18 years young, Phillinka died on October 18 last year. At the time, at her anguished mother’s request I wrote of the loss of Phillinka and of so many others in the Kimberley. I am once again in the Kimberley – surrounded by the most pristine nature and by the loss of so many young lives. For the First Peoples of the Kimberley – for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders – the Kimberley has among the world’s highest self-harm and suicide rates.
While in the Kimberley, I am writing this for Phillinka, for her mother Lena, for all those whom she left behind, who are at a loss, and for those since Phillinka who have been lost to suicide.
If you are an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander in this nation and aged 15 to 35 years, one in three deaths in this age group will be registered as a suicide. It is this age group’s leading cause of death. This is an abomination, moral and otherwise, an obvious indictment of our governments.
This tragic statistic should galvanise the nation – our governments – into comprehensive responses.
Suicide is a humanitarian crisis among Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples however ever so little is being done by one government after another. In many ways our governments are making it worse, on the one hand effectively neglecting this tragedy while they wax lyrical about how much they care and on the other hand they have all the wrong people and policies piecemeal responding to this tragedy but going backwards. This tragedy is indeed an indictment of our governments and of the national consciousness.
Professor Tom Calma said, “In the mid-1980s 99 Aboriginal deaths in custody prompted a Royal Commission and the current tragedy of Indigenous suicides should prompt similar attention. While some attention is being paid by governments more needs to be done to address the determinants that contribute to the psychological stressors that afflict Indigenous society.”
On average over 130 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people ended their lives each year in the last five years. This is 30 per cent more suicides than in the ten years preceding. One in 19 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander deaths is accounted for by suicide. But because of under-reporting issues we know that the rate is much higher. I estimate that it is between one in 10 to one in 12 suicides.
What will it take for our governments and the nation to prioritise this pressing tragedy?
How many young people such as Phillinka must be lost before this nation is disturbed into action? As I write this article, at the forefront are the facts that Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people of the Kimberley and far north Queensland have the nation’s highest suicide rates – over 70 suicides per 100,000 population – seven times the Australian overall national trend, with some parts of these regions with suicide rates up to 20 times. In the last five years in the Kimberley there have been registered as many suicides as were registered in the preceding ten years.
While in the Kimberley I have been meeting with community leaders and suicide affected families and have been heartbroken by their stories. They describe no support or standby whatsoever despite the tragedy of losing a loved one. I do realise that many services are themselves at a loss as to what to do because they are overstretched and underfunded.
It was yesterday that I sat on a rocky patch here in the Kimberley and cried after hearing a couple of mothers’ stories. It is not really like me to cry but this morning I cried again. I will tell you more.
I write again of Phillinka who died last year, October 18. There are no words for her loss. Phillinka was resilient, she was enthusiastic and she was from a large family – with a father and mother who loved her dearly. She had completed boarding school in Melbourne, at Wesley, through Yirimalay.
Her mother Lena Andrews said, “There was no-one there for us but our family, ourselves. There were no standby services, there was no-one to guide us through our grief.”
“Once again it was just families supporting families but all our families are broken by suicide, by our children jailed. We are a broken people. It cannot be this way but it is. I have lost my beautiful daughter and the pain does not go away.”
“This year I have lost my mother and my sister, more pain and no-one there for us.”
“I have considered suicide but my children keep me going.”
“I have had you listening and to call.”
The federal government should be rushing to prioritise this crisis above all else, a crisis that is shaming this nation. If this crisis is not abated, this maddening crisis is the starkest portrayal of a racist nation. There are no excuses to hide behind, no justifications, other than heartlessness.
During the last couple of years, The National Indigenous Times, The National Indigenous Radio Service (I no longer work for either of these outlets) and the online independent news site, The Stringer have led the way in sustaining the coverage on the suicide crises that most media did not utter a word about. In the last year, there has been significant coverage, particularly in The Australian newspaper, led by journalists, Paige Taylor, Andrew Burrell and Natasha Robinson, and also in the ABC, led particularly by the 7:30 Report’s Bronwyn Herbert.
Three years ago, through the National Indigenous Times I brought to the nation’s attention that the suicide rate among Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders is likely as high as one in 12 of all deaths, a horrific suicide rate. How could this be possible in the world’s 12th largest economy, in one of the world’s wealthiest nations? But Walmajarri and Bunaba Kimberley mother, Lena Andrews, can tell you why.
“Racism,” stated Ms Andrews.
“Our people are smashed by it, hurt by it, tortured by it. This is a nation of two peoples. The First Peoples and the Australian peoples and unless First Peoples do as they’re told then they are punished by every means imaginable.”
Ms Andrews lost her 18 year old daughter, Phillinka Powdrill, to suicide. Phillinka was buried in her hometown of Fitzroy Crossing. But Philinka was not someone without capacity, without bright hope for the future. Philinka had just graduated from a Melbourne boarding school.
“Our people need ‘resilience’ to cope with the racism that hurts this nation. We need resilience to deal with how we are looked at, viewed, treated, and not just by governments who are in the end responsible for the lot that is racism, but also we need inexhaustible resilience in our daily ordeals with ordinary people who have soaked up the prejudices of one generation after another.”
“We did not expect to lose Philinka. But we did. We did not expect to bury our child. Our hearts are breaking, and we do not know who to turn to. We do not know what to do.”
“One minute she is here, next minute she is gone. Our people can only cope with so much and for only so long.
“Our people are under attack every day. Governments just do not stop. It is one attack on us after another. They want to shut down our communities. They want to move us around, off our lands. They want to manage us, to do this and that to us. How much can we take, how much can we deal with, how much focus on the colour of our skin or on our identity can we deal with and stay resilient? It takes a toll on us to be made to feel different, to be made unequal and to be treated like we are shit.”
