A six year old girl said to her father after the suicide attempts of two of her brothers, “When I go to sleep I pray that in the morning I wake up ‘White’”.
A seven year old boy said to her grandmother after his 29 year-old father took his life, “It’s not good to be Black. Why is it White fellas got it better?” Soon after he walked into oncoming traffic and died.
A mother who lost her 12 year-old son to suicide, “My boy was proud to be Black and then one day he started not being proud. (He) looked around and saw so much bad for our people, and no hope, no one cared about what was happening to us.”
One program after another is being launched to combat the suicide crises but the suicide rates continue to rise. The problem is that not enough of the right programs are being funded – either not at the right funding levels or not at all. In addition far too many programs that have failed abysmally are being persisted with. Lessons need to be learned and empowerment should be the way forward, it’s not rocket science.
Mental Health Commissions around the nation are working towards addressing the crises but to little avail because they are betrayed by poor funding regimes. Governments toss in funds here and there but they persist with one failed policy after another, believing that the problem is not the policy or program but the at-risk community or township. To top it off Governments are failing to put in the effort to identify which programs work best. If they did this they would find that programs that work in Western-based cultures do not work in First Peoples cultures – there are two distinct cultural settings on this continent; Western and First Peoples.
Suicide prevention care programs and social development programs differ in ethnic cultural groups within Western-based cultural settings – with normative nuances, traditional expectations, varying definitions of low and high expectations, various associations to the presumptions of status. If there are differences between Western-based cultures that need to be identified for suicide prevention care then lo and behold the even much more distinct differences in two different cultural settings such as First Peoples compared to Western settings. Where we fail to respect these differences we degenerate to the dangerous impost of assimilation and in fact compound trauma for First Peoples, adding to the suicide crises.
At this time there is a heightened awareness of the suicides crises and many suicide prevention workers and advocates feel the urgent need to do something much more. This week, 200 delegates from across the Northern Territory attended the inaugural Suicide Prevention and Wellbeing Conference in Darwin. Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles presented the delegates his Government’s Territory Suicide Prevention Action Plan 2014-17, for further consultation.
Minister Giles said that suicide prevention is “complex” but he said “the Territory’s suicide rate is steadily decreasing due to the sustained efforts of Government and non-Government organisations, communities and individuals.” This is not true, and it is disturbing for a Chief Minister to believe this is the case. Since 2006, the Territory’s suicide rate has been on a steep rise. To measure data by short bursts of respite is a dangerously flawed process. To not disaggregate data to the most vulnerable groups, whether by age categories or by demography is neglectful. The same was said of the Kimberley, that the suicide rates had dropped but this too is not true – there were short bursts of respite but this year alone there is a crisis once again in the Kimberley. The Kimberley has the highest concentration of remote communities and First Peoples in the nation, and its suicide rate is the highest in the nation.
“We want to hear from experts about their ideas on how organisations and the Governments can improve their approach to this issue. We also want to hear people’s first-hand experiences of what works in preventing suicide, particularly among our young people,” said Chief Minister Giles.
If only this were the way. Governments, Federal, State and Territory, have not been listening. They have failed to adequately fund the ways forward and have persisted instead with the same old failed policies. Instead we have at-risk communities without any funding whatsoever, without any resources. Instead we have an unmet need that exceeds the levels of what is being provided. Instead we have an obsession by one Government after another with sticking to failed policies and practices so as to justify that something is being done. Instead, in reference to First Peoples, we have assimilatory demands imposed upon them, pushing them off Country, corralling many people in dustbowls, demanding that they drop their historical and cultural identities and instead aspire to the normative of a Western-cultural setting. This has made everything worse – in fact significantly contributing to the spikes in suicide rates, to the prevalence of spates of suicides. In fact, like fuel added to fire, the suicides crisis is being spiked by Government failures and practices.
Many First Peoples feel betrayed by expectations they once held would arise post the Black Power movements, the Wik decision, the Mabo decision, but the Native Title Act betrayed this, and the National Native Title Tribunal is a debacle of the worst proportions. Impoverishment has gotten worse and we know all the horrific incarceration and homelessness statistics. The Territory Intervention is a gangrenous wound, with suicides five fold since its establishment.
The Territory’s Health Minister, Robyn Lambley said that the “theme of the Conference is to ‘Promote, Strengthen, Heal’”. The coalface programs that work and other coalface programs that can work that need to be identified are there, but the promotion of the right to strengthen and heal can only come from Governments, which so far has not been the case. Two distinct cultures in this nation – Western-based cultures and First Peoples cultures, do confront each other, especially in the remote but also in urban centres, and they do clash.
There are crises, not just a one-layered crisis, in reference to suicide and self-harm among First Peoples. A crisis where youth and adults are taking their lives because of low or high expectations and the sense of failure and hopelessness around these settings of expectations is in fact owned by a sub-set of crises. So too the crisis of suicides that are given rise to by the dire hopelessness that arises from the diminution of one’s identity to a liability. Then there are the mental health crises that arise from the spectrum of pressures resident to impoverishment. But the crisis, symptomatic of the worst, is the one that is taking the hopes and in many cases the lives of children as young as six years of age, seven years of age, eight years of age, nine years of age, ten years of age, eleven years of age, twelve years of age.
One of the Conference delegates was Adele Cox, a member of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Advisory Group. Sixteen years ago, Ms Cox lost her 9-year-old cousin to suicide.
On Monday, Ms Cox addressed the Conference. “How the hell does somebody that age even contemplate, think about, know that is an option?”
But more and more Aboriginal children are contemplating it, and as young as five and six years of age. This is a crisis above all other crises, because it begins with one’s development of form and content, ingrained in one’s psychosocial premises. In part many child suicides seem to be journey towards this culmination rather than a response to various trauma. We must be solid-in-our-thinking that the suicides crises should be front and centre of our national conversations otherwise neglect will ensure hopelessness from the beginning of life for far too many of our children.
“Aboriginal suicide is different,” said Ms Cox. Ms Cox described the loss of cultural continuity, the impacts on identity, and impoverishment of peoples collectively and the resulting poor health as contributing to a collective malaise that perpetuates trauma and multiple traumas.
Chief Minister Giles did get this right, that “it’s not all about medical responses.”
“It is about giving people hope at the start.” But he needs to be careful to not presume that any positive pathways can be achieved exclusively by assimilationist policies which dismiss historical and cultural identities, ways and their normative settings.
Darwin Regional Indigenous Suicide Prevention Network’s Ngaree Ah Kit said that going to funerals for the young was common.
“Our most vulnerable need a suite of initiatives to help them at a time when it’s very hard to help yourself. When you are down and out you want someone to listen, someone to help you find the way back.”