– “Do not despair friend. You are a friend to many. You may not know it but your articles are widely read. You have saved many lives including my own. Thank you.”
Suicide prevention should be one of the most urgent priorities of our times – globally and nationally. The rates of suicide should be known, disaggregated and unmasked as the humanitarian crisis that in effect it is – though little known, suicide is one of the issues of our times. Annually, around the world suicide takes more lives on average than wars, civil strife, all violence combined. It takes more lives annually than most diseases do. In Australia, suicides exceed road fatalities. Why then is not suicide prevention one of the national priorities?
On average one in 20 of Australia’s First Peoples will die by suicide, this is catastrophic, but the real rate is more likely one in 10 – there are under-reporting issues.
One in ten deaths by suicide, this is a moral abomination.
Wholesale Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander suicide prevention can only succeed if it includes the redressing of inequalities in reference to the social determinants – homelessness, housing, social infrastructure, education – the elimination of extreme poverty. Without the strengthening of social health, far too many will lapse under pressures culminating in depression, clinical disorders and violence. Substance abuses are merely dangerous attempts at relief from the various dysfunction and sense of hopelessness.
The radical reduction in suicide rates among this continent’s First Peoples will not be achieved without social inequalities redressed, without degraded communities and towns of predominant Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander populations at long last brought to parity with the rest of the nation in terms of their social conditions.
Suicide prevention workshops, suicide prevention ambassadors and reductionist policies dealing with symptoms rather than causality will not only go nowhere but will more than likely ensure suicide rates increase, and that attempted suicides and intentional self-harm rates continue. Any strategy that suggests or claims it can achieve radical reductions with Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander suicide rates without an investment in social infrastructure is lying. By now everyone should know better.
Western Australia is the wealthiest jurisdiction in Australia. Australia is the world’s 12thlargest economy. Western Australia has the world’s highest median wage. But far too many of the State’s First Peoples live impoverished, live in third-world-akin conditions. Western Australia’s suicide rate is higher than the national rate. From 2007 to 2012 it had a suicide rate of 13.9 per 100,000 population but if you subtract the State’s Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander population, which is less than 3 per cent of the State’s total population, the State’s suicide rate would be significantly lower. In the same period the State’s suicide rate for its First Peoples was nearly 40 per 100,000 population.
Suicide is the tip of the iceberg, the worst culmination. Nearly 400,000 Australians each year contemplate suicide, with thereabouts 70,000 suicide attempts annually.
Western Australia has the highest rate of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander suicide in the nation, and especially so since 2005. The Kimberley’s First Peoples have the nation’s highest rate of suicide, matched sadly by Far North Queensland’s First Peoples.
The only way to bring on radical reductions in the rates are through transformational ideologues –rates of intentional self-harms, attempted suicides and suicides will only be brought at least in line with non-Aboriginal rates when equality is dished out; by equality I mean the investment in the social infrastructure of communities, towns, urban masses predominately populated by First Peoples but for too long degraded by one government after another.
Anything else is mindless hogwash, more neglect and endless racism.
In understanding causality, one must understand the social health of a community, whether in the remote or in a large urban mass. The social and emotional wellbeing of a community or urban mass is borne of its overall social health. Extreme poverty is the predominant factor, the cesspool from where within social distress brews. Poverty in middle and high income nations marginalises peoples, driving the suicides, just as it drives offending and incarceration. Poverty is not so much of a factor in low income nations, as there is a sense of equality in low income nations. However being born into disadvantage in a middle or high income nation highlights unfairness, discrimination, racism.
Substance abusing is not the causal factor but a subsequent factor.
The disparity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal suicide rates in the Kimberley is among the world’s widest. The disparity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal suicide rates in Far North Queensland is among the world’s widest. This is therefore a racialised issue, therefore in effect racism – the extreme poverty, social inequalities, deprivation, degradation of communities. The impoverishment of these communities is not the making of the people of these communities but is the making of one government after another; inducing the extreme poverty by chronic neglect, by denying them, cheating them.
When a suicide rate of a whole region is maintained over a period of ten years as high as 70 suicides per 100,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander population, seven times the national rate, then this is an indictment.
This is moral abomination.
People strengthening people – focus on suicide prevention
Suicidal behaviour does not mean that someone wants to die, this is a dangerous myth. 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. People need people to strengthen their resolve to the ways forward, even just to survive. Suicidal behaviour is destructive behaviour that can lead to impulsive actions such as a suicide attempt.
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.
It is true that a powerful indicator to future risk of suicide is a prior suicide attempt however this does not mean that the heightened risk shall be there for life. Indeed, 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 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.
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.
Understanding difference and unfairness is a first step in suicide prevention.
