Australia is facing a suicide crisis that is not abating, it is continuing and getting worse. If the suicides tragedy among our First Nations peoples remains unaddressed it will escalate from tragedy to catastrophe – with near genocidal-like effects. The neglect of this crisis is dirty racism. Whereas 1 in 24 of Aboriginal and Islander deaths each year are by suicide this may soon reach 1 in 6. We have gone from 99 suicides per year, 2001 to 2010, to 130 suicides each year, 2011 to 2013. But by 2020 the national disgrace may well reach 400 suicides each year of First Nations peoples. This will forever cast an irremovable stain upon the heart of the Australian landscape.
Last year, I aggregated Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) hospital collated data on reported suicides of Aboriginal and Islander peoples – 996 suicides from 2001 to 2010. That is 1 in 24 of all deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – by suicide. After sustained coverage of the suicides crisis in The National Indigenous Times, by The National Indigenous Radio Service and The Stringer, the Federal Government finally paid attention – thanks to the Chair of the Indigenous Advisory Council, Warren Mundine. On October 23, he committed to “doing something about the suicides” and without further hesitation included the crisis to the Council’s mandate. Four months later, there have been several score more suicides while we wait for the Council to decide on the ways forward and leverage its heavyweight influence on Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
This week, I spent three days with Mr Mundine touring regional communities in Western Australia and we discussed the suicides crisis.
“(The Indigenous Advisory Council) are committed to doing something about the crisis.”
“As soon as we took it on I went to psychiatrists and psychologists and other experts to learn more. I do not pretend to be an expert on suicides and the crisis,” said Mr Mundine.
“In the suicide area it is a massive incredible problem we have in our communities. You know, that there are two things that I always say about Aboriginal and Islander peoples, that unlike the rest of Australia we know family members, we know community members who are in jail, incarcerated, we know family members and community members who have committed suicide. It is not a subject we are distanced from, it is a very personal thing with us.”
“For us it is about how we deal with this issue. I am not going to pretend I understand this area (suicides) and this is why I have gone out to find out more. I have consulted experts, psychiatrists and psychologists.”
Mr Mundine organised for two reports to be produced by eminent psychiatrists and psychologists who are expert in the field. Next week Mr Mundine will table the two reports to a three day meeting of the Council.
He said that the Council “would examine the reports and then table recommendations to the Prime Minister in actually how to deal with (the suicide crisis).”
“We have a society that has been invaded, colonised and the breakdown of society has led to the suicides – kids that don’t see a future for themselves. This is the main issue – they can’t see where they fit in, so for us it is important to help our people with education and jobs. We can then deal with getting the suicides down. It will take time,” said Mr Mundine.
“We need to get the funds needed from Treasury and then ensure we target the right areas.”
“It is about how do we fix this problem and help our people.”
There is no ABS data available since 2011, to formally determine whether the crisis has got worse during the last three years, but it has, it is not rocket science. Just like incarceration rates we know ahead of Government provided data, which usually lags two to three years, whether there are more people being arrested and jailed. I have been record keeping reported suicides – whether through the media, community organisations or via other sources – for my own academic research on premature and unnatural deaths. I have found that from the beginning of 2011 to end 2013 there have been nearly 400 suicides – child, youth and adult – of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
My own research estimates that the 996 suicides recorded between 2001 to 2010 are an under reporting of the actual numbers, and instead of 1 in 24 deaths by suicide, I have estimated that the rate of suicide was between 1 in 12 to 1 in 16. And when we add these to death by substance abuse and other self-harm we have crises that have been for far too long swept under the proverbial carpet. And for every suicide there are a score of attempted suicides and scores of self-harms. The 2001 to 2010 suicides averaged 99.96 suicides per year. My research compilations during the last three years of Aboriginal and Islander suicides are at nearly 400, no less than 380. Where there had been an average 99 deaths by suicide from 2001 to 2010, according to my research the annual average for 2011 to 2013 has tragically increased to approximately 130 suicides per annum.
The suicide crisis among our First Nations Peoples should be this nation’s number one priority – all attention should be on why children and young adults are suiciding in numbers never before known to this nation – what is now our darkest tragedy. There are 170 at-risk communities without adequate funding to implement long overdue suicide prevention strategies and empowerment programs.
Between 2007 to 2011 the Productivity Commission found the Northern Territory had a dramatically higher suicide rate than the other major jurisdictions in the nation, generally more than double, with 21 suicides per 100,000. The national rate for suicides is at 10.3 however tragically pales to the 22.3 per 100,000 for First Nations peoples.
The most horrific statistic in the nation once again belongs to that champion of neglect and racism, our wealthiest State, Western Australia – where the Aboriginal population, less than 3 per cent of the State’s total population, has a suicide rate of 35.9 per 100,000.
Extreme poverty is a major factor, the fact that it continues as chronic has catapulted people into despair and hopelessness. Several successive Federal and State Governments have been fully aware of the delirious fast paced crisis and tragedy but none have been prepared to shift urgent funding to policies that can significantly reduce the crisis and end the tragedy – this in the world’s 12th largest economy, 2nd wealthiest nation per capita. This is racism by neglect, racism by omission, racism by cruelty, just plain ugly and bloody racism.
Thus far the very limited spending has been targeted to mental health whereas the predominant spending should be to non-mental health related suicide prevention strategies, various services funding and community-led initiatives which engage directly with at-risk citizens and community groups, and where able funding for programs to get young children to value-added esteem building with on-Country experiences, complementing fundamental psychosocial and capacity building endeavours.
Educative programs need to be funded, the type of education that guides to life skill building pathways and inspires real hope. Funding needs to be upped and disbursed equally per capita to each community, not to some communities only while others miss out altogether because funding is capped.
