A few years ago, the small Kimberley community of Mowanjum endured a spate of suicides.
“All around this community (Mowanjum) there is so much progress, production, affluence. What is this progress, this production, this affluence stealing from our people?” Kabi Kabi Elder Yavu-Kama-Harathunian said.
“To read about this painful crisis, to recognise the layers of disconnection, the internal anguish, community sorrow, pain, trauma, suffering is like a microcosm of the inherent legacy of pain, torment, and suffering that our people are immersed in. This is a culturally collective crisis and it impacts upon all of us who say we are First Nations peoples. To think that this tiny little community possibly has the highest rates of suicide not just in Australia but in the world is insanity.”
“We are now picking up the pieces of our loved ones. How many suicides, how many more deaths will it take to open our eyes, and open our ears, to the silent screaming that is coming from the hearts and souls of those who are gone and of those who grieve and keep screaming for help?”
Since the Federal Government’s Emergency Response (Military Intervention) in the Northern Territory, suicides have been five-fold.
Healing is a major step in the intervention of trauma, however as a society legislatively we need to move to prevention, in that we reduce, preferably eliminate, hard traumas from the social conditions imposed on many folk by the State, for instance indeed with the Emergency Response Actions in the Northern Territory – I have come to the considered understanding that the majority of Aboriginal folk in the Northern Territory are in a prison like custodial jurisdiction and hence the subsequent trauma, causal, situational, inter-generational, compounded daily by their discrimination, exploitation (be it inadvertent; however authority is hierarchical and its presence is exploitative in terms of the relations of power), and hence the stripping, the erosion, the diminution of peoples’ identities; historical, cultural, contemporary and as human beings – there is the impost of inequality.
The Northern Territory Intervention and Stronger Futures are custodial predicaments and hence the premise to the arguments by many that they are racist occurrences. Statistics indicate that everything since the Military Emergency Response in the Northern Territory have got worse and not better, and similarly with those in the acute localised custodial predicaments of juvenile and adult prisons and immigration detention – people upon release from the custody of the State leave worse compared to when they went in.
Not just one, however twelve Northern Territory Elders, twelve out of twelve, said to me that the Intervention is a prison, and that they do not just live in prison-like conditions however in an actual prison, in that they see the warden, the guards, and in that they can see the walls, the bars, and the heavy metal doors. One said that when he sees his community’s youth drift, their aimless roam, the suffering from the despair of inebriation, when they scream back at the State and for those that sometimes displace anger on their own folk, when they see them die young in the confrontational personal witness of community or in the isolation of various custody such as a police or prison cell that it is no different to being in a built prison, in a locked cell, during lock-down which is generally twelve hours a day, and hearing fellow inmates crying out from other cells, in various meltdown, and then the next morning a guard finding one of the prisoners dead – similarly with the brutality of the Northern Territory Intervention, youth is found dead or in the abyss of despair and there is little that can be done for them because the brutality to the human identity, in stripping people of their right to be equal among everyone, in the forbidding of Aboriginal advancement by Aboriginal peoples, is a horrific contemporary brutality. The trauma of the Intervention shall eventually be much studied, sadly and patronisingly so, by the ensuing generation of academics and it will be found equivalent in trauma and damage to the Stolen Generations, and the Stolen Wages tragedies, to the Apartheid that many Aboriginal peoples lived in this country more than one and a half centuries.
An Elder said to me, “We are not boss of our people, we are not boss of us, our ways are looked down upon and young people and rich people come in here and tell us we are nothing, we are no good and that they know better.”
Another Elder said, “They tell us all these things that have happened in our town that we never saw happen not till they came and told us so. There were not these bad things they said but now there are. Our people are getting sick because of them and our young don’t care anymore. They have come here and caused so much trouble.”
And another Elder said, “They keep us poor for so long, no electricity, no nothing, houses they would not live in, they always refused us funding for anything we applied for and now they come here to show us like we are children how to do what they never gave us a chance to do.”