Suicide rates among the descendants of First Peoples within middle and high income nations with colonial oppressor histories are the world’s highest. Therefore the suicides are obviously about identity, resistance to assimilation, racialisation, racism, powerlessness, hopelessness, chronic pain and trauma. One of the strongest indicators for an individual or family for future suicide risk is the fact of a prior suicide attempt(s). Equally, this applies to groups of people, many through a racialised lens, such as the descendants of First Peoples. They can be disaggregated demographically to a region or community. Where for instance the community has a history of reported depressions and self-harms, of suicidal behaviour and suicides, then there is a future risk of self-destructive and suicidal behaviour within that community.
Suicidal behaviour is often the culmination of a set of experiences, events and of an underlay of feelings – how one feels about themselves contextually in light of the experiences and events. Self-destructive and suicidal behaviours can increase in a community that experiences trauma collectively – sharing around the trauma and the sense of hopelessness. Where governments continue to fail communities, especially those populated by minorities, with disparity and inequalities in social wealth and health that should have been equivalent to the rest of the nation’s social wealth and health, then often it is up to communities to tap into their trusted leaders to look out for one another and educate others to empowerment of the self, to a sense of self and place, and similarly so communally.
People need people, especially in these communities that are deprived and discriminated by governments. Many communities have third rate services, while some communities are effectively starved of some of the most basic services. In these discriminated communities, the residents cannot continue to cry out to governments, because it is the very government they cry out to who is their oppressor, who discriminates against them. Often if they cry out loud enough for long enough, the community is meted punitive measures and controls which are more about blaming the community than helping. With some communities, governments have gone as far as shutting them down. Therefore the social and emotional wellbeing of the community encumbered by such tumult must arrive from its residents.
Hopelessness is a strong indicator of heightened vulnerability to self-destructive behaviour. Hopelessness has to do with the culmination of overwhelming feelings or beliefs that the future is bleak. Hopelessness exhausts motivation. Where hopelessness is engrained as a whole of family or whole of community approach, the despair and self-destruction begins from a younger age. “It’s our lot”. “It’s the burden of our people.” “Things will never get better.”
The sense of hopelessness is chronic and for some becomes unbearable. Losing someone close to you is a devastating experience. Dealing with their distress in the lead up to their loss is a devastating experience. Having to deal with familial distresses, as if recurring, with other family members is destructive – the objects and functions of the family take a toll, a real beating. For some they are psychologically and emotionally battered, and the damage takes the form of an overwhelming feeling of the irreparable. Having to deal with ongoing destructive behaviours, with a communal sense of hopelessness, with the overwhelming backdrop of a deprived and discriminated against community, is tortuously exhausting and simply heartbreaking. Community distress and breakdowns occur just like a family can breakdown – indeed, a whole community can breakdown. Hopelessness and despair can be treated as if normalised.
Suicide prevention must be understood in terms of who it is we are responding to: an individual overwhelmed by expectations, an individual overwhelmed by a sense of failure, an individual overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness, an individual overwhelmed by trauma, an individual overwhelmed by a sense that their identity is a liability, a family overwhelmed by trauma and grief, a community overwhelmed by most of the above: hopelessness, trauma, discrimination, deprivation, racism – the sense the future is ‘bleak’ and ‘unfair’.
A couple of years ago I wrote:
– Suicides are nearly always the culmination of a sense of hopelessness and eventual loss of resilience in enduring unbearable conditions or from the result of intolerable failure(s) whether these failures are associated to low or high expectations. Suicide takes more lives of Australian teenagers aged 14 to 18 years than does any disease. Suicide has to do with the psychosocial identity – in a nutshell, to do with empowerment verse disempowerment.
– The journey to suicide is a psychosocial one – the eroding of identity or the stalling of its development; for First Peoples that can mean their historical and contemporary identities are both eroded and manufactured as a liability – and knowing this, living this, can lead directly to suicide. The number of suicides is increasing each year and the median age getting younger each year.
– Social and economic development must occur to fix dustbowl communities, shanty towns, which were the horrible work of governments rushing people off Country, or which because of the outrageous neglect by governments we have a deplorable inadequacy of social wealth in Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander communities. But this social and economic development will at best only somewhat reduce the suicides crisis and the whole spectrum of issues that culminate in self-destruction, displaced anger, disassociated behaviours, self-harms and suicides, but it will not abate the crisis. However the redress will go a long way to radically reducing the crisis. We have two distinct cultures in this nation – Western-based cultures and First Peoples cultures, and they do confront each other, especially in the remote but also in urban centres, and they do clash. To reject this premise will translate in more failed policies or the setting up of more failure and of wasted expenditure. Failure adds up and there reaches a point where it becomes systemic, ruination and despair, genocidal.
