Recently, I opened up a piece with having been informed of a former refugee who has taken his life, of a mother who has taken her life, of a young Aboriginal woman who has taken her life, of a former inmate who has taken his life, of a newly arrived migrant who has taken her life. Each of these individuals was aged in their 20s.
From right around our nation, in the last three weeks I have been informed of 90 suspected suicides, 20 of migrants and of 20 of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders – with my unofficial counts significantly comparatively higher than this time last year. These are only the ones I am being informed about. With many of these suicides I have responded to the families. There is a wilderness of grief. However the most elevated risk period is either side of Christmas and all of us – as individuals, families, friends – must be on the alert, be watchful of those within our circle who maybe vulnerable and include them in our lives.
Suicide takes twice as many Australian lives as all other forms of violence combined, including homicides, military deaths and the road toll. The suicide toll should be the nation’s most pressing issue – the issue of our time. But alas it is not.
According to my unofficial data sets, poverty and socioeconomic pressures factor into more than 70 per cent of the suicides but with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides more than 90 per cent of the suicides are of individuals who had been living below the Henderson Poverty Line. Despite the suicides underwritten by poverty they are are not limited to socioeconomic factors. 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 is a humanitarian crisis in this affluent nation, a catastrophic, systematic crisis: suicide accounts for more than 5% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths. It’s a staggering, harrowing statistic. In fact in my estimations, because of under-reporting issues, suicide accounts for 10% of Indigenous deaths. The contributing factors are many and intertwined, underwritten by the kind of acute poverty, disadvantage and marginalisation that should make no sense in one of the world’s wealthiest nations.
Migrant suicides, particularly of migrants whose first language is not English, are pretty much invisible, lost in translation in the discussions on the prevalence and causes of suicide.
We need more than just generalised counselling, but this last resort is the first resort. Resilience selling is part of this generalised counselling where we beg the victim to adjust their behaviours – but how far and for how long without hope on the horizon?
The factors that can culminate in suicide are the most preventable of the various destructive behaviours that impact on families and communities. There are many ways forward.
A national inquiry or royal commission into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides – and in fact into all suicides – is long overdue. We cannot live in the silences and dangerously internalise this tragedy. I have travelled to hundreds of homeland communities and the people who are losing their loved ones are crying out to be heard, they are screaming.
Despite all the good work done by many in saving lives, the suicide toll, particularly for the most elevated risk groups, is on the increase. Without the deep examination that a royal commission will provide, the suicide prevention space will remain inauthentic – hostage to carpetbaggers and the ignorant.
Identifying trauma in any given population, including among LGBQTI people, former inmates, foster children, the homeless, the chronically impoverished, newly arrived migrants, culturally and linguistically diverse migrants and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, we start with behavioural observations and proceed with the opportunity for the individual to tell their story. People need people, 24/7. It is never enough to deal with the symptoms. The cause must be validated without languishing within it so as to avoid drowning in negatives and misery.
Our capacity to listen is an imperative and must be achieved without judgment, for often redemption is needed: forgiveness in addition to sympathy and empathy. These skills do not come easy to everyone but they are vital in the suicide prevention space, in trauma counselling, in restorative therapies, in navigating people to a positive self.
The grim reality is that the suicide toll is climbing and every year for the last five years I have accurately estimated the increase. Service providers and ‘peak’ bodies need to understand this and slap away defensiveness and the silo bit, the turf and patch nonsense. Everyone has to come together to build an authentic suicide prevention space. Despite the criticism I will cop, the hatchet jobs that maybe done on me I have to argue that there is no authentic collaborative suicide prevention landscape. We are not reaching and therefore we are not there for the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, for the poorest of the poor. This year the Australian suicide toll – and within this, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and migrant suicide tolls – will not only be higher than last year but higher than ever before.
There is no greater legacy that any government can have than to prioritise and invest in the improving of lives, the changing of lives, the saving of lives.
– Suicide prevention researcher and campaigner, Gerry Georgatos – Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights
Lifeline’s 24-hour hotline, 13 11 14
Crisis Support and Suicide Prevention Beyond Blue – 1300 22 4636