Suicide is a leading cause of death for all Australians, taking more lives than road fatalities but for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders it is a significantly grimmer story. Suicide is the leading cause of death for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders aged 15 to 35 years, with one in three deaths in this age group registered as a suicide. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 14 years and less are nine times more likely to suicide than non-Aboriginal children. And so Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders are calling for a Royal Commission. Suicide is the tip of the iceberg of multifactorial issues, and many now believe only a royal commission can begin to address.
Living in the heart of the continent – in Utopia – Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, the incumbent NAIDOC female Elder of the Year and a finalist in last year’s Australian of the Year said that her people are living in a worse sense of hopelessness than at any time in the last half century.
“A Royal Commission must be held immediately.”
“Tomorrow is too late. Our people are suffering at unprecedented levels.”
“We need a commission now so everyone can hear us. We must be allowed this platform.”
Adelaide’s Tauto Sansbury is the incumbent NAIDOC Lifetime Achievement recipient. Tauto has long argued for his people to be heard at a national platform. In January 2013 he penned a letter that was read by many about the first thirteen days of 2013 where he attended 8 funerals of young people in Adelaide.
“A Royal Commission into the ever increasing and catastrophic level of Aboriginal suicide could mark the turning point in addressing this national humanitarian crisis.”
“We need answers and we need them now.”
In the heart of Western Australia lives Kado Muir. One in four of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides occur in Western Australia.
“Grief, trauma, pain and suffering are becoming embedded into Aboriginal people, as if DNA. Each generation builds on the grief and trauma of the past. With little or no formal help and support Aboriginal people self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. In turn creating other problems; perpetuating cycles of anguish and despair. The sense of inadequacy, helplessness and isolation adds up to the point of self-harming.”
Kado Muir said that only a royal commission can delve into the causal factors that drive the self-harming and suicides. “There is the socio-economic marginalisation, the disempowerment, the turning to alcohol and drugs. Then there is the domestic violence, the lateral violence.”
“The services in the suicide prevention space in our communities are ineffective and poorly resourced.” He said “ignorance” is rife throughout the management of these services.
“We need a critical review of the myriad conditions that lead to suicide.”
“We need critical reviews of the agencies, of their response systems and we need from this review to be able to tell a new story of the pathway to recovery.”
“We need to tell the full story of pain and anguish.”
“We need to structure and support the ways, our ways to healing. We need the chance to stop this pandemic illness in threatening the future for the Aboriginal nations.”
“We are currently on the road to nowhere. We need to take the first steps on a road to somewhere. We need to free ourselves from the monster of oppression.”
Marcus Woolombi Waters, a language speaker living in Brisbane is a highly respected academic who leads from the frontlines, “Yammaa ngiyani… do not underestimate the changes that do come with a royal commission. We hear that royal commissions fail to implement recommendations but we can never deny the significant cultural shifts from such national dialogue.”
“Aboriginal suicide has become a constant, a social norm in our cultural landscape. Children taking their lives is both abhorrent and unacceptable and cannot be allowed to continue.”
“Much was achieved from the conversation had with the Bringing Them Home Report and with the Black Deaths in Custody royal commission. Let us not focus alone on the negatives of how many recommendations were not followed through and were never implemented.”
“I have heard the talk that they were a waste of time but that’s not true.”
“What we forget and do not discuss is the significant cultural shift demonstrated from such national dialogue. The national dialogue that follows a royal commission is significant and it was significant after the royal commission into Black deaths in custody.”
“Memories are short. Do we not remember Australia before these royal commissions? Do not forget the absence of Indigenous specified positions, the non-existence of resources for us, the horribly negative policies targeting our people and communities?”
“I know we have been targeted again in the last few years with unprecedented funding cuts but before the Bringing Them Home Report and the Black deaths in custody royal commission there was in effect no Indigenous funding and self-determination. We may not be where we want to be today after the dreams and hopes of the political renaissance of the 60’s and 70’s but we got to somewhere for many of us if not the majority that’s better than the nightmare of yesteryear.”
“A royal commission into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides will hear our people, will ensure consultation, identify what is yet not identified and work for the long-term. Who knows what else a royal commission will bring.”
“What we know for sure is we cannot continue doing what we are already doing. Everything has to change because the lives of our children depend on this.”
Kimberley mother Lena Andrews lost her daughter, 18 years young, in 2014 and Lena asked that her daughter be remembered. Suicide prevention researcher/campaigner with the Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights, Gerry Georgatos has been supporting Lena since the loss of her daughter and of other family members since. Lena asked that we refer to her daughter – Philinka – and publish her image.
“There was nobody there for us, except for Gerry. Not the services, not anyone. I lost my daughter and no-one supported us. I lost my mother and sister soon after and I was never extended a hand. Most of us who lose our young, who lose family, are forgotten. We are forgotten by everyone. Please allow our stories to be told at a royal commission.”
“I want my daughter’s story told at a royal commission. I want to see change and for that to happen we need to be heard.”
I know first-hand the dedication of Gerry Georgatos over the last five years in furthering the awareness-raising of the extensiveness of the suicides crises and of what must done. As Gerry often says and writes, we were not put on this earth to bury our children, but we do. In Australia, children as young as 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 years of age are taking their lives.
Gerry Georgatos argues that Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islanders in the top end of Australia have among the world’s highest suicide rates – such as the Kimberley, far north Queensland and parts of the Northern Territory.
“We cannot continue to 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. It is a myth and a dangerous perception that there is a silence, shame, taboo – it’s the listening that is not happening. This humanitarian crisis needs to translate to a national priority,” said suicide prevention researcher and campaigner, Gerry Georgatos.
“In one community, in the week to Christmas, three young people were buried in three days – their graves alongside each other.”
First Nations leaders and affected families are calling for a royal commission into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides to carry the nation and educate its conscience to galvanising change and fairness. Gerry Georgatos said that there have been small-time parliamentary committee inquiries, coronial inquests, and one surface level report after another, most of them responding with punitive measures as recommendations and reductionist policies – but that the suicides crisis requires the in-depth examination of a royal commission, to expose the systemic inequalities, the multifactorial issues, the underlying causes and so the ways forward.
And because as Tauto Sansbury has said “Too many are dying too young.”