And another Elder said, “They are killing our children, look at our suicides, the numbers make the heart cry, can they not see what they have done? They are not doing any good just bad.”
And another Elder said, “They want our land, and they take it, they move our people to prisons inside prisons. All the Northern Territory is a prison, and the towns prison in prison.”
The tragedy is endemic throughout Australia – A couple of years ago, a Northern Territory Select Committee on Youth Suicides tabled its report into youth suicide and found the obvious; that there are significantly higher rates of Aboriginal suicides when compared to the national average.
Between 2001 and 2006, the Northern Territory suicide rate for those aged 15 to 24 was 3.5 times the rest of the nation. The report highlighted the young ages at which Aboriginal youth were committing suicide – and the rise of young Aboriginal women suiciding.
“The suicide rate for Indigenous Territorians is particularly disturbing, with 75 per cent of suicides of children from 2007 to 2011 in the Territory being Aboriginal,” stated the report.
“For too many of our youth there is not enough hope to protect them from the impulse to end their lives.”
The suicide rate doubled for youth between ages 10 and 17 – up from 18.8 per cent to 30.1 per cent per 100,000 – in contrast to non-Aboriginal youth suicides which dropped from 4.1 per cent to 2.6 per cent.
Mowanjum’s Community Director Eddie Bear said every loss is felt right throughout the community. “Everybody feels hurt, we all go through it.”
He worries so much about Mowanjum’s youth that when his young grandson goes bush he’ll follow him.
“When he takes off into the scrub, I will follow him and have a talk with him, sit with him there and talk.”
“You got to live life. You are only a young bloke.”
Last year, the United Nations ranked Australia second behind Norway in its annual Human Development Index – for public health, social wealth, education, even happiness. But if Aboriginal peoples go stand-alone they would not be part of that 2nd rating – they would be 122nd.
The United Nations Human Development Index is a measure of the quality of life across 187 nations.
First Peoples in various parts of Australia continue to languish in third-world conditions despite Australia powering on as the world’s twelfth largest economy.
Australia has the lowest suicide rate of the world’s top ten nations but Aboriginal peoples have the world’s highest youth suicide rates.
Nothing has improved since the 2011 United Nations State of the Indigenous Peoples report, “In Australia, an Indigenous child can expect to die 20 years earlier than his non-native compatriot.”
Perth’s Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation CEO, Robert Eggington says Aboriginal communities grieve in an ongoing manner for the loss of their youth. “We hear of a death almost fortnightly,” said Mr Eggington.
Only dead people come into the dreams of South Australian Elder Tauto Sansbury. He dreams of the deceased, of young lives lost. Mr Sansbury has dedicated his life to helping troubled Aboriginal youth, to reduce the rate of suicides.
“Death is our life,” said Mr Sansbury, describing the state of the Aboriginal landscape Australia-wide, of mourning and sadness for young lives lost.
Mr Sansbury works pro bono through the South Australian community organisation, Garridja, – a Nurrunga word which means “to rise”. Garridja works to address all areas of Aboriginal disadvantage.
Mr Sansbury said Aboriginal suicide is a national problem, reaching horrific proportions, and that it continues to be neglected by all governments. He said that between 2001 to 2011 there had been 77 Aboriginal suicides in South Australia alone. “I am working with an Aboriginal doctor and a non-Aboriginal doctor in investigating these deaths, as we are working towards collated reports. These deaths have received little attention and this makes no sense, this is an epidemic. Between 1980 to 1989 there were 99 Aboriginal deaths in custody nationally and these deaths led to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Here we have 77 deaths in South Australia alone in a similar time frame and no-one is responding.”
At the beginning of 2012, Mr Sansbury called for a 24/7 Aboriginal crisis centre in Adelaide following eight deaths of young Aboriginal people in and around Adelaide in the first 13 days of the year.
