• Christmas is not a happy time for all. ((AAP Image/Mick Tsikas))Source: (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)
Opinion: The festive stretch is for many - particularly the impoverished - an elevated risk period to depression, aberrant behaviour, suicidal ideation, suicide.
Gerry Georgatos

19 Dec 2017 - 1:33 PM  UPDATED 19 Dec 2017 - 1:37 PM

November has seen more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people lost to suicide than in any other month this year. The grim reality is that the end of year and the beginning of the New Year are an elevated risk period. For the forty per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families who live below the poverty line it is an even more elevated risk period than is for other Australians living below the poverty line.

It is also an elevated risk period for those families who recently have lost a loved one to suicide or an unnatural death, particularly of a young person or parent. They are entering their first festive stretch and the New Year without their loved one. They may feel distressed and a sense of isolation.

The suicide crisis for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is worsening and nowhere near enough is being done. But it is a crisis that is contained effectively to the poor. The suicide rate of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders living above the poverty line is actually less than that of the Australian suicide rate for those living above the poverty line. It is almost negligible. It is a crisis borne of poverty, of struggling to survive, of struggling to support family, of struggling to provide for the children.

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What is it that we can do to reduce the accumulation of stressors on struggling families and individuals? What is that we as family, friends and community can do to support others, to prevent the worst?

We need to be on the alert for those who are vulnerable. At this time of year we should keep a watchful eye and make possible their inclusion in our lives, supporting them.

If we have an extended family member who is struggling to care for their children, struggling to put food on the table, who can’t keep up with festive stretch and provide for their family as those with a level of affluence can, then let us be there for them. Let us keep them solid-in-their thinking, let us spread the love and let us do it with a salt-of-the-earth approach. Keep in touch with them, do what you can for them, fill their cupboards and/or combine festivities. Do not inadvertently undermine them to their children by upstaging them, rather humbly work alongside each other to bring on a loving get together, with camaraderie, improve their circumstance, let them know they have someone to turn to be heard.

The reality is that the majority of those who suicide have never presented to anyone with suicidal ideation, have never previously attempted. So if someone is struggling with life’s accumulation of stressors then yes do everything that you can to be there for them and reduce their stresses. There is no greater legacy than the one where we help one another.

The harrowing suicide rate among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is underwritten by acute poverty, disadvantage and marginalisation that should make no sense in one of the world’s wealthiest nations.

Suicide accounts for more than 5 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths. It’s a staggering statistic. In fact in my estimations, because of under-reporting issues, suicide accounts for 10 per cent of the deaths. At this time of year maybe more than 20 per cent of deaths. It’s not just the suicides but also the increase in aberrant behaviour and higher arrest rates.

People need people and we cannot just expect the seriously vulnerable to manage alone. We cannot just expect them to adjust their coping mechanisms, their temperament and their behaviours. Without support, without a friend, without love, how far and for how long can someone manage? We, as family, friends and community can contribute to the ways forward, by our very presence, by our love. Do not let those around us who are doing it tough do it alone, do not let them struggle in silence and dangerously internalise grief.

In the last few years I have written more than 300 articles on the suicide crisis and on suicide prevention. In those same years I have supported hundreds of suicide affected families and thousands of critically at-risk individuals. I know first-hand that the vulnerable need non-judgmental compassion and respectful love to help them through the most difficult of times.

The nation should weep, but more importantly should act, when 80 per cent of suicides of children aged 12 years and less are of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait islander children.

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The most elevated risk groups to the worst aberrant behaviour and to suicide are individuals who are impoverished, and thereafter individuals who as children were removed from their biological families, followed by former inmates who struggle to provide for their families. Then there are the homeless families. Do not leave them behind.

Impoverishment is one of the more significant risk factors that lead to suicidal ideation. Aberrant behaviours and depression are more pronounced among the impoverished. If we are there for others who are vulnerable this translates to a dawn of new meanings, validates people to a better understanding of the self, to a more positive psychosocial self, to a truer context of what the pursuit of happiness should mean.

The diabolical extensiveness of poverty among First Nations peoples is the fault of Governments. As a nation we lay claim to responding to the suicide crisis. We are one of only 28 nations with a “suicide prevention plan”. But it’s paper-thin. It’s about encouraging services to work together in suicide prevention and postvention. As a nation we are nowhere near it. Our Governments have not prioritised this catastrophic crisis. But we as individuals, our families can be there for those that are around us, that we can see are struggling. We must lead by example.

Gerry Georgatos is a researcher in trauma recovery and suicide prevention and is the National Coordinator for Support Advocates for the National Indigenous Critical Response, and is the Coordinator Humanitarian Projects for the Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights.