By Gerry Georgatos & Megan Krakouer
“I remember a father who found his son hours after his suicide. The father lay his son down and cradled his body through the night until responders arrived in the morning,” Gerry Georgatos
“I can never forget the journey of a single parent mother of six young children, who found her 15-year-old daughter in the backyard, a suicide. Hours earlier, they were smiling,” Megan Krakouer
“I remember the distraught family of a young man who only a week before his suicide had run into a burning house and rescued a young mother and her baby,” Gerry Georgatos
“I ached from the last words of the impoverished mother to her four young children, who was battered by relentless domestic violence, ‘I can’t take it anymore…’,” Megan Krakouer
“I remember attending the funerals of three young people in the one community – three burials in five days, three graves in a row. The youngest was a 15-year-old girl. I wailed on the inside as I stared at the graves. Weeks later the loss of two more young people would make it five graves in a row of youth unlived,” Gerry Georgatos
“I think of eight young children, now orphans, who found their dad after his suicide and year later would come home again to find their mother after her suicide,” Megan Krakouer.
“Hauntingly etched in my mind’s eye are three children – aged six, eight and 10 years – together attempting suicide from a tree, saved by older children,” Gerry Georgatos
You ask, how can it be imaginable for a six-year-old to attempt the ending of their life? They were all of First Nations heritage. With the exception of only one, they lived below the poverty line and the majority in “crushing” poverty.
Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander suicides comprise 6% of Australia’s total suicides but, shockingly, 80% of child suicides aged 12 and below are of First Nations children.
For the past decade, nearly 30% of the child suicides to age 17 were comprised of First Nation children.
As I we write this, First Nations children across the nation have been lost to suicide, so too two First Nations mothers and a First Nations father. The crisis remains uninterrupted, unabated.
We have often said “the nation should weep” at this harrowing tragedy, which is more than just a national shame – a national disgrace, an abomination, a damning condemnation of who we remain as a nation.
Each year, we support thousands of suicide-affected families, thousands of individuals who have attempted suicide or who are at risk – from migrant-born Australians, young and older Australians, who lived affluent or homeless. But the disproportionate suicide toll on First Nations Australians is a humanitarian crisis that cannot be allowed to continue its now uninterrupted three decades long tragedy.
One in 17 of all First Nations people’s deaths is a suicide, while half of all First Nations youth deaths aged 17 years and younger is a suicide.
Discriminatory crushing poverty is the catastrophic narrative resulting in an arc of pronounced negative issues culminating in diabolical numbers of First Nations youth and older who are incarcerated, self-harming and killing themselves. The suicide rate of First Nations peoples is two-and-a-half times that of the national population.
14% of Australians live below the poverty line but 40% of First Nations Australians live below the poverty line – that’s also a two-and-a-half times differential – an absolute correlation. In our research, experiential and otherwise, nearly 100% of the suicides of First Nations peoples are of individuals who lived below the poverty line, the highest proportion in a crushing poverty, the type not experienced by other Australians living below the poverty line.
The suicide rate of First Nations Australians who live above the poverty line is very low and much less than the suicide rate of the rest of Australians living above the poverty line.
Our focus needs to be on lifting people out of poverty and in doing away with the discriminatory crushing poverty that should have no place in the world’s 12th biggest economy.
We have travelled hundreds of First Nations homelands and communities and a significant proportion are hovels of human misery, corrals of degradation. They are not of the making of the people living in them but of neglect and deprivations made by one government after another.
In remote living communities, eight out of every 10 children will never finish school, with half not completing primary school. These are infrastructure starved communities without hope on the horizon.
Individuated resilience and other psycho-educative strength training, unless coupled with access to opportunities including education and employment, cannot alone score someone to a psychosocial positive self. How far and for how long can someone adjust their behaviour without access to meaningful hope on the horizon?
It is a reprehensible myth that governments have prioritised the catastrophic suicide crises of the nation’s most suicide affected.
The Council of Australian Governments must prioritise equality and universal rudimentary rights. The suicide rate will be reduced between First Nations peoples and the rest of Australia when the poverty rates are reduced.
There must be psychosocial support to help people improve their life circumstances, to reduce disordered thinking, to reduce the sense of helplessness. There must be remunerated community buy-in, whether in the remote or in the cities; workforces of mentors – skilled up – who can be guiding lights, shoulders to rest on, for the vulnerable, for exhausted families reaching out for help for a struggling loved one.
The death of a child is always heartbreaking and when it is by suicide it as devastating as it gets. Unless governments heed and focus, more children than ever before will be lost. They must prioritise those most in need, those whom for too long our governments have been leaving behind to languish impoverished, in shanties without white goods, without secondary schools, without recreational facilities.
Like migrant-born children who fled to Australia from oppressive socioeconomic disadvantages, First Nations youth that go to university are among the most likely, most driven to succeed. We must do everything that we can to lift sisters and brothers to an improved life circumstance, to various opportunity and they will do the rest.
The more education someone has completed, the greater their protective factors to steering clear from suicidal ideation. The majority of the national prison population has not completed year 12 – in fact, the majority has not completed year 9.
High levels of education are a more significant protective factor than fulltime employment. More education translates to a dawn of new meanings, to a better understanding of the self, to a more positive psychosocial self, to the pursuit of what happiness and its contexts can and should mean.
The majority of First Nations families who have lost a loved one to suicide have lost another loved one and another.
