It is an abomination – moral, political and otherwise – when one in three deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders aged 15 to 35 years is a suicide. Suicide is this age group’s leading cause of death. It is an abomination when Australia, one of the world’s elite high income nations, stands idly by while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 14 years of age and less are eight times more likely to suicide than non-Aboriginal children. Suicide is this age group’s 2nd leading cause of death. The high rates of suicidal ideation, high levels of psychological distresses and acute depressions among these children play out dangerously as they leave behind whatever protective factors there were in their otherwise train wreck childhoods. The 20 to 30 year old Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander age group is the most at-risk and they suicide at among the world’s highest rates.
In the first ten years of this century there were 996 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander suicides registered according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). Therefore on average 100 suicides per year – one in 24 of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths were suicides. The crisis has escalated and more lives than ever before are being lost to suicide. Sadly, I estimated that there would be 120 registered suicides for 2012 and 140 for 2013. Sadly, I was proven correct with the ABS in the last couple of years recording 117 suicides in 2012 and 138 in 2013. The suicide rate has increased; from 2009 to 2013 one in 19 of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths was a suicide. However because of under-reporting issues the suicide rate is around 1 in 10 to 1 in 12.
Read “A nation shamed when child sees suicide as the solution” here:
I can only hope I am proven wrong but each of the last two years, 2014 and 2015, will each record more than 150 suicides. The Kimberley and far north Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations record the nation’s highest suicide rates and among the world’s highest. Regions of the Northern Territory are next worst. In the first ten years of the century the Kimberley accounted for more than 10 per cent of the nation’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides. Those ten years included the abominable spates of suicides in Fitzroy Crossings, Balgo, Mowanjum and Derby. During the last couple of years I have been warning that the rate has significantly increased. Tragically, I have been estimating that the rate of suicide in the Kimberley has doubled. In time the ABS will report tragically high suicide tolls for 2014 and 2015.
These are staggeringly disturbing statistics.
The statistical narrative does matter. I know people are not numbers but these numbers are people. This statistical narrative has to be put in the face of the nation until it hits home. The extensiveness of the suicide crisis in this high income, affluent nation is a diabolical abomination. It is an indictment of this nation’s conscience that this horrifically pressing issue has not translated as a national priority. The underlying issues are multifactorial but not complex. The reluctance by governments to adequately respond to the issues, to the racialised inequalities – other than through one stop assimilation – translates toxically as racism – is racism. Racism is a compounding contributing factor in the taking of lives, in the psychological distresses leading to total despair, to the sense of hopelessness, to the loss of all hope. Identity has been made a liability.
People need hope they can tap into; hope they can draw from, that they can build functional lives from otherwise the situational traumas escalate as persistent traumas and to severe, complex episodic traumas. When the traumas degenerate to the aggressive, displaced anger can finish anyone up in jail or in the taking of their life.
One in six of Western Australia’s and the Northern Territory’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders living have been to jail. This is racialised imprisonment. Nationally, it’s one in 9. The issues that lead to the high arrest rates, high incarceration rates, high homelessness and acute poverty rates, the high levels of depressions, the increasing self-harm and suicide rates, are multifactorial but they are intertwined and the same for all these culminations.
The ways forward are obvious, the restoration of hope, the healing of people so that they find themselves within wellbeing and hence able to navigate opportunities. But to underwrite the restoration of hope, the healing and the wellbeing and for the potential to address disparity and racialised inequalities there has to be self-determination. We hear the victim-blamers scapegoat with the mantra of self-responsibility. Well, self-responsibility only occurs from a place of wellbeing, where there has been healing, redemption, strengthening.
A few years ago, as I do, I took my research into the extensiveness of the suicides crises and of the ways forward and willed it away into the public domain. I translated research into one article after another for everyone to read, in the public interest, for the common good, in pursuit of a cultural shift. In a couple of years alone I wrote more than 300 articles. I nurtured relationships with good people in the media to report on the crisis and on the ways forward. I campaigned and lobbied government ministers. Colleagues, the academic citadels, urged me to consider my work as my intellectual property, to hold onto it for dear life, to have it published in journals, medical and psychological. This would have obliterated momentum, as months would have passed for it to be peer reviewed. The work that meant something to me was not necessarily to be published in journals, cited here and there, or to score the research grants that would have followed and the titles and accolades, but the work that meant everything to me is in the saving of lives in the here and now, the making of real difference. Yes, I have been hauled over the coals again and again for going rogue, for the jagged departure from the academic oriented way of doing. I have no regrets and I know I made all the right decisions, because there are many lives I have saved in so doing, many lives saved by others because of what I did, many lives improved, many lives changed for the better. There are many who do great work, a many people and voices – but we need a multitude of efforts.
My campaigns led to the national program, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project (ATSISPEP), overseen by strong Black leadership, managed by strong Black leadership. The ATSISPEP is working on multifactorial practical outcomes; it is not about reproducing research.
