The death of a child is always heartbreaking but when it is by suicide it is as devastating as it gets, with long term psychosocial effects. There is a whole different level of anguish and grief. However the majority of child suicides can be avoided. Each year, I support and am in contact with hundreds of suicide affected families. The tragedy of losing a child remains for me painfully bewildering. Only in a third of child suicides did the child tell someone that they were contemplating suicide. However in at least one in four child suicides we have been able to identify bullying as the underlying narrative or as the abominable tipping point.
Tragically, the child suicide toll discriminates. Suicide takes more Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children than it does non-Aboriginal children. Suicide also takes more migrant children from non-English cultural backgrounds. I work in trauma recovery with suicide affected families; Aboriginal, migrant, everyone. At least one quarter of these children would still be with us had it not been for bullying and the relentless psychological and emotional abuse.
Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander suicides comprise 7 per cent of Australia’s total suicides but shockingly 80 per cent of Australia’s child suicides aged 12 years and less are of Aboriginal children. I have often said “the nation should weep” at this harrowing tragedy, which is more than just a national shame and more so a national disgrace, an abomination, a damning condemnation of who we remain as a nation.
Thirty per cent of the children suicides to age 17 are comprised of Aboriginal children.
Child suicides overall are increasing in number, this is the grim reality. When a child gives up their life, on average three quarters of a century of potential life years are lost.
The tragedy of 14 year old Dolly Everett must galvanise the nation to respond not only to suicides that were culminated from bullying but also to child suicides period. In the weeks before and after Dolly’s tragic passing there were other children lost to suicide. We must come together to tell their stories, and on the ways forward.
Bullying is a significant factor in at least 25 per cent of the child suicides that I have come into contact with. Tragically, vulnerable Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children are at elevated risk. Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children are 20 times more prone to aberrant behaviours and to attempting suicide due to bullying. Migrant children, particularly from culture and language diverse backgrounds, are also more prone to attempting suicide due to bullying.
In general the poorer someone is the more vulnerable they are to bullying, to aberrant behaviour, to suicidal ideation. Forty per cent of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders live below the poverty line and my research has found that nearly 100 per cent of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander suicides are of people who lived below the poverty line. The suicides of Aboriginal people living above the poverty line are negligible and less than non-Indigenous Australians living above the poverty line.
There are no words possible to any family in the wake of the loss of their child. I remember each child’s funeral that I have attended. I remember in one community three children buried in five days, three graves in a row, the youngest a 15 year old girl. Two of the tragic losses bullying was the tipping point despite neither ever confiding in anyone suicidal ideation.
Bullying has to be taken on, the stories have to be told so as to galvanise tailor made education, to stop bullying, to educate protective factors into victims, to educate perpetrators.
Our hearts ache in the knowledge that children as young as six years old attempt suicide, as young as nine years of age lost to suicide.
Bullying, cyberbullying, emotional and psychological abuses, usually of a relentless and intensifying nature, have been significant in young lives lost. There needs to be authentic education in how to support our children who are victims to bullying, in how to be on the alert. If our governments can invest in as much outreach suicide prevention workers and counsellors that would be wonderful, it would save lives. There is no greater legacy than the one that saves lives.
Migrant children, often neglected in the suicide prevention discourses, are at elevated risk primarily because of racism, and because of the one size impost that must “they fit in”. This can lead to disordered thinking, to muddle minded concepts, to internalised conflict, to shame, to a diminution of the self.
Education campaigns cannot be limited to within the school because for the majority of Aboriginal child suicides, they are of children who did not attend school. They live extreme poverty-akin. In the remote and regions the majority of children do not attend school. There are communities where no child has completes secondary school. I journey to hundreds of communities. The education campaigns have to reach them, through all media platforms and through their community institutions and stalwarts.
We must counter bullying with intensity similar to the tackling of tobacco smoking, domestic violence and lateral violence.
Recently, I travelled to two island communities which recorded their first suicides. These island communities had been sheltered from the internet and social media platforms where bullying and mobbing play out in pronounced ways. Mid last year both island communities were connected to the internet, prior to this there had never been a recorded suicide attempt.
We must demand that bullying is tackled, and all other factors that culminate in suicide, are radically challenged but with a salt-of-the-earth approach, with the spreading of love.
In my suicide prevention work with hundreds of critically vulnerable children over the years, the increasing rates of suicidal ideation are intertwined significantly with intense bullying and when it is a public spectacle, where one bully is validated by another bully, where trolls become a mob, the affected can be aggressively damaged, psychosocially diminished. Bullying is a traumatic experience. Bullying leads the victim and perpetrator to cognitive and dialectic narrowing.
Everything that can be done to report bullying, to block cyberbullying should be done but with the digital world as it is this may not be easy. Therefore education is an imperative. We need to dawn new meanings, contextual understandings of the self, of the bully, and guide the affected and their families.
Child suicides are no longer rare. Child suicide rates are the highest they have ever been. More than 40,000 children aged 12 to 17 years are known to make a suicide attempt. One quarter of 16 year old females self-harm.
The suicide of a child is felt with deepest wound.
We do not need endless research, just the ways forward.