress. We have to focus only on the communities that are.
There is a rise in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander female suicides, with the highest rate in the 20 to 24 age group – 22 suicides per 100,000, five times that for their non-Aboriginal counterpar.
Some of us are working to identify an alert system, an immediate notification service of all suicides and of any substantial community distress so as to be able to ensure Aboriginal owned services and conduits are able to respond to familial and community distress – and to ensure that these services and conduits have every available resource and funding. Some of us are being notified of the suicides and of attempted suicides and of community distress but we have to ensure this a systemic process where Aboriginal controlled services and Government agencies are notified. Governments should not be relying on old data, usually with two and three year lags; this is not just disturbing, it is disastrou
The solutions are certainly not complex. It is all about the will to underwrite the solutions. We have to drop the assimilationist bent, we have to drop failed policies, we have to stop getting in the way of people who have every right to manage their own communities, their own way through the world. The ideal synergy cries out only for material support and funding regimes, not for any confrontation of cultures. We are heading to a national tragedy much worse than that of today, and which will make much more pronounced the problems and tragedy of today, making more complex the problems we should have addressed here in the present.
– Declaration of conflict of interest – the author of this article, Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention researcher and a senior national consultant to the ATSISPEP (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project)