Because I chose to will away my work, the subsequent public and the behind-the-scenes campaigning has led to the work in progress on real time data, to notification protocols that will depend on that real time data, to evaluation tools that will define what works, to critical responses that will strengthen response systems. There are now multiple projects and strong teams. I am not suggesting that we’ve hit the solutions but if more of us dispense with the personal profit motive agendas and stay solid-in-our-thinking about what matters – the improving of human lives, the saving of lives – then we’ll get to the solutions.
The way forward is self-determination. Self-determination sponsors self-responsibility.
Recently, ATSISPEP, thanks to funding provided by the Federal Minister of Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion, launched a critical response project. It was quietly launched just before Christmas and we have been responding to suicide trauma related families, working with them in a through-care approach from a family based and community based approach and through the cultural lens. From within this face to face practical approach we hope to urge systemic changes in the ways service providers respond. Making contact with affected families is not enough; contact needs to translate to engagement. The critical response project was launched in Western Australia because one in four of the nation’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides occur in Western Australia.
Read “Critical response team to tackle ongoing tragedy of Indigenous suicide” here:
Read “Suicide prevention funding for WA critical response” here:
The ATSISPEP has also crafted the fast approaching inaugural National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Conference. I pushed the need for this with Senator Scullion when I met with him at the Commonwealth Offices in Sydney on April 16, 2014. At the time I had been at my father’s hospital bedside, at his deathbed vigil for 21 days. I had not left his side. My father urged me to attend the meeting with Senator Scullion. I did not want to leave his side but I did at his urging. Our days on this earth should not be misspent and it does matter what we do. We agreed that there should be an ATSISPEP and that at long last there would be a national conference, Black led, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to take over the space. When I walked out of the meeting I phoned Professor Dudgeon. I then caught a cab to the hospital and back to my father’s bedside. He would leave his mortal coil two days later, on Easter Friday.
In the past, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide prevention was tagged onto mainstream events, a couple of workshops, a presentation or two, usually presented by non-Aboriginal folk. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides should be one of the priorities of our generation. But it needs to be owned by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, by the affected communities, by the people on the ground, at the coalface. This conference needs to be annual. It will strive to inspire Black researchers, leaders and mentors. The conference will be a bringing together of people, to not only hear their voices, but to enrich networks and knowledge building. The conference will stand by the conviction of the affirmative action of Black empowerment – Black keynotes, Black facilitators and predominately Black presenters; there maybe White presenters too but they must be in tandem with Black presenters. The actual development of the conference is a work in progress by many.
Read about the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Conference – here:
Suicidal behaviour does not mean that someone wants to die. Suicidal behaviour is a scream for help – people need people. It is a fallacy to presume ‘self-responsibility’ as a way forward for someone in a dark place.
Access to emotional support can save lives. It may never be realised this was the case but person to person support is a huge factor in the improving and saving of lives. Resilience and empowerment are gradually accumulated over time, to the point there comes a time that there is no looking back. It is not true that once someone has exhibited suicidal behaviour that they are forever trapped in the heightened vulnerability to recurring suicidal behaviour. With the coming together of emotional wellbeing and meaningful contexts, there develops resilience within the individual that can make one stronger than ever before. With the right sort of support, protective factors can guard people against the risk of suicide.
Suicide prevention should not be focused alone on reducing risk factors but just as focused, if not more so, on the increasing protective factors. The most powerful protective factors include building a connectedness with other people – they do not need to be about direct and targeted support. This connectedness with other people should include the types of engagements that allow the individual to directly and indirectly draw information about wellbeing, about navigating ones journey through society, and therefore predominately focus on self-worth, identity and conflict management.
Most importantly, health relationships will contextualise a meaningful life, an honest life, and this in itself is a relief from the conflict and discord that arise from unhealthy levels of expectations. Personal relationships are important, where the support person can understand that they are about support and not about any particular targeted responsibility to the individual. More research needs to be disaggregated on suicidal behaviour and mental disorders, but it appears the majority of suicidal behaviour is not linked to mental disorders and rather to a sense of deep unhappiness. Therefore families and communities can contribute significantly to the improving of the life understandings of a troubled person.
