There are no words imaginable to describe the loss to suicide of a nine, ten, eleven-year-old child. An Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander child aged 14 years and less, is nearly nine times more likely to ideate suicide than a non-Aboriginal child.
That this should be their lot is an abomination – moral, political and otherwise. We were not put on this earth to bury our children, but tragically it happens. I have often despaired at the sense of hopelessness that many young people feel – indeed from the beginning of life.
Recently, I was in a large regional community where we buried three young people in five days, the youngest a 15-year-old girl, and another was 17. Their graves in a row, an image bent into my memory that will never leave me. I wailed on the inside, that each of these young ones surrendered more than a half century of potential life years.
The contributing factors are multifactorial and intertwined however, they are underwritten by acute poverty, disadvantage and marginalisation the like that should make no sense in one of the world’s wealthiest nations. We are the world’s 12th largest economy, but also home to third-world-akin poverty for many of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders brothers and sisters.
The majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander regional communities are denied an equivalency of social infrastructure and services and opportunity that regional non-Aboriginal communities enjoy. This denial of the suite of infrastructure and services that the non-Aboriginal communities enjoy as a natural right translates toxically as racism.
Racism has many veils and layers and indeed this incongruous disparity is racism. How are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, people supposed to navigate their cultural settings – that of their own and that of mainstream Australia – when they are denied the instruments needed?
The multifactorial issues that lead to suicide are the same that lead to the abominable arrest, jail, homeless rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples - to the abominable self-harm and suicide rates.
Nationally, one in nine of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have been to jail. In my experiences - with people pre- and post-release from prison, in general they come out worse than when they went in. In Western Australia and the Northern Territory, this staggering statistic is even worse – one in six have done prison time.
Today, one in 13 of Western Australia’s Aboriginal adult males are in prison. Prisons are filled with the low level offending borne of the tsunami of poverty related issues.
In the very least prison should be a transformative experience, restorative, a place where the onus is on healing and wellbeing, and from a place of wellbeing hence we further assist people – who indeed are crying out for that help – to the pathways that we all dream of.
In my time in the tertiary sector, I have assisted many former inmates and homeless individuals into education. Not only did I assist them into gaining entry to an educational institution, but assisted them from the point of entry to the point of exit. The retention rate was high because they wanted to deliver on the prospect of real hope – who doesn’t? None of these souls I assisted landed back in jail or homeless on our streets. People need people – people can strengthen people.
Preventing suicide - there are many ways forward
Suicide rates among the descendants of First Peoples within middle and high income nations with relatively recent colonial oppressor histories are the world’s highest. Of the world’s middle and high income nations with recent colonial oppressor histories, Australia has the widest divide in all measurable indicators between its First Peoples and the rest of the population.
To the core, suicides are about identity, resistance to one-stop-shop assimilation, racialisation, racism, powerlessness, hopelessness, chronic pain and trauma. Situational trauma as a constant narrative degenerates to multiple and composite traumas, and for many ruins lives with aggressive complex traumas. Understanding difference and unfairness is a first step in suicide prevention.
Suicide prevention should not be focused alone on reducing risk factors, but just as focused, if not more so, on increasing protective factors. 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 the factors that lead to suicide are 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. There are many ways forward.
It is long overdue that a national inquiry or Royal Commission into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders suicides should be had.
We cannot continue to live in the silences, and dangerously internalise this tragedy. This humanitarian crisis needs to translate from pressing issues to national priority.
There is no greater legacy than to improve the lot of others, to the point of changing lives, saving lives.
Gerry Georgatos, suicide prevention researcher, Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights, and a member of several national suicide prevention projects.