Internalising grief is toxic, it is a silence that maims and kills. The silences around sexual abuse, violence, emotional and psychological abuse, the –isms – sexism, racism, classism, ageism, ableism, the silences aggressively slow down and can shut down trauma recovery, and for many who are screaming to be heard, the deaf ears not only destroy people into disordered lives but also significantly contribute to premature death, for many by their own hand.
In the last few years I have written more than 300 articles on the suicide crisis and on suicide prevention. In those same years I have supported hundreds of suicide affected-families and thousands of critically at-risk individuals. I have been at the coalface in understanding why one has suicidal thoughts, why people take their life.
In understanding the suicides that I have come across, working alongside many of the suicide affected families, I have found that poverty – whether absolute or relative – is the underlying narrative. Nearly 80 per cent of people who have suicided were affected by poverty. For Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders nearly 100 per cent of the suicides are underwritten by poverty. Nearly 90 per cent of suicides of culturally and language diverse migrants are underwritten by poverty.
With poverty, particularly with extreme poverty, negative aberrant behaviours are pronounced and there are many more multiple trauma victims, many dealt aggressive complex traumas.
I have identified sexual abuse in 15 per cent of the suicides. More than sixty per cent suffered serious emotional and psychological abuses. Many were relentlessly exposed to emotional and psychological abuses – they were in effect battered. Most of the abused individuals, particularly the sexually abused should still be with us today had they been heard, validated. Many of them told a family member or someone they trusted about their abuse but they were met with silence or worse. This psychosocial diminution led to a negative self, to a sudden smashing of the positive self and to a sense of unworthiness, to disordered thinking.
Interfamilial sexual abuse is an abominable suffering; the rapist in the family. The rest of the family shuns truth, cowers in silence and with toxic cruelty can hate the victim. The victim is damned and condemned, lost at sea.
I remember the suicide affected families and those lost who continue to echo in the hearts of those they have left behind. I remember a 36 year old father of eight who took his life. As a child he had been removed from his biological family, subsequently as child in care he had been sexually abused. In life his story fell on deaf ears. In death he is remembered as never being validated, never being heard in the ways he should have been.
More children than ever before are taking their lives. Poverty and sexual abuses intersect. Subsequently there are psychological and emotional abuses to compound trauma. Among child suicides I have found at least one quarter may have been sexually abused. The majority of the abused children, the sexual abuses were known to other family members but silence punished their young minds, dishevelling their thinking.
We need to listen, to validate. We need education to lead with the knowledge that at all times we need to be civil, courteous, kind to one another. We have to be there for one another – people need people.
We should tell the stories of those lost. Let us be fearless in this, for in the telling of their stories the imperatives of the ways forward will be reinforced.
I remember a father who found his son hours after his suicide. The father lay his son down and cradled his body through the night till responders arrived in the morning. I remember the distraught family of a young man who only a week before his suicide had run into a burning house and rescued a young mother and her baby. I remember attending the funerals of three young people in the one community – three burials in five days, three graves in a row. The youngest was a 15-year-old girl. I wailed on the inside as I stared at three graves. I remember a father of six children who took his life, a mother of five children who took her life, a pregnant mother who took her life. I remember a 9 year old child who took his life, a 10-year-old child who took her life, an 11-year-old boy who took his life, a 12-year-old girl who took her life.
Poverty alone does not make suicide more likely – it is the pronounced negative and aberrant behaviours of family members that affect other family members. How we treat one another one matters. But poverty underwrites an increase of negative and aberrant behaviours, and of the vile and abominable.
Three children together attempted to end their lives. Such was the despair they felt from a sense of hopelessness in an outback community where no one completes school, where they were sexually abused. Three children, aged six, eight and ten climbed a tree. Older children saw them and ran to them and held them up and saved their lives. The nation should weep at such ordeals, but these tragedies and the grim realities largely remain hidden.
Why do we not talk about suicide in the ways that we should? Why do we nutshell why suicide occurs, in reductionist ways rather than in exposing and understanding the horrors?
As a young child I remember the absorption of sadness by some of Sydney’s Greek community of the suicide by a newly-arrived young Greek male. Years later I would read some of his letters to the homeland, yearning to return after he made his quid in a country he believed found it hard to accept him. This is the tale of many newly-arrived migrants albeit to one of the world’s most culturally diverse nations. Racism has many veils and layers and misoxeny and xenophobia are toxic. Today, in my work with suicide affected families and my research, in my many journeys I find that there are more stresses today than yesterday, more unhappiness today than yesterday.
Today, migrant suicide is increasing but it is lost in translation, gets little mention. Nearly a third of the suicide toll is of Australians born overseas. Newly arrived migrants, particularly from culturally and language diverse backgrounds and intersected by poverty are an elevated risk group. Another elevated risk group are former refugees. One former refugee who spent six years detained took his life nine months after his release. He was 25 years old.
Identifying trauma and understanding the issues that despair individuals and collectively as families are imperative in tailor-making the education, the conversations and the support. We start with behavioural observations and proceed with the opportunity for the individual to tell their story.
What makes for unhappiness and happiness has to be understood – human beings are inherently courageous. People want to choose happiness but a muddle-minded society has been getting in the way. The factors that can culminate in suicide are the most preventable of the various destructive behaviours that impact on families and communities.
Understanding one another, understanding unfairness, helping one another, being there for one another are the most profound steps to suicide prevention. We have to spread the love and do this with a salt-of-the-earth approach. We must lead by example in making sense of the world, in supporting others to improve their life circumstances and to understand happiness.
