• The suicide crisis for First Nations peoples remains an uninterrupted decades long tragedy with more women and children lost than ever before. (AAP)Source: AAP
ANALYSIS: The common thread to First Nations suicides is poverty, writes Gerry Georgatos.
Gerry Georgatos

27 Mar 2019 - 4:14 PM  UPDATED 27 Mar 2019 - 4:18 PM

Content Warning: This article discusses suicide.


We’re not even at the end of March and tragically, 38 First Nations people have died by suicide. On average, this is at least three First Nations people taking their lives each week. It is a heartbreaking tragedy across the continent.

Of the 38 tragedies, the majority — two-thirds — were youth. In Queensland, the state which comprises one-third of these deaths, seven were under the age of 26. The youngest was a 15-year-old girl. What is more, across the nation, three Aboriginal children have taken their lives at the tender age of 12.  

It is an indictment of this nation's moral and political abominations.

During the last decade, I’ve focused my research and working life on suicide prevention and its indisputable intersection with poverty.

I’ve written hundreds of pieces on the suicide crises, and from a trauma recovery vantage, I've worked alongside more than one thousand suicide-affected families. This includes hundreds of First Nations families. I’ve journeyed to more than 600 First Nations communities across the country.

I have helped found and established the National Indigenous Critical Response Service. At the upcoming two and a half years mark (28 June) of training up colleagues as Critical Response Support Advocates, I will be stepping down to be succeeded by a First Nations colleague.

I am also the founding coordinator of both the National Critical Response Trauma Recovery Project and the National Migrant Youth Support Service. I have supporting roles with the First Nations Homelessness Project and Ngalla Maya’s exceptional Prison to Employment Project, which are all suicide prevention efforts.

For me personally, I was brought up with the lived experience that we have to do everything we can to improve the lives of our most vulnerable; leave no one behind, so to speak. This has defined my life.

As a suicide prevention and poverty researcher who is not desktop-bound here is what I want everyone to know — suicide is not complex.

As a suicide prevention and poverty researcher who is not desktop-bound here is what I want everyone to know — suicide is not complex.

Suicide is multifactorial and multilayered with an arc of issues, some which intertwine, but it is not complex. There is an underwriting narrative; poverty. The authentic ways forward will prosper when we are consumed by this vital understanding.

More than two-thirds of the Australian suicide toll is intersected by poverty and a concomitant accumulation of life stressors. In my research — borne robustly from the experiential — responding to suicide affected families, nearly 100 per cent of First Nations suicides are of people living below the poverty line.

As such, I argue that in order to understand the suicide crisis and, in particular, the abominable disparity, we should steer away from the complex “too hard basket”. Because these are the facts:


The suicide toll in the First Nations community is increasing

Between 2001 to 2010 there were 996 suicides by First Nations people recorded. In the eighth year of this decade and already, the recorded number is 1,017. From 2011, the number of First Nations’ suicides has increased each year.

This is a harrowing toll.

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Increasing suicide toll of First Nations women and girls

Alarmingly, there's a now fast establishing increase in female suicides. There are more pressures on women and girls living below the poverty line than ever before, an entrenched sense of hopelessness. Support for those left behind has been drying up.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women represent just about half of the suicides this year, compared to last year at 32 per cent.

The suicide crisis for First Nations peoples remains an uninterrupted decades-long tragedy. It is a humanitarian crisis, with more children and females lost than ever before.

Of this year’s First Nations’ suicide toll, the individuals share a key commonality — living below the poverty line.

The most elevated categorical risk groups to suicide are children and individuals who as children were removed from their biological families. Thereafter, it’s recently-released prisoners. Thereafter, it’s individuals sexually abused as children. Thereafter, it’s recently evicted families who shift itinerant from house-to-house or homeless, from squats to parks. However, the underwriting narrative is poverty. Within this intertwining narrative are an arc of negative issues that are always more pronounced below the poverty line, and particularly among crushing poverty, such as domestic violence and bullying.

By contrast, there a few First Nations people taking their lives who live above the poverty line. For example, there has only been one suicide of a First Nations person in the last three years that I know of — from 500 suicides — who held a university degree.

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In remote Australia, more than 8 out of 10 First Nations children do not complete school. According to my research, in the urban masses 9 out of 10 First Nations suicides are of people living in public housing where at least 5 to 7 of 10 children will not complete school. Murderous dispossession and brutal apartheid led to disparities, inequalities and inequities and now the crushing levels of poverty must be responded to.

The more impoverished people are, the more vulnerable to an arc of negative travesties, including child sexual abuse. One-third of child suicides occur alongside sexual abuse, and despite the Royal Commission child sexual abuse remains the nation's least discussed issue. Child sexual abuse is a historical and contemporary reprehension the world over but silence cannot be an option.

Public housing sadly accounts for only four per cent of Australia's households, and after the homeless, it's where you'll find the poorest Australians. Nine of 10 suicides of First Nations children and adults in the urban masses, in the cities and large towns, occur in public housing.

Most Australians will not be aware that nearly one-third of Australia’s suicide toll comprises the migrant-born. Relatively newly arrived migrant born Australians from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds who are socially and economically disadvantaged, may find themselves at elevated risk of suicide.

If we don’t focus on poverty — triage based approach — and if Australia doesn't figure that out soon then the uninterrupted decades-long suicide crises will continue.

Address the poverty rates and I’m confident it will reduce the suicides. This goes for all Australians, whereby reducing poverty and its impacts will reduce the suicide toll. Preferably, we should be living in a world where nobody sees suicide as the only way out of the grimly bleak.


What is suicide prevention?

Poverty levels, for all Australians, is on the increase and the accumulation of life stressors accumulate and mount. The horrendous lie of our generation is that we as a nation are lifting people out of poverty – poverty and its impacts are more extensive than reported – I see all this firsthand.

With this information, we need to ask, “what is suicide prevention?”, and where needed, we must redefine suicide prevention.

Suicide prevention has to be real; it has to reduce distress, improve life circumstance, psycho-educatively strengthen children, youth and older to contextualise ordered thinking, and radicalise hope and pursue the transformational alongside radicalised psychosocial supports.

Suicide prevention should be the supporting of vulnerable families to navigate life stressors, beat poverty, set boundaries, validate young lives, validate traumas where old or new, discovered or inherent and disable them.

Education is a profoundly powerful protective factor. The more education one scores, the less likely suicidal ideation.

Education is a profoundly powerful protective factor. Suicide prevention is about increasing the likelihood of education attendance and of quality learning. The more education one scores, the less likely suicidal ideation.

At the rudimentary level our Government must substantially raise Centrelink payments and reduce hardships. The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) must produce as a set of uniform expectations to reduce hardship among our poorest, for instance reducing public housing rents to less than 5 per cent of assessable income instead of thereabouts 25 per cent.

COAG must come together and uniformly define suicide prevention — the improving of life circumstances.

The Government and COAG must thrive the edict that there is no greater legacy than the saving lives and to do this, there must be the improving and changing of lives.


Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention researcher and restorative justice and prison reform expert with the Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights. He is a member of several national projects working on suicide prevention, particularly with elevated risk groups.

Tonight The Point investigates the epidemic of First Nations suicides in Australia. 8.30pm on NITV (Ch. 34) and streaming LIVE on Facebook. Join the Conversation #ThePoint 

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact: Lifeline on 13 11 14 or a local Aboriginal Health Service. There are resources for young people at Headspace Yarn Safe. Indigenous Australian psychologist services can be found here.