0528 GMT September 22, 2019
I remember a father who found his son hours after his suicide. The father laid his son down and cradled his body through the night until responders arrived in the morning.
I remember the distraught family of a young man who only a week before his suicide had run into a burning house and rescued a young mother and her baby. I remember attending the funerals of three young people in the one community — three burials in five days, three graves in a row, theguardian.com reported.
The youngest was a 15-year-old girl.
I wailed on the inside as I stared at the graves. Weeks later, the loss of two more young people would make it five graves in a row of youth unlived.
I remember a father of six children who took his life, a mother of five children who took her life, a pregnant mother who took her life. I remember a nine-year-old child who took his life, a 10-year-old child who took her life, an 11-year-old boy who took his life, a 12-year-old girl who took her life.
Hauntingly etched in my mind’s eye are three children — aged six, eight and 10 years — together attempting suicide from a tree, saved by older children.
You ask, how can it be imaginable for a six-year-old to attempt the ending of their life? They were all of First Nations — a term used to describe Aboriginal peoples — heritage. With the exception of only one, they lived below the poverty line and the majority in ‘crushing’ poverty.
Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander — the indigenous people of the Torres Strait Islands, part of Queensland, Australia — suicides comprise six percent of Australia’s total suicides but, shockingly, 80 percent of child suicides aged 12 and below are of Aboriginal children.
For the past decade, nearly 30 percent of the child suicides to age 17 were comprised of Aboriginal children. In the past year, I estimate this harrowing crisis has increased to 40 percent. In the first nine days of the New Year, five First Nations girls, two of them aged 12 years, lost their lives to suicide.
As I write this there have been three more First Nations children who have been lost and two more, including an 11-year-old, who are fighting for life and, if they survive, will never again be the same.
I have often said ‘the nation should weep’ at this harrowing tragedy, which is more than just a national shame — a national disgrace, an abomination, a damning condemnation of who we remain as a nation.
Each year, I support hundreds of suicide-affected families, hundreds of individuals who have attempted suicide or who are at risk — from migrant-born Australians, young and older Australians, who lived affluent or homeless. But the disproportionate suicide toll on First Nations Australians is a humanitarian crisis that cannot be allowed to continue its now uninterrupted three decades long tragedy.
One in 17 of all First Nations people’s deaths is a suicide, while half of all First Nations youth deaths aged 17 years and younger is a suicide.
Discriminatory crushing poverty is the catastrophic narrative resulting in an arc of pronounced negative issues culminating in diabolical numbers of First Nations youth and older who are incarcerated, self-harming and killing themselves. The suicide rate of First Nations Australians is two-and-a-half times that of the national population.
In Australia, 14 percent live below the poverty line but 40 percent of First Nations Australians live below the poverty line — that’s also a two-and-a-half times differential — an absolute correlation. In my research, experiential and otherwise, nearly 100 percent of the suicides of First Nations peoples are of individuals who lived below the poverty line, the highest proportion in a crushing poverty, the type not experienced by other Australians living below the poverty line.
The suicide rate of First Nations Australians who live above the poverty line is very low and much less than the suicide rate of the rest of Australians living above the poverty line.
Our focus needs to be on lifting people out of poverty and in doing away with the discriminatory crushing poverty that should have no place in the world’s 12th biggest economy.
I have traveled hundreds of First Nations homelands and communities and a significant proportion are hovels of human misery, corrals of degradation. They are not of the making of the people living in them but of neglect and deprivations made by one government after another.
In remote living communities, eight out of every 10 children will never finish school, with half not completing primary school. These are infrastructure starved communities without hope on the horizon.
Individuated resilience and other psycho-educative strength training, unless coupled with access to opportunities including education and employment, cannot alone score someone to a psychosocial positive self. How far and for how long can someone adjust their behavior without access to meaningful hope on the horizon?
It is a reprehensible myth that governments have prioritized the catastrophic suicide crises of the nation’s most suicide affected.
The Council of Australian Governments must prioritize equality and universal rudimentary rights. The suicide rate will be reduced between First Nations peoples and the rest of Australia when the poverty rates are reduced.
There must be psychosocial support to help people improve their life circumstances, to reduce disordered thinking, to reduce the sense of helplessness. There must be remunerated community buy-in, whether in the remote or in the cities; workforces of mentors — skilled up — who can be guiding lights, shoulders to rest on, for the vulnerable, for exhausted families reaching out for help for a struggling loved one.
The death of a child is always heartbreaking and when it is by suicide it as devastating as it gets. Unless governments heed and focus, more children than ever before will be lost. They must prioritize those most in need, those whom for too long our governments have been leaving behind to languish impoverished, in shanties without white goods, without secondary schools, without recreational facilities.
Like migrant-born children who fled to Australia from oppressive socioeconomic disadvantages, First Nations youth that go to university are among the most likely, most driven to succeed. We must do everything that we can to lift sisters and brothers to an improved life circumstance, to various opportunity and they will do the rest.
The more education someone has completed, the greater become their protective factors to steering clear from suicidal ideation. The majority of the national prison population has not completed year 12 — in fact, the majority has not completed year nine.
High levels of education are a more significant protective factor than fulltime employment. More education translates to a dawn of new meanings, to a better understanding of the self, to a more positive psychosocial self, to the pursuit of what happiness and its contexts can and should mean.
The majority of First Nations families who have lost a loved one to suicide have lost another loved one and another.
I remember a 10-year-old child lost to suicide. The year before she found her 11-year-old first cousin had taken their life. Two years earlier her 13-year-old sister had taken her life.
They lived in crushing poverty and in an arc of distressing issues borne of inescapable poverty. In the past few years, of the hundreds of First Nations suicide affected families I have responded to, nearly all were encumbered by abominable levels of poverty.
* Gerry Georgatos is an Australian suicide prevention and poverty researcher. He is also the national coordinator of Australia’s National Indigenous Critical Response Service and of the National Child Sexual Abuse Trauma Recovery Project.