• Aboriginal father and son. (Getty Images)
ANALYSIS: Aboriginal Psychologist Dr Tracy Westerman asks, where is the empathy and compassion for Indigenous youth who are taking their own lives?
By
Dr Tracy Westerman

6 Mar 2019 - 2:29 PM  UPDATED 6 Mar 2019 - 2:38 PM

Disclaimer: This article discusses suicide.

There has been a deafening silence across this country following the latest Coronial Inquiry into the suicide deaths of 13 young Aboriginal people in the Kimberley, extending beyond the usual non-coverage by mainstream media.

Our political leaders have also been shockingly, and shamefully silent; ignoring the intolerable pain of these young people, who saw death as their only option and their only escape.

Jacob Kagi of the ABC highlighted that in the weeks since Coroner Ros Fogliani handed down her findings describing, The situation in the Kimberley Region as dire…, not a single question in the Lower House of the WA Parliament has been asked about the coroner's report, nor what was going to be done about it.

The ABC reported, only nine of the 95 Members of Parliament have brought up the inquest in any way, in either chamber this year. This is not new. Suicides in the Kimberley have unfortunately now become generational. Silently and unknown to most Australians.

Suicides in the Kimberley have unfortunately now become generational. Silently and unknown to most Australians.

What was of such importance in the weeks following the 7 February that rendered the deaths of these Aboriginal children irrelevant to our state's political leaders and frankly, to our country?  

There is no greater injustice in this world than to be invisible. To feel as if you do not matter. Black lives matter — the lives of our children matter.

Whatever the reason for this political silence, leadership on this issue has failed, and it has failed our most vulnerable. It is dehumanising and dismissive of the trauma that these bereaved families face on a daily basis.

 

Why are politicians important?

It is evident that trauma is inherently political. Politicians and government bureaucrats, especially arms of the state, are central players in the magnification of trauma by denying the impact of the critical incident and minimizing its severity and impacts.

Trauma becomes systemically generated when governmental bodies and societal structures fail to show they care.

As psychologists, we know that the first step to healing comes from your trauma being validated through acknowledgement. If this doesn’t happen trauma develops whole new dimensions and becomes magnified. Trauma becomes systemically generated when governmental bodies and societal structures fail to show they care.

Empathy and compassion should be applied equally, and this must start with our elected leaders showing that they care about what is happening to our Aboriginal children. They should be stepping forward, leaning in, acknowledging the tragedy happening on their watch and responding with compassion and urgency; as you’d expect with the death of any child, let alone 13 of them.

 

Why is the media important?

Contributing to this invisibility was the fact that mainstream media reporting was non-existent on these tragic deaths — young Australians were filled with so much despair they took their own lives. No headlines of distress or compassion. No call to action to look deeply within ourselves, within our society, within the systems that have contributed to such intergenerational devastation. Just silence.

Politicians respond to public pressure which is often media generated and exerted. Studies support that there exists a 'hierarchy of newsworthiness' in which ‘cultural proximity’ to the audience plays a crucial role in the extent of empathy generated for victims.

If the broader community can’t connect in a 'this could happen to me or my family' manner, then there is less community outcry, and significantly less pressure on politicians to respond...

The more the audience relates to victims, the greater the newsworthiness. If the broader community can’t connect in a 'this could happen to me or my family' manner, then there is less community outcry, and significantly less pressure on politicians to respond, because ultimately, they are very aware that there will be little to no backlash about it. One wonders if we did not have a publicly-funded ABC, SBS or Aboriginal news organisations whether these suicides would have been covered at all?

One wonders even more, that if this were 13 non-Aboriginal children would the silence be commensurate with the silence that has followed the suicide deaths of 13 Aboriginal children?

 

Why is race important?

Well because there is increasing evidence and recognition of the impacts of race-based trauma. In 2005, Bryant-Davis and Ocampo, amongst many others, noted similar courses of mental illness between victims of violent crime and victims of racism. In Australia, racism explains 30 per cent of depression and over 50 per cent of chronic stress experienced by Aboriginal people and Professor Yin Paradies has shown that racism reduces Aboriginal life expectancy more than smoking does — yes, you read correct!

...individuals who have had a previous traumatic event are at increased risk for future trauma experiences. Suicide ‘clusters’ being an obvious and common consequence of trauma repetition compulsion.

Just as trauma frequently becomes a central organising principle in the psychological structure of the individual, trauma has become a central organising principle in the psychological structure of whole communities. This is known as ‘repetition compulsion’ meaning those individuals who have had a previous traumatic event are at increased risk for future trauma experiences. Suicide ‘clusters’ being an obvious and common consequence of trauma repetition compulsion.

Racism leads to negative identity formation and poor self-concept which is then passed onto future generations. Stunningly, racism has been shown to impact in-utero, soberingly demonstrated by infant birth weight being reduced by an average of 600 grams since the NT intervention which repealed the human rights of Aboriginal people.

From a suicide prevention perspective, this manifests as a sense of hopelessness and helplessness which has consistently been implicated in suicide risk. When the origin of this lies in racial identity it becomes inherently ‘untreatable’ as a core risk factor. It is unchallengeable as a core driver when a suicidal individual develops thought processes based upon a belief that they don’t matter. When those within the ‘system’ and broader community show no visible sign of caring this cognition then becomes increasingly engrained through daily reinforcement.

The best I can do as a clinician is to assist my clients to develop healthy and robust cultural identity and develop the skills and resilience to manage racist events.

The best I can do as a clinician is to assist my clients to develop a healthy and robust cultural identity and develop the skills and resilience to manage racist events. This is a constant challenge due to the compounded nature of racism, with the average Aboriginal person having 70 discrete experiences of racism annually and 75% of us regularly experiencing racism.

Epigenetics tells us that racism impacts on Aboriginal people in the same way as a traumatic event.

The fact that most of our suicides are so impulsive makes absolute sense from a trauma perspective.

Let me end with how I started:

Trauma is inherently political.

When those who are mandated to care fail to respond your trauma becomes magnified.  

We ultimately look to our leadership for guidance in what resonates in the conscience of our nation.

The silence of our political leaders has served to magnify the trauma of these families and in effect has become systemically perpetuated by them.

 

If you are looking for support on the themes discussed in this article call Lifeline 13 11 14, contact Yarnsafe or your local NACCHO member service.  

Related Reading
Inquest into Indigenous youth suicides suggests shift to 'cultural healing'
The coroner determined the deaths were shaped by intergenerational trauma and suggested a complete overhaul of community services.

COMMENT: Racism in Australia: The stats are clear
Associate Professor Gawaian Bodkin-Andrews gives us a snapshot of the research on racism against Indigenous peoples since the 1960s.
5 classy ways to shut down racism
Sometimes a simple gesture is more powerful at fighting racism than an angry tirade.
 

Dr Tracy Westerman is a proud Njamal woman from the Pilbara region of Western Australia and is the states Australian of the Year 2018, recognition for over two decades working to reduce the burden of mental ill health and suicide in Aboriginal communities.

Dr Westerman is a recognised world leader in Aboriginal mental health, cultural competency and suicide prevention achieving national and international recognition for her work. This is despite coming from a background of disadvantage and one in which she had to undertake most of her tertiary entrance subjects by Distance Education.

This article was jointly published with IndigenousX. Edits may vary between publishers.