“I remember a 10-year-old child lost to suicide. The year before she found her 11-year-old first cousin had taken their life. Two years earlier her 13-year-old sister had taken her life,” Gerry Georgatos
They lived in crushing poverty and in an arc of distressing issues borne of inescapable poverty. In the past few years, of the hundreds of First Nations suicide affected families we have responded to, nearly all were encumbered by abominable levels of poverty.
“A couple of years ago, I fought to save the life of a six-year-old child, to make sure she never attempted suicide again,” Gerry Georgatos
“This child is doing well but that was because I was able travel to her, in the heart of our continent, to one of our remotest regions. I was shocked that one so young would contemplate suicide. At the time I believed, or hoped, that I would never come across again a child so young and suicidal. Recently, I dedicated long-haul support to another suicidal six-year-old child, this time in one of our large cities.”
Without dedicated support it is my very certain belief that some of them would not be with us today.
“There was one island community where a 13-year-old girl took her life. Her 11-year-old brother found her. The island has mainstream services, albeit small, but none visited the family, citing the need to give the grieving family “space”. More than three weeks later I travelled to the island and drove from the main community to an outstation near a smaller community and met the family. I was the first to do so,” Gerry Georgatos
“That was three years ago. I helped relocate the family to Darwin, where the children attend school. I visit them every time I am in Darwin.”
Long have we called for and argued for assertive outreach, for intense psychosocial supports, for through-care and aftercare, and we continue to call for these, because through this people supporting people in-person approach we can reduce the suicide toll. It breaks our hearts that one government after another instead, to be seen to be doing something, funds research, which delivers more of the same “recommendations”.
“My First Nations peoples oppressed below the poverty line, compounded by traumas and intergenerational distrusts do not need Governments funding endless research, but funding, all of it, to be spent on affirmative actions, on transformational social returns, on saving and changing lives,” Megan Krakouer
One in 50 Australian deaths is a suicide. One in 17 First Nations deaths is a suicide. Australia, with more than 3,000 suicides a year, has a higher suicide rate than the United Kingdom. Australia’s First Nations peoples endure one of the world’s highest suicide rates. Our hearts were shattered when we learned the federal government, instead of funding services that will save people from suicide, they approved $35m for further “research” on First Nations and youth suicides. The study of suicide is not suicide prevention.
This $35m research spend follows the more than $55m wasted on the dozen “suicide prevention” trial sites which we had strongly argued against when on one of the government’s suicide prevention advisory groups. Australia has been deluged with 30 years of relentless research in respect to suicide prevention. As a nation we have endured 30 years of the suicide crises unabated and uninterrupted.
Suicide is Australia’s leading cause of unnatural deaths. During the last decade, Australia has had among the world’s highest increases in its suicide toll, by 33% – and for First Nations Australians by 60%. Australia’s suicide toll is more than two and three-quarters times the road deaths toll and more than 30 times the domestic violence homicides toll. The majority of the suicide toll is intersected by socioeconomic disadvantage, where the accumulation of life stressors are more pronounced.
We feel that all the work we and our colleagues put into crafting and achieving lifesaving outcomes have been betrayed by the failure by the commonwealth – and state and territory governments – to invest. Those who are let down, betrayed, are those whose very lives depended on what the funding should have been invested in.
We feel that all the work we do, all the evidence, all the lived experience highlighted to the nation relentlessly through the media, has been betrayed by our government’s lack of political will to deliver on what the evidence compels.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on suicide prevention during the past decade. The $90m that we have referenced could have been spent on developing outreach services for First Nations Australians at serious risk – spent on youth suicide, lives would have been saved. We argue that an investment of $90m would reduce the suicide toll for First Nations Australians. Each year of this century, the First Nations suicide toll has increased. We can, for the first time this century, reduce the toll and in so doing inspire the nation. We can reduce the Australian youth suicide toll. We know the elevated risk groups – population and categorical. We know the ways forward.
“The youngest suicide I have responded to, where I have worked long haul to support the family, is of a nine-year-old child. The youngest attempted suicide I have responded to is of a six-year-old,” Gerry Georgatos
“Our governments must fund the capacity for as many of the affected as possible to improve their life circumstances,” Megan Krakouer
There are many who we have kept alive by someone being there for them, by improving their lives, by validating their trauma and subsequently disabling their trauma. We were and are there for them. There is no legacy more important than the one that improves the lot of others to the point of saving lives.
We remember everyone lost to suicide but foremost we remember those lost to suicide that we could have helped if we had been resourced to do so.
- Megan Krakouer is a Mineng woman from Western Australia’s southwest. Megan is a lawyer, who worked for two and half years with Knowmore Legal in contributing to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Megan visited 27 adult prisons and 30 remote communities. Presently, Megan is the Director of the National Suicide Prevention & Trauma Recovery Project and also works for the National Justice Project. Megan has supported hundreds of First Nations families following the harrow of suicide and has supported thousands of First Nations individuals affected by suicidality.
- Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher with an experiential focus. He has spent his whole life supporting and improving the lives of the marginalised and the seriously at-risk. Gerry has an extensive body of humanitarian work around the world. He has launched one life improving project after another, some national, including suicide postvention, suicide prevention, post-prison to education and employment. He has supported thousands of individuals Australia-wide affected by suicidality. Among his academic qualifications he has a Master in Human Rights Education and a Master in Social Justice Advocacy.
- Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636.