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 somehow being better.
I did go to school with a girl who suicided a few years ago and one of my very best friends has made several attempts to end his life. Thankfully his last attempt was several years ago. He has since been receiving support and has been on medication. We’ve been mates for over 10 years now, and we laugh at how we sit around talking about the anti-depression medication we are on and which meds are shit.
I currently am self employed and continue to work in up river suicide prevention, and have done so for over 5 years. I am the founder of Black Rainbow Living Well for Indigenous LGBQTI Suicide Prevention[i]. A few years back I was the single Aboriginal WA Suicide Prevention Co-ordinator for the state. I was and still am based in the Kimberley. This meant that in that role, my work covered the entire region. I held consultations with one community at a time – this took almost a year. Mind you, the Kimberley is twice the size of Victoria and I was once stranded in a community when a cyclone came through and the road was too dangerous to drive – days later I was able to get home. And there was this other time when one of the communities ran out of diesel, so I spent an extra night on the road. Over the course of these years in this role I’ve heard many harrowing stories from many Aboriginal people, as well as in my other role as an Aboriginal Mental Health First Aid facilitator – which is, I believe, still the only culturally validated (and this is important) mental health workshop in Australia.
One particularly story that still sticks in my mind and weighs heavily on my heart – a well 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?’.
My colleague and I at the time were floored. We had no answer and so we said as much. See, you can’t lie and bullshit in this sector. People’s lives depend on the truth.
It is purposeful that I write about my depression and anxiety and experience with suicide. I doubt there is an Indigenous Australian without an experience of suicide, or who has not been affected by suicide; particularly the suicide of one of our people. This experience is what is referred to as ‘lived experience’. I loathe much of the usage of the concept of ‘lived experience’.
Suicide Prevention Australia defines ‘lived experience’ as ‘having experienced suicidal thoughts, survived a suicide attempt, cared for someone who has attempted suicide, been bereaved by suicide, or been touched by suicide in another way[ii].’ And they place quite a favourable emphasis on those with a ‘lived experience’.
The Suicide Prevention Australia website says, ‘we believe that there is wisdom gained by those who have been touched by suicide and that in order to prevent suicide we need to harness this wisdom.[iii]’
What I struggle with is then, why is it that Suicide Prevention Australia has no Indigenous Australians on its Board of Directors[iv]? Surely with such an emphasis and value on ‘lived experience’ – an Indigenous Australian would have a seat. Professor Tom Calma AO, or as I like to call him ‘Jedi Master’ is an ‘ambassador’, but that’s about it.
The 2011 census tells us that there were 713,600 Indigenous Australians counted. I can comfortably say that approximately 95%, or roughly 677,920 of Australian Indigenous people have an experience of suicide. I haven’t used the term ‘lived experience’ here purposefully. See for Indigenous Australians the experience of suicide, with the 95% of us affected, it’s not an ‘opt-in’ scenario. Many of our mob are born into families where grief from suicide already exists. Families may have two or three generations where deaths by suicide have occurred. Suicide is said to be the single biggest killer of Indigenous Australians. Suicide isn’t an ‘experience’, it’s part of our lives.
We are living the experience of suicide 24/7, 365 days a year.
So when we speak, we speak from the place of that experience.
It’s also probably worth noting that the National Coalition for Suicide Prevention, which has 33 organisations as members, does not have one that is an Indigenous organisation. The list is here[v].
I don’t want to sound like I am digging into Suicide Prevention Australian, I’m not. But as the ‘peak’ body for suicide prevention in Australia, quite frankly I struggle to see their purpose for us Indigenous Australians – the highest risk group to suicide, the highest group in which suicides occur and so collectively living this abominable ‘lived experience’. But the ‘lived experience’ is absent from the Suicide Prevention Board and from the National Coalition for Suicide Prevention. Work that out!
The reason in my last article I spoke of my depression and anxiety is because the stigma attached to suicide has become overwhelming in a number of ways, some surprising. What I have learned is that your Indigenous lived experience is not valued when it is too ‘lively’, deemed disruptive to the White lens, to their comfort politics even in how to deal with suicide prevention and our mental health.
Look, I am probably going to get into a bit of trouble for writing this piece. But you know what, here in Australia what we are facing is a humanitarian crisis. Indigenous Australians are dying by suicide in numbers that are practically insurmountable. So the truth needs to be said. Us Indigenous people speak of stories of survivorship. Because that is what we have done and continue to do. Survive.
@DameyonBonson (on TWTR)
– Declaration of impartiality conflict of interest: The author of this article, Dameyon Bonson, is the Founder of Black Rainbow Living Well [vii] (for Indigenous LGBTI Suicide Prevention) and a national committee advisor to the Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project (ATSISPEP).
[i] . Last year in February over 300 Australians donated over $25,000 via crowdfunding to get some runs on the board. I am very happy to say that a significant outcome of that, and lobbying here in Australia, I am heading to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues to lobby for a global discussion on Indigenous LGBQTI suicide.