– Far too many commentators, far too many politicians have been pushing the line that the suicides crises afflicting First Peoples communities are extremely complex and that the solutions are not easily identifiable, but ironically they then try to push on us simplistic solutions – they say we need to get people into education and jobs. Indeed it is somewhat the opposite, the causes are obvious and the solutions are a little more complex than ‘education and jobs’.
I also suggested:
– The management of ones place within society is critical, and we must be solid in our thinking so as to do everything possible to allow them to navigate their way through society and to their right to empowerment. The majority of First Peoples have taken generational hits to their identity and therefore into the engine room that is self-esteem. These hits have crippled far too many, and these hits distinguish First Peoples from the rest of the Australian population – First Peoples have experiences that non-First Peoples cannot fathom. For many First Peoples their identity is often a liability, historically, culturally and contemporarily. To compound this layered trauma is the fact that a fifth of all First Peoples live in third-world-akin conditions. And far too many are now broken by the crushed hopes they once pegged everything on. There was a huge investiture of faith in the freedom struggles of the 60s, 70s, 80s, in the land rights struggle, in the Black Power movement, in the striving for Treaty, in native title expectations – but for all the good that has come for many there are also far too many who have had their hopes dashed, their expectations betrayed.
– In remote communities, where there is a disproportionate spike in the spates of suicides, particularly youth suicides, impoverishment quantifiably makes difficult the satisfactory navigation of ones identity through society. Children and youth in communities such as Beagle Bay, One Mile Community, Kennedy Hill, Mowanjum, Balgo for example watch their parents and the majority of their community languish in impoverishment. It gets worse for them – salt poured into the wounds – when they watch their families patronised by the sporadic visits of outsiders, by non-Aboriginal bureaucrats, by the affluent locals who come into the communities for a limited exchange of food, song, dance and ‘reconciliation’ events. Then they go, but their parents and community continue on in impoverishment and in hopelessness. These confrontational experiences wrought negative psychosocial effects on the children, driving in messages of inescapable inequality.
– I have met a great many community leaders in my travels, and interviewed many of these leaders. The themes are the same, and the impacts are the same – suffering. Assimilation is only well and good for those who want it but wholesale assimilation is indeed a crime against humanity. Assimilation is no longer a silent killer – we see day in day out the tragedy and extensiveness of the suicides crises. Humanity works best by carrying all people, and by unfolding through an engagement of one another, and certainly never by a majority trying to outmuscle a minority. Humanity must unfold ways forward, and exert endless patience, and never bully others. Assimilation demands the extinguishment of a cultural normative. The humiliation that those children feel in the communities I named offends the psyche and permits anger to arise; this anger can run amok.
– Anger is displaced to the parent, back on to the self, displaced to extended family, back on to the self, displaced on to community, this can lead to violence, the anger always comes back to the self, displaced on to authority, often leading to confrontation and arrest, to incarceration where self-destruction is at a premium, and for those who do degenerate into confrontations with community and authority, and who do not have solid support to turn to, the anger accumulates, becomes unbearable and to find relief it culminates in self-harm, in substance abuses, and tragically for some, in suicide.
In being honest about suicide prevention we must understand the person, family or community we are responding to. We must respond to who they are and therefore to how they should be treated. It is not an equitably fair world. To act as if it is or that it should be is to dangerously dismiss the stresses unique to some but not to others. To act as if life should be fair to people living in deprivation and discrimination when life will not be fair to people living in deprivation and discrimination is to pass the buck to an argument that redress is the solution, when in fact this will be the least likely outcome. To quote Professor Taiaiakei Alfred, the ‘chattering classes’ can carry on all they like about ‘reconciliation’, and I’ll add in, ‘closing the gap’ on inequalities, but life/society, the products of dominant cultures, of the ruling classes and of their governments, are unfair. In order to deal with the narrative of those in the now, rather than deal with a body politic, we have to accept that life is shit for far too many and acknowledge their anguish, pain, discrimination and suffering as real and longstanding. Our immediate aim must be to help them to develop and understand resilience and help them with a context of a meaningful life from which they can beat a path away from or around the effects of unfairness. We cannot dictate to everyone who is discriminated while they are suffering that we must strive for a ‘fair’ or ‘fairer’ world. This will come at the cost of their wellbeing and that of those to follow them. Let us work with people first, and worry about changing the world second. To understand people in terms of their discrimination, whether this discrimination is dished out inadvertently or intentionally by governments, and by some of the ‘chattering classes’, is a step in the right direction. When I say or write that “People need people”, I mean this in that we must focus on each other, not pass the buck to blaming someone for their lot. We can see the poor and marginalised are victims; blaming others will still not help anyone. We must understand, that racism, and other imposts, are the landscape for many. To pass the buck here by blaming racists for racism, is a waste of time. The end to racism has quite a journey to go. In understanding this rather than denying this by getting angry at the unfairness of the racism, of the discrimination, by saying merely it should not be this way, is a step in the right direction. We should not posit the crap that the answer to someone’s suffering is to change the landscape, because in doing so we leave behind the victims to a longer and much more dangerous journey. Each person, each family, each community in distress needs our undivided attention – this constitutes the biggest first step in helping those who are victim day in day out to discrimination, unfairness and so on. It is our duty to help them and it is our duty apart from the helping to tackle government into changing the landscape.
