THE Australian Bureau of Statistics recently released its Causes of Death report for 2012. The number of suicides reached a ten year peak – 2,535. There were 301 deaths which did not have cause of death determined. These are only the reported suicides. First Peoples die by suicide at four times the rate of the rest of the population.
There were 996 reported suicides of First Peoples over a ten year period from 2001 to 2010. This is one hundred suicides per year but in the last four years it is estimated that this figure has reached 130 per year. For every suicide there are hundreds of attempted suicides. The despair built by either western society’s low or high expectations is taking an increasing toll on people. The demands of a society increasingly geared by expectation, underwritten by a society geared to the economy rather than the other way around, induces measures in people of who, what and where they should be. Much of these measures embrace consumerism and materialism.
In the 2009 ABS Causes of Death report the finding was six suicides every day but now according to the most recent Causes of Death report it is seven suicides a day, with at least two of the seven suicides being of First Peoples. Yet First Peoples make up less than 1 in 33 of the national population.
The more than two and half thousand suicides in 2012 are framed by 62,000 attempted suicides during 2012. For First Peoples in 2012, it is estimated that 3000 suicides may have been attempted – that is an abominable statistic when one considers that it means one in 22 First Peoples attempted suicide in the one year alone.
For both First Peoples and all Australians suicide is the leading cause of death of 14 to 18 year olds. For all Australians suicide is the leading cause of death for those aged between 14 to 44 years. Despite the unnatural and premature ill-health related deaths of First Peoples, suicide is one of the leading causes of death of all age groups for First Peoples. The most affected age group are 25 to 29 year First Peoples adult males – dying by suicide at the nation’s worst rate of 91 per 100,000, ten times that of the overall national average for suicide.
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 First Peoples 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, others with a don’t know what hit them feeling, 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 people each year die by their own hand than by any other means.
Suicide is Australia’s major cause of deaths, yet it is not highlighted as are other leading causes of deaths. Australia’s potential avoidable deaths are on the rise but suicide must be seen by Australians as potentially avoidable. Who must without delay see many of the suicides as potentially avoidable are our Governments. Suicide prevention is underfunded. We have to move away from a submissions basis only where capped funding will see a limited number of communities secure funding. We must move to have the suicide crises at the top of the national agenda, and to culturally shift the gears for Government to up funding for suicide prevention where a baseline model is deployed that ensures all communities are availed to fundamental and unique suicide prevention programs, community building and empowerment programs. What is important though is for our policy makers to also recognise that expectations can lead to a sense of failure and that we must begin national conversations on the very fabric of our society.
In the meantime, I would encourage that communities that live happily enough within the empowerment of their own identity and norms should be left well alone, and not dragged off their Country, not dragged off their homelands as occurred with the Northern Territory Intervention and occurs right throughout Australia and into the dustbins that the Australian Government has called townships and communities – these are favellas, shanty towns. The British colonialists were the world’s biggest slum builders, from India to Africa to South America, Australia does not need to carry on this abominable practice.
Western society needs to be careful in imposing expectations and the sense of failure on all people, but it needs to be doubly careful in imposing it on people who have never engaged with modernity’s western norms. It is a disturbing irony to see First Peoples in Government sanctioned towns and dustbowls, living as dejected fringe dwellers, depressed and aimless, with the loss of hope and the renouncing of happiness, whereas in communities still relatively undisturbed they do live happily enough and without the prospect of suicides.
There is a lesson in this for us all.