“Governments need to understand, that assimilation will kill many of our people, as it is doing every day all around us, and where it literally doesn’t kill our people, it will crush our people, as it is doing.”
“Our people are homeless, they are turned away, they fill the prisons, and they are battered and bruised. Their only hope in this terribly racist nation is to turn away from one’s own, and turn on each other, and get in bed with effectively the racists, whether they are governments or whomever.”
“We are dying.”
Ms Andrews, a former radio broadcaster in the Kimberley, has a 23 year old son in a Perth prison who I will be visiting next week. She worries whether her son will make it out alive. However, it is ten times more likely that he may lose his life in the first year post-release. Prison is a harsh punitive experience where in general people come out worse than they went in.
A damning statistic is that no less than one in ten and more likely closer to one in six of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders living today have been to prison. One in six! This too is an abomination, moral and otherwise. It is racialised imprisonment. It is racism.
Phillinka was born in October 1996, but just a little over 18 years later she would take her life. Five weeks passed between Philinka’s death and her burial. The family fought for her brother to be released for the day of the funeral of his sister but Corrective Services knocked this back.
“It broke our hearts, the decision to not let my son attend his sister’s funeral has devastated us, compounded more anguish.”
“He has been a victim of sexual abuse in prison, we are worried for him, we are now more worried than ever before.”
“It is bullshit, just bullshit.”
“How much can our people endure?”
“On top of this, the Coroner’s office did not return my daughter’s clothing which we did want returned. They destroyed it. They claimed it was contaminated. That’s just more bullshit.”
“My beautiful daughter is gone. We did everything that we could. Her graduation day at Wesley College (Melbourne) feels like yesterday.”
The National Indigenous Times allowed me to use my foray into journalism to highlight the suicide crises rife among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Indeed, this newspaper allowed for advocacy journalism, for sustained coverage and has knocked up a long overdue national conversation. As a result of this coverage and my personal lobbying behind the scenes with one government after another, I formally met with the Federal Government, in particular with the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion, who has listened and has in turn funded the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project led by Indigenous Mental Health Commissioner Professor Pat Dudgeon and which includes myself as a researcher and community consultant, among other very good people. We are working, at speed, to not only identify the ways forward, as we already know much of what is needed, but also to see the ways forward at long last enabled.
But this is not enough. We need a multi-partisan Government approach to not only respond to the suicide crisis but to everything that underwrites it – the racism, the bent for assimilation, the cheating of peoples of their right to Country and of the right to various dues from their Country. I have now travelled back and forth from Western Australia to Canberra several times in the last couple of months to meet with Ministers, to meet in particular with Senator Scullion and Senator Nova Peris, because in the end it is only they who can make the real difference. The sustained coverage by The National Indigenous Times, The Stringer and now by the general media must be matched by the right responses by our parliamentarians.
On the morning of April 16, 2014, after a 21 day vigil I left my father’s death bed for several hours to meet with Senator Nigel Scullion at the Commonwealth Offices in Bligh St., Sydney. Our meeting was about the suicides crises and of the ways forward. My father had urged me to not delay the meeting despite the risk that I would not be by his side during his last moments on this earth – something that would have torn me apart. After that meeting effectively the ATSISPEP was established and a step in the right direction taken. However it is one step. Two days later my father passed away.
Last year Professor Pat Dudgeon called for a “national inquiry into the suicide crisis of our people” coupling Professor Tom Calma’s suggestion for a Royal Commission. There should be a Royal Commission due to inaction and because of the reductionist strategies and policies and penny-pinching. We know what the issues are but the nation has to hear them and we know the solutions. The solutions are not in ‘ambassadors’ and ‘one day workshops’.
Governments will fail in many of their objectives but the one objective that they should prioritise above all others, and the one objective they must not fail in delivering, is in reducing the loss of life to suicide. There is no greater legacy that any parliamentarian can have than in having saved lives.
The First Peoples of the Kimberley, far north Queensland and of the Northern Territory have among the world’s highest suicide rates, and unless the governments as a whole step up I can state without any reservation that this catastrophic crisis is only going to get worse.
The Australian Senate will soon hear the call for a Royal Commission, for a legitimate national inquiry, will soon hear about the genuine ways forward and what they hear must not go in one ear and out the other.
Yesterday, I cried not only for Phillinka, not only for the Sturt and Carter families who in January were traumatised by inactions by service responders when their loved one was lost to suicide in Wunga, 90 kilometres from Halls Creek, not only for 11 year old Peter Little who took his life late last year and his mother the same only weeks ago but for everyone needlessly lost and all the while our governments are unresponsive.
– Phillinka’s father, Daniel Powdrill, “You used to come to me with a smile… I can’t find the strength to accept that you are really gone. I cry myself to sleep just thinking about you. You have left a big hole in my heart and there is no one that can ever cover that.”
– Phillinka’s mother, Lena Andrews, “When I first held you, I knew you were mine to keep, to love and to hold forever… You left a huge hole in my heart that no one can cover, no one else can replace you my daughter.”
– Declaration of impartiality conflict: The author of this article, Gerry Georgatos, is a suicide prevention researcher with various national and other projects and is also a community consultant with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project (ATSISPEP).
It is only at the request of Philinka’s mother’s that we have published the photo of Phillinka and used her name. Phillinka’s mother, Lena, is urging for much to change for all her people, and that her daughter’s passing brings on the journey to the changes that would have made a difference to Phillinka and the many others who we should not have lost.
Lifeline’s 24-hour hotline, 13 11 14
Crisis Support and Suicide Prevention Beyond Blue – 1300 22 4636
Other articles and media on the suicide crisis and suicide prevention by Gerry Georgatos:
CAAMA Radio – Gerry Georgatos Speaks out on Aboriginal Suicide.