Today is World Suicide Prevention Day and so far this year, according to the metrics available, we will have potentially lost over 110 of our mob to suicide. That’s about one family member of ours dying by suicide every 2 days. Every 2 days someone is confronted with finding this person, or confronted with the knowledge that their father, mother, brother, sister, nephew, niece, son, daughter, cousin, grandmother, grandfather, husband, wife, girlfriend, boyfriend, or mate has ended their life.
Recently I was reading about a 13-year-old Caucasian boy who had killed himself. He had left a suicide note. In that note he wrote about how he was bullied. It had me think that without that note, how would his suicide be thought of. What would be the public response? What would they be thinking, compassion, hopefully? Bullying is so awful. It happened to me in my teens. But, if there wasn't a note, would it be any different? How does the general public react when a 13-year-old Caucasian boy dies by suicide?
Let’s hypothesise for a moment. What if that 13-year-old boy was Indigenous, and there was no note? What would be the public response? Compassion too, I’d hope. But the reality is, that is rarely the case. A pre-existing narrative exists in the mind of a majority of the Australian public, on what life is like for an Indigenous 13-year-old. We saw it happen earlier this year when an Indigenous girl, aged 10, died by suicide.
In a previous SBS post, the Children’s Rights Commissioner, Megan Mitchell shared that 'suicide is a leading cause of death for young Australians between 5 and 17’. That alone should shock us into action. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, for the period 2009 to 2013, there were 374 recorded child suicides for that same age group. 28 percent of which were Indigenous children. Indigenous child suicides in the 4 to 11 age group, account for 80 percent.
Of the 374 child suicides, 269 (or 72%) were non-Indigenous. How these 269 non-Indigenous child suicides get played out in the media (if at all), is not by the same level of scrutiny or public forensic analysis that Indigenous child suicides are afflicted. When an Indigenous child dies by suicide, there is a media scrum.
The tragic loss of the 10-year-old girl in Looma is testament to that. When this 10-year-old girl ended her life earlier this year, assertions and outrage were directed at the community. It had all the elements of the narrative folks are used too; remoteness, Aboriginal people, low employment, alcohol issues, violence, poverty, etc. I can’t help but think that what if this little girl, like the 13-year-old Caucasian boy had simply been bullied, and chose death over life, because life, from the bullying, was that bad. But, we won’t know that because there was no note.
In 2013 the Australian ran the headline “13 child suicides in three years prompt call for action as bullying victims take their own lives”. Alongside it a picture of a Caucasian kid. Indigenous people and our communities are never afforded this same portrayal. It must be poverty, neglect, abuse, with a mix of alcohol and drugs. It must be unkind.
That headline or a headline highlighting that 269 non-Indigenous children died from suicide between 2009 to 2013 would never be under the same microscopic scrutiny or public forensic analysis. It would never be unkind. Why is that? Why is it these non-Indigenous children are not afforded the same level of ‘care’ that exacts the outrage that we, as Indigenous people, face?
Is it because non-Indigenous Australia does not want to be confronted with the reality that the poverty, neglect, abuse, alcohol, and drugs doesn't discriminate. Is it because, ‘abuse, trauma, alcoholism, poverty, violence’ is so intoxicating to an Indigenous narrative, that it cannot possibly exist for non-Indigenous Australia?
Where are the op ed’s on these 269 non-Indigenous child suicides?
Does the idea that as a country we are failing to provide a world that these young children want to live in scare people that much they would rather ignore it?
As adults we have a social responsibility to protect all children. If children are killing themselves, and they are in our country, it is not something to be segregated by race. It is an issue we all must face. An issue that we must face through a lens of humanity, equanimity and without the racialised lens that is currently at play.
But if we truly want to respond to these child suicides then we need to ensure the right people are at the table. Because, if we can jump up and down at the high rates of Indigenous child suicide, then I ask this of you. From this World Suicide Prevention Day on, when you look around the board room or your executive meeting and you don’t see an Indigenous face, you start jumping up and down. Because that’s what is really allowing these Indigenous child suicides to continue. It’s our exclusion.
Dameyon Bonson is this year’s Dr. Yunupingu Human Rights Award recipient, and the Founder of Black Rainbow. He is also the founding co-chair of the soon to be announced National Coalition for the Prevention of Indigenous Suicide.