Suicide is heading to a humanitarian crisis – it is a leading cause of death
According to the World Health Organisation Global Health Estimates, there were reportedly 804,000 deaths by suicide in 2012. In my estimates, if we are to factor in unreported and unclassified suicides the suicide toll is more than likely in fact at least double the report numbers. The highest suicide trends are disproportionately prevalent in western nations, in developed nations, in nations with relatively recent colonial oppressor histories where today the descendants of their First Peoples are discriminated minorities.
An aggregation of only high-income nations comprising only 18 per cent of the world’s total population are responsible for one quarter of the world’s reported suicides – nearly 200,000 deaths by suicide.
However we also need to look at high-income nations with colonial oppressor histories. We need to look at the depression rates, self-harm and suicide rates among the descendants of their First Peoples, who in many of these high-income nations have now become minorities. The majority of the world’s high-income nations have minorities of First Peoples with among the world’s highest depression, self-harm and suicide rates. Oppression continues as an ongoing trauma manifest from the effects of racialised marginalisation. Identity, historical and contemporary, has become a liability for far too many – with constant attacks on their identity – on who they are or should be. These attacks are made on a daily basis by politicians, journalists, social commentators, people in general. Race, racialisation and racism become troubling issues – psychologically and emotionally abusive washes of sweeping generalisations, prejudices and biases.
Each year in Australia, tens of thousands are admitted to hospital for self-harm. This should be seen as a high-needs group and while hospitalised an opportunity for more to be done psychosocially to help them.
It is a myth to presume that the majority of suicides occur without warning. In fact, the majority of suicides have a significant period preceding them where there have been warning signs – verbal and/or behavioural. People need people – and these warning signs should never be dismissed. Prevention strategies must include response systems and task forces who are accessible 24/7 to assist people – in reality these response systems should be set up in ways that if necessary people can be assisted psychosocially and empowered, from a very young age and to as old as. Governments should pay attention in many different ways to warning signs – where these warnings bespeak of a troubled community, regions, clusters, contagion effect, then socioeconomics factors may need to be addressed, or the empowerment of communities long denied this natural right in terms of their right to manage their own affairs and the right to advance their unfolding within their own terms.
Suicide is heading to a humanitarian crisis, but there is very little discussion and attention given to it, despite it being a leading cause of death. But for many minorities it is already a humanitarian crisis – of catastrophic proportions.
Understanding Australia’s suicide crisis
Each day, a suicide is brought to my attention. I have written widely on the suicide crises.
Suicide is the number one cause of death in Australia for males who are aged 14 to 50 years. More lives are lost to suicide nationally than are lost to any other tragedy including road fatalities.
The most at-risk group to suicide are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander males aged 25 to 30 years. It could be that half of all deaths in this group are by suicide.
This is a moral abomination.
Last year, Kija Elder and Kimberley parliamentarian Josie Farrer said to me, “The communities need not only services but also economic and social development. They are impoverished and are not able to keep up with the cost of living let alone enjoy the aspirations most of the rest of the nation enjoys.”
“Can you imagine what it is like for a young father on Centrelink or on low income to have to meet rising costs to keep a roof over his young family and to have to afford nutritious food for the table but then to not be able to afford all this?”
“Healthy food is much more expensive in the remote and regions than it is in capital cities and in big towns. Price hiking doesn’t worry whether you are poor.”
What needs to be done will only be achieved when the right people are in the right appointments to lead the way. This is my close up experience.
There is no greater legacy that any parliamentarian can have than to have played a role in improving the lot of others – their living conditions – response systems – to the point that lives are saved – reducing community distress, reducing dysfunction, reducing poverty-related offending, reducing the rate of premature, unnatural deaths and suicides.
I write again, there is no greater legacy than in the saving of lives.
Gerry Georgatos is a researcher suicide prevention and in racism
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:
Kirstie Parker, Mick Gooda say enough of fine words – close the gap a big fat lie