The suicide crisis can be abated but it will take visits to all communities to map this out, and I discussed some of this with Mr Mundine and with the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion.
Mental health spending and suicide prevention (psychosocial health development) spending must be separated, and for the most part they must not overlap. Surprisingly though, the Productivity Commission revealed decreased proportional community-based services spending in the Northern Territory for 2011-12 where suicide risk is at crisis levels.
According to the ABS, the suicide rate of Aboriginal adult males is highest within the 25 to 29 years age group with 91 deaths per 100,000 as compared to 22 deaths per 100,000 for their non-Aboriginal counterparts. With Aboriginal adult females, the suicide rate is highest within the 20 to 24 years age group with 22 deaths per 100,000, more than five times higher than their non-Aboriginal counterparts, 4 deaths per 100,000. This demonstrates the sense of utter hopelessness felt by far too many in what should be the prime of life.
Thirty years ago Aboriginal youth was not suiciding at current rates, nor was this the case twenty years ago. Not only are the suicide rates rising, but the median age of child, youth and adult suicides are getting lower and lower. Seven and eight year olds are taking their lives.
Much of the hope of previous generations invested in the Black Power movements, in the Land Rights movements, in the striving for Treaty and equality has dissipated for many First Nations peoples who have waited and nothing positive has eventuated for them, and for many the belief is that they have less now than they did two decades ago. I have interviewed more than 100 Territorian Aboriginal Elders, and similarly more than 100 Aboriginal Western Australian Elders for research titled “” and “ ” and the overwhelming majority described beliefs that all they or their parents struggled for two and three decades ago has now vanished. They despair at being effectively forced into surrendering culture, their homelands, their right to their historical identity but underneath all this it is psychosocial health that has been impacted, its energy – hope – has been saturated.
I have been to more impoverished communities than most people – to the most deplorable shanty towns. Most of our regional towns are skirted by abject grinding poverty near exclusive with Aboriginal misery, with social ills that should have no place in Australia – but then Australia is a racist nation. Passive and casual racism are not the same as the ugly racism of this nation which allows for an acute third-world akin poverty en masse only to its First Nations peoples. And this ugly racism should never be dumbed down as passive racism because this too is a veil and layer of racism, of hostile denial. This ugly racism is responsible for jailing our Aboriginal and Islander peoples at the world’s highest rates and which has in part given rise to them suiciding at the world’s highest rates.
If we do not call the wrongs, point out the ills for what they are then we will never change anything. We should not lie to ourselves. The lying costs lives.
The suicide crisis cannot be abated with the usual drop in the bucket funding – the funding needs to be significantly upped and the carpetbaggers who benefit from the disadvantage of others and contextually deliver very little need to either nick off or be told to go. It is scratching the surface only in employing psychiatrists and psychologists to do some counselling and bandaging. We have to face the fact that our Government will not allocate the type of funding needed, the funding that morally they should scrub up – and I have been pushing them, telling them that they can have no greater legacy to be proud of than to save lives, and by one means or another introducing them to the coalface workers who tell them the same thing. On-Country programs are a step in the right direction but they are only relief, a holiday from reality – people return to their realities, psychosocially a little stronger but without any guarantee that they will not relapse into the abyss of hopelessness.
The extreme third world-akin poverty has broken people who see around them an affluent nation that they do not fit in. The young are destroyed by seeing their parents and grandparents drifting aimless, hanging on forlornly to remnants of culture while they are patronised by visiting bureaucrats and affluent locals during sporadic food, song, dance events. The despair from the situational trauma displaces anger onto the self, then displaces it onto the parents, back onto the self, onto community, back to the self, onto authority, often leading to confrontation – arrest and incarceration – the anger comes back to the self with self-destruction near complete via various substance abuses and for far too many the multiple traumas and self-harms culminate in suicide – relieving them of their sense of the abyss like hopelessness, of their painful aimlessness, of the asphyxiating anger, of the bastard dark tumult, and from the bloodthirsty dirty racism that they feel imprisoned by that makes them feel next-to-nothing.
I am hoping the Indigenous Advisory Council secures as much available funding as possible – record levels of it – not the paltry $17.8 million over four years allocated by the previous Government for suicide prevention strategies that left an unmet need of 170 communities. As Mr Mundine said “we have to get it right” so that the funding reaches those in need. Secondly, a crack team of experts needs to be put together and visit every at-risk community in the nation, it may take half a year or more but it needs to occur. They need to identify each community’s role models, leaders and most trusted individuals and engage them to work pro-socially with youth and the families – muster educative campaigns that bring on the real hope, the road to opportunity, breakdown the psychosocial barriers and restore or build psychosocial identity. What is happening with this tragic suicide crisis is no longer only about historical and contemporary cultural identities, this is about self-worth, about dignity, about hope, about belief and capacity building, it is about the love of life needing to be reclaimed, restored, and invigorated – and with honesty, not setting people up for failure. Because of the drawn out smashing of hope, there has culminated a subsequent disassociation with all things else, including historical and contemporary identities. We need to restore psychosocial health – the foundations for the deposits of human worth and dignity.
If Australia does not act now, then we will continue to be responsible for this crisis – a crisis that is heading from deplorable tragedy to genocidal-like catastrophe. If we do not act responsibly and honourably then the Australian national consciousness may not recover. I believe Mr Mundine will make the rightful recommendations to the Indigenous Advisory Council and I believe that it is likely the Indigenous Advisory Council will make the rightful recommendations to the Prime Minister and to the Cabinet, Consequently, it will be up to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet to ensure they do not lose even a day in implementing the recommendations.
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