The risk of suicidal behaviour increases when individuals suffer various discord; such as relationship conflict or from a sense of loss or from a sense of failure. People need people. Isolation is dangerous. The best support comes from ones close social circle. Protective factors, support comes from the development of ones context of meanings but these too are contributed to by ones social circle. Where whole of communities are at a heightened risk of community distress, the greatest success found in reducing the levels of communal distress is when the social circle, that is the community, comes together to support one another – therefore inherently highlighting the context of their meanings. Inherently rather than troubled individuals isolated and effectively judged, they are understood and supported. This type of coming together by families, friends and/or communities to a troubled and isolated individual is about wellbeing. There may have been childhood trauma, uninterrupted childhood development – a series of emotional instabilities and turmoils that have affected personality traits which have given rise to unhappiness and suicidal risk factors. But good self-esteem and protective wellbeing factors will come from people coming together with the troubled individual at whatever point in time. These developmental interruptions, life stresses and unhappiness are not mental disorders that require specialist health practitioner support. Rather this is all about people coming together to secure healthy and positive relationship building, to patiently assist one with their self-esteem, to contextualise the path to positive self-identity and the pathways to positive outlooks. Attitude is imperative but it is something shaped by the individual and by those around the individual. People do listen; they listen to the negative and to the positive. Positive adaptive outcomes must be patiently but relentless educated and shaped, and the familial community support self-evident and generous. Once positive attitudes and positive coping understandings settle in as personality traits, the formerly troubled individual is effectively ‘safe’.
There needs to be in society greater onus on shared understandings of contextual meanings of what it takes to shape positive coping strategies in overcoming childhood adversity – abuse, maltreatment, of exposure to domestic violence, of parent mental disorder. There should be less focus and judgment on the fact of any difficult past, it should not be the focal point but if you read newspapers it is the focus. This bent of the past is damaging because it is a trapping. The discourse needs to be focused on the ways forward and in not holding oneself hostage to any past, or in holding any person or any set of events as responsible for any ongoing damage. Positive meanings and positive attitudes will lead to an understanding and forgiveness of the past and that the present and future can be shaped.
Destructive and self-destructive behaviours should be understood as situational and that individual, familial and community attitudes determine the length of these behaviours. Governments investing their attention in helping resource communities for instance to support others is imperative.
Globally, on average, suicide is the leading cause of violent deaths. Self-destructive and suicidal behaviours are responsible for more hospitalisation and for the descent into more social ills than by any other behaviours. Most suicidal behaviours are linked, and usually exclusively, to unhappiness. Therefore suicidal behaviour is preventable. I would argue that suicide and suicidal behaviour, and what leads to them, are the major health problems society face but of all our major health problems suicidal behaviour is the most preventable. Yet adequate suicide prevention is not prioritised by governments. Where causality is limited to relationship and social factors and to vulnerable individuals’ sense of feelings of hopelessness, the descent into a sense of entrapment and the responsive trait if impulsivity, then this behaviour can be addressed by positive mentoring.
Unhappiness is something that can be addressed holistically rather than it being compartmentalised as some sort of mental disorder manifestation and as of a runaway train risk factor to mental disorders. Unhappiness is a manifestation. The prevalence of suicide and suicidal behaviour is higher in high and middle income nations as opposed in low income nations. Similarly, rates of reported depressions and hospitalisations from self-harm are higher in high and middle income nations. Life stresses that lead to suicidal behaviour in some cultures do not lead to suicidal behaviour in other cultures. Therefore the context of our meanings and our support groups are pivotal.
The outlier with the above are the discriminated minorities and peoples. In nations, especially high and middle income nations, with relatively recent colonial oppressor histories, the descendants of the First Peoples have been degenerated to discriminated minorities. Unless the descendants of First Peoples accept homogeneity and hard edged assimilation they consequently experience a deep sense of discrimination. This goes to the heart of identity, to self-worth and esteem and their historical and contemporary identities become a liability. These disaggregated groups have the world’s highest rates of depressions, unhappiness, self-harms, suicidal behaviour and suicides. It is all about identity, whether for a vulnerable child, young adult, cultural group – the answers lay in respecting one another, being there for the other, empowering each other through meanings, relationships, freedoms and attitudinally.
Suicide prevention is about the positive self and any comprehensive response includes everyone. A comprehensive national response for suicide prevention requires understanding the above. Loose understandings will tighten if we begin to understand that the majority of suicidal behaviours are directly linked to trauma and unhappiness – to situational events. Contexts and understandings can be changed before dangerous reliefs from substance abusing are sought and before serious mental disorders set in.
The point is that suicides, our leading cause of violent deaths, which receive relative little mention in the news, are the most preventable violence. Self-destructive behaviours that can culminate in suicidal behaviours and distress families and communities are in fact a leading cause of familial breakdowns and of community distress. Once again, the point is that this behaviour is the most preventable of the various destructive behaviours that impact families and communities. These need to be prioritised in national conversations, by the media, by our governments.
The ways forward are there – healing and wellbeing are imperative, not only for those who experience trauma and unhappiness but also for those – such as the oppressor – who perpetrated the trauma and unhappiness – the oppressor needs healing too and to secure true wellbeing and if there were to be a shift in the research from the oppressed to the oppressor we’d also expose and reduce institutional and structural racism and the major part of the problems that contribute for instance to the high rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides in the high income nation of Australia.
Lifeline’s 24-hour hotline, 13 11 14 Crisis Support and Suicide Prevention
Beyond Blue – 1300 22 4636