The record-high suicide rates among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are the result of the racist policies of one government after another. Government after government have degraded the majority of their communities to the most abominable social health quotients. They have denied Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities an equivalency of social wealth enjoyed by non-Aboriginal communities. They should have been entitled to this equivalent social wealth with which to navigate two cultural settings without impost. In trying to understand the majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides we must shift from focusing per se on the individual and instead focus on the circumstances.
Without an economic response to the impoverished communities that at long last bespeaks of equality there can be no building of resilience.
When governments end their depraved racist policies and finally believe in equality ‘without exception’ and demonstrate this by doing the equality then Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children will not be born into a sense of hopelessness, into a racial divide. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 14 years and less are eight times more likely to die by suicide than non-Aboriginal children aged 14 years and less. This is a moral abomination.
For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders aged 15 to 25 years they are nearly four and half times more likely to die by suicide than non-Aboriginal Australians aged 15 to 25 years.
The most shocking statistic – the one that should toll loud and clear through the national consciousness – is that nearly one in three Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders aged 15 to 35 years die by suicide. One in three deaths by suicide.
The suicide rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders aged 15 and 25 years and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders aged 25 and 35 years are both nearly 40 suicides per 100,000 population. The national trend for suicide for the Australian population is 10 per 100,000 population but for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders standalone the suicide rate is 21 per 100,000 population. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders living in the Kimberley and in far north Queensland their suicide rate is higher than 70 per 100,000 population.
Suicide is the tragic end, the tip of the iceberg – the various cumulative distress is on the increase, correlated by increasing daily hardships and the constant of a declining social health quotient (composed of the social determinants). In the 2012-13 financial year stretch nearly 2,500 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander were admitted to hospital for intentional self-harming. In the last ten years the sense of hopelessness in steeply degraded communities has led to significant increases in self-harming in both women and men, to levels now more than double the number of hospital admissions ten years ago. This is a clear indicator that hopelessness is overwhelming, entrenched.
Extreme poverty is the major driver to the disparity in economic and social determinants. Extreme poverty is what has led to 15 per cent of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population of the Kimberley eking out life in one form of homelessness or another. Extreme poverty is what has led to 13 per cent of Western Australia’s Aboriginal adult males in prison. Extreme poverty is what has led to 98 per cent of the Northern Territory’s juvenile detention comprised of Aboriginal youth.
A startling statistic is that two per cent of the continent’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population is in prison – this is higher than the world’s highest national jailing rate, that of the mother of all jailers, the USA, which has imprisoned nearly one per cent of its total population. It is self-evident that poverty is what is driving the horrific American incarceration rate.
This tragic statistical ‘victory’ over the American jail rate must be in understood in context – as to how dramatic the American jailing rate is. The United States of America has the world’s highest incarceration rate – 716 people jailed per 100,000 of the national population. The USA represents less than four and half per cent of the world’s population but accounts for thereabouts 22 per cent of the world’s prisoners. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the national average imprisonment rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is 2,241 per 100,000 adult Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population – more than three times the rate of the mother of all jailers.
The imprisonment rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander females is now at 439 per 100,000 adult female Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. The imprisonment rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males demonstrates Australian made racism – 4,092 prisoners per 100,000 adult male Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Extreme poverty in Australia is racialised – marginalised wholesale to a multitude of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities – impoverished communities. Then there is the composite trauma from inter-generational traumas borne of the colonial oppressor and the litany of cruelties of their apartheid regime.
According to the ABS the number of prisoners increased by 10 per cent in the past year to reach a high of nearly 36,000, with the national imprisonment rate climbing to 194 prisoners per 100,000 adult population – the brunt borne by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Thereabouts 10,000 prisoners are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders – an abominable number, with 90 per cent males and 10 per cent females.
Western Australia is the worst culprit in the nation – jailing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders at 3,700 per 100,000, followed by the Northern Territory at just over 3,000 per 100,000 and then South Australia at over 2,500 per 100,000. The more west we journey across the continent the worse it gets for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – the more extreme the poverty, the higher the homelessness rates, the higher the arrest rates, the higher the jailing rates, the more the suicides.
I know my writing over the years about the incarceration rates, about the reasons behind the arrest and jailing rates and about the suicide rates had become somewhat of a broken record, but in the last year more journalists have been writing about these than before. This augurs a little well, it is a beginning. What we need now is for these same journalists and public media analysts to focus on the true cause to these cruelly disparate rates – and if they do this then this will lead them to what many of us know, to the cesspool of Australian made racism that has delivered the extreme poverty in which one quarter of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have been marginalised within – corrals of misery, the narrative of abominable human suffering – utter racism.
There is no ‘Indigenous disadvantage’ spending to address this. Less than 50 cents additional for every dollar spent on Australians in general is spent on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and most of that 50 cents does not hit the ground, instead ends up with bureaucrats and carpetbaggers. To address the disadvantage, to redress within a generation all the injustices hit on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the spending on the affected would have to be at least $6 dollars additional for every dollar spent on each Australian, not less than 50 cents. This is the very least that we can do. The incarceration and suicide rates will continue unless we address the social determinants with equality.
Declaration – Gerry Georgatos is a researcher in suicide prevention and racism and is involved with various national and community projects in suicide prevention.
Lifeline’s 24-hour hotline, 13 11 14
Crisis Support and Suicide Prevention Beyond Blue – 1300 22 4636
Other articles and media on the suicide crisis and suicide prevention by Gerry Georgatos:
CAAMA Radio – Gerry Georgatos Speaks out on Aboriginal Suicide.