“It’s now more than two years later, and the State and Federal Governments have not responded. Indeed funding promises have been broken and our youth continue to languish with nowhere to go.”
He said that an Aboriginal crisis centre, Aboriginal controlled and serviced is vital.
For Aboriginal children younger than 15 years, during a 12 year period – 1994 to 2006 – the suicide rate was seven times higher than for non-Aboriginal children. Therefore minimalist suicide prevention strategies have failed. Alcohol and drug abuse are factors but they are not drivers, other factors underlie the use of alcohol and drugs, and therefore for a radical reduction to drug and alcohol use and in reducing suicides we have to address the factors that lead to the use of alcohol and drugs and other aimlessness and self-destruction. As long as we continue to deny that ethnicity and connectedness with historical and cultural identity do not matter then we will continue with suicide rates that are among the worst in the world’s worst.
Whose child will be the next to die?
Mr Eggington said that there are “children as young as 11, 12 and 13 who are taking their lives.”
“These tragedies are indictments against a country that is incredibly affluent, that is wealthy.
He said Government driven Aboriginal mental health services need to be overhauled. “We want to be able to heal our own people and to set up initiatives that can help deter this epidemic.”
“Aboriginal people just are not accessing the mainstream services so we want to hopefully reach a point where we can provide those services instead.”
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), there were 996 suicides from 2001 to 2010, across Australia of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders peoples. My own research estimates that the 996 suicides recorded between 2001 to 2010 are an under reporting of the actual numbers, and instead of 1 in 24 deaths by suicide, I have estimated that the rate of suicide was between 1 in 12 to 1 in 16. My research compilations during the last three years of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides are at nearly 400, no less than 380. Where there had been an average 99 deaths by suicide from 2001 to 2010, according to my research the annual average for 2011 to 2013 has tragically increased to approximately 130 suicides per year.
For every suicide there are hundreds of attempted suicides – with the ABS reporting collated hospital data that validate the extent of suicides moving beyond ideation. Young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males, 15 years to 19 years are four and half times more likely to die by suicide than are their non-Aboriginal counterparts. Young Aboriginal and Torres Strait females, 15 years to 19 years, are six times more likely to die by suicide than are other young females.
Western Australian State Parliamentarian, the Kimberley’s Kija woman, Josie Farrer said that hopelessness is the lead factor.
“These are young men, mostly with families, who are impoverished, who cannot keep up with white society and its demands. Who cannot afford to put food on the table for their families, who cannot afford to pay the bills, who cannot meet the rising cost of living,” said Ms Farrer.
“They feel disempowered by expectations they cannot meet. Many of our people have been forced to live in impoverishment and have never had a chance to manage within an economy racing all around them, and an economy which is still foreign to many of them.”
“Can you imagine what it must feel like for them to feel that they are failing their families?”
I have been to more remote communities over many years than what most Australians have, and the induced social ills are myriad. What I have seen is that wherever Western society has arrived in this vast continent there arise crises through this social confrontation for First Peoples. All of a sudden they are yanked, some kicking and screaming, into the expectations of Western society. There is no respect set aside for their cultural identity, for their form and content, for their first language, for any of their way of life. Many of them cannot cope with the diminution of their cultural and social and historical identities.
Then there are the communities with still very little contact with Western society. Communities in the Arnhem, in the Central and Western Deserts who live without Western expectations, who live without any great striving for materialism as we know it, who are indeed happy, and who are well adjusted.
It is the brutal confrontation between Western society and ancient cultures that has underwritten the suicide crisis. Western society does not respect these ancient cultures even if they are happy and well adjusted. So Western society drags these communities into its condition, into a society where more young people each year die by their own hand than by any other means.
Less than one per cent of all Government funding, including Closing the Gap funds, to Aboriginal health is directed to grassroots and coalface programs that have a better chance of working than do mainstream services, the majority with a bent for assimilation.