There is a lot of work to be achieved in understanding the extensiveness of the suicide prevention space, one that really doesn’t exist, only on paper. Outreach is yet a reality, and it is one of the few real hopes but will we ever see it. There are all sorts of organisations claiming they save lives but they do not deal with the critically vulnerable. They deal with the vulnerable.
More than 80 per cent of suicides are of people who had never previously attempted suicide, who had never been known to anyone to be suicidal.
We need education campaigns, of the need to be kind to each other, in understanding our kindred spirits, in loving one another, in spreading the love and with a salt-of-the-earth approach, in listening to those who have a story to tell, a story that otherwise may drag them down if it remains unheard, if it is not validated. This starts with family members, community members supporting their own, and not damning or disowning them.
Then there are the researchers, academics and specialist service providers who have to stop lying about their stated expertise and their ever changing works, but that is never going to happen. However it needs to be stated because they’re killing people.
There is a quite a bit of ground to travel in order to unveil the various ways forward. The suicide prevention space is an empire of lies, exploited by carpetbaggers and snake oil merchants. To protect the space we need to explore the space, every bit of it.
The suicide prevention space is an inauthentic one polluted with far too many with little idea of what they are doing and who are overinvolved or who dangerously leading sections or layers of this life and death space.
Many have jumped into the space out of well-meaning or from tragic lived experiences to in at least be the shoulder that those with suicide related trauma can rest on. Despite the solace that some provide many fuel anger, displace anger, perpetuate and escalate trauma.
Then there are the specialist practitioners – some who consider themselves suicidologists – who argue their particular prevention, intervention or postvention program, therapy, counselling. They have a one size fits all when in fact the issues and traumas culminating in suicide are various, different, multifactorial (even if many are intertwining).
Among the scoundrels are researchers, many driven by profit motives – funding – accolades. But the majority are surface level researchers who are doggedly limited to the generalised instead of serious disaggregation. I have experienced them close up. They are a disgrace. Serious disaggregation means more than pure demographics but to various contexts and therefore to the elevated risk groups.
Far too many have set up in the suicide prevention space prematurely, without skills, experience, expertise. They are about the quid, but at what price do they scratch out this quid? They are killing people.
The suicide prevention needs many more people and interconnectivity, and the space does need the mavericks who will crash through the corrals of ignorance but what this life and death space does not need is snake oil merchants and carpetbaggers.
Many are speaking out as experts but without ever having studied or experienced in person the various traumas leading to suicide and of understandings of the anguish of the suicide affected families. Some have soaked up a little knowledge and are running wild as workshop facilitators in prevention, intervention and postvention. They hotchpotch together programs which they use to extract a pricey quid to deliver. Many are highly titled up, the educated classes deliriously scrummaging public and private sector funding. They are killing people.
Without serious disaggregation we make invisible the elevated risk groups, the critically vulnerable. We leave them behind.
Suicide prevention organisations spend the majority of their efforts on shallow reports and on selling themselves as saving lives but they should hang their heads in shame. They give themselves awards, accolades, but the suicide toll is increasing.
There is a humanitarian crisis in this nation – a catastrophic crisis where one in 17 Aboriginal deaths is a suicide. It’s a harrowing statistic but in fact it’s even higher. In my estimations, because of under-reporting issues, it’s one in ten deaths by suicide. Nearly 100 per cent of the suicides are from within the 40 per cent of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders who live below the poverty line. The suicide toll of Aboriginal people living above the poverty line is negligible, much less than that of other Australians living above the poverty line. The contributing factors, the triggers and tipping points are many and underwritten by poverty, disadvantage and marginalisation the likes that should make no sense in a nation of relative affluence. But they are not limited to socioeconomic factors alone. From within the cesspool of this situational trauma, this narrative of victimhood, there has manifest a constancy of traumas – multiple, composite, aggressive complex traumas.
There are Black carpetbaggers and snake oil merchants. This tirade of criticism by me is not limited to White carpetbaggers. In the desperation for a quid, for relevance, everyone under the sun claims expertise. There are those who are in effect killing their own people.
Nothing repulses me more than the fraud perpetuated in life and death spaces.
I do not forget services failing an individual every time he presented to them, often screaming for help. I spent two and half hours talking to him, while he had a noose around his neck.
I do not forget a 13 year old girl who took her life, who presented eleven times to health personnel over a year threatening suicide, who had attempted suicide several times, only to be assessed hours later after each presentation as “no further risk”.
We need more than just generalised counselling and “how are you?” and “stay strong” talking. We need more than resilience selling. Resilience is part of generalised counselling, where we beg the critically vulnerable to adjust their behaviours – but how far and for how long without hope on the horizon?
Suicidal behaviour is often the culmination of a set of experiences, events and of an underlay of feelings – how one feels about themselves contextually in the light of experiences and events. Self-destructive and suicidal behaviours can increase in a community that experiences trauma collectively – sharing around the trauma and the sense of hopelessness.
Suicide prevention is about the positive self, esteem, happiness. It is made possible by being listened to, validated, by support, by a dawn of new meanings and love. Contexts and understandings can be changed from the depressing, muddle-minded and bleak to the hopeful, reasonable-minded and bright.
Listen to your family members’ stories, to their traumatic experience, to what’s troubling them. Listen to their story so it does not eventually drag them down. Listen and learn and love. The traumatic event(s) will then be packed away, a scar, and they freed up to fill their lives with positive experiences. Silence is not an option.