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Indigenous Australian suicide rates are tragic — ask Trae

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Megan, Trae, and Gerry (image provided by Gerry Georgatos).

Trae lost his eleven-year-old brother to suicide. Nine months later he lost his mother to suicide.

Trae was the last to see his brother. Half an hour later he went looking for his little brother. In the booklet for young Peter’s funeral, Rhoda was quoted, “My baby boy, I will miss you so much. But you will always be in my heart. I love you my Peter Rabbit. Mum.”

Nine months after the death of her beloved Peter, 37-year-old Rhoda took her life. Her remaining three sons deluged with more grief, unimaginable harrow.

Rhoda’s life had been riddled with stressors, sadness, unaddressed troubles and trauma. She had often spoken of suicidality. After Peter’s loss, I had warned, again and again, raising concerns about Rhoda. They went unheeded.

I had spent years championing inroads into authentic suicide prevention, for assertive outreach models, for the redefining of traditional meanings of psychosocial support. On the back of the losses of 11-year-old Peter, his mum, 18-year-old Philinka, 10-year-old Ariana, I brought about the National Indigenous Critical Response Service. Nearly a year ago, I stepped down from this service. 

Importantly, now it’s fully led First Nations people.

Rhoda was lost after Peter’s loss. Peter was always on her mind, talked to daily. Peter was born on March 16, 2003. He was buried on November 7, 2014.

After a series of relocations that included living in Perth and Northam, Peter and his brothers lived his last years in Geraldton’s "winyarn" (impoverished) suburb of Rangeway. Father Michael Morrissey lived next door to Peter’s family home. They said hello to each other every day. Father Morrissey delivered the funeral service for Peter.

Peter died October 19, 2014. The forever 11-year-old is buried near the forever 22-year-old, Ms Dhu, who tragically died a couple of months earlier on August 4, 2014. Like Peter’s death, Ms Dhu’s horrific death harrowed the nation.

Trae was the last person to see his brother alive. He has rarely wept, stonewalled in sadness and demons, in misplaced assumptions.

As sisters and brothers, each of us can forge for individuated and collectivised supports and changes. I endured my demons, following Rhoda’s loss, warring futilely with everyone, warning about Rhoda. 

In-person services might've prevented these tragedies. 

Trae suffered alone, isolated and devastated. Grandparents, aunties and uncles, holding each other as best able, but always struggling. There were difficult and dire times. His grandparents remained steadfast stalwart, and an aunty, Tanya, salt-of-earth noble in the lives of her brother’s children.

Last year, five years after the loss of Peter, my colleague, Megan and I – from the fledgeling National Suicide Prevention & Trauma Recovery Project – went to Geraldton for a Geraldton Regional Aboriginal Medical Service community forum concerning suicide-affected families. It broke my heart to walk into a packed room; we had to find many more chairs. The outpourings brought people together.

Peter’s aunt, Tanya, attended. The next day Tanya brought us Trae, to meet.

I saw his mother in him.

Megan and Trae developed bonds, rapport and trust. We mused.

Megan put him on a path to training to employment. Through Mervyn Eades’ Ngalla Maya, Trae would secure a Certificate III in Construction and other qualifications. He had nowhere to stay in Perth; shy of a quid. Megan invited Trae to her home for the duration of the training and a little thereafter as he transitioned to fulltime employment.

At the time, Megan had three young people living in her home while they attended the training. 

With salt-of-earth and cut-to-the-chase approaches, laced with love, musings, we all counselled each other.. Trae has inspired family to follow in his steps, to journey likewise and improve life circumstances, thrive the firmament.

Peter’s loss was a tragedy that drew national attention, and similarly of the loss of his mum not long thereafter. Without outreach and uninterrupted intense psychosocial support, suicidality cannot be easily overwhelmed and addressed.

2019 will report the highest ever suicide toll for First Nations. My estimates have it, tragically, that 2019 will report the highest ever suicide toll for all Australians.

Children as young as nine years, three in fact in recent years, have been lost to suicide. Australians should ask, why? Proportionally, more children aged 14 years and less have been lost so far this Century compared to last Century.

Death by suicide of children cannot, and never should, remain shrouded in silence. We do no one any favours, and in fact, cost young lives. Nearly one in four of all child deaths is a result of suicide. In 2018, there were 100 child suicides, of people aged less than 18. There were 448 child deaths nationally, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). 

Last year, I was aware of four twelve-year-old suicides, two of them in Western Australia, one in South Australia, one in Queensland. Two of them were First Nations children. In 2017, I responded to, and supported the family of a child aged 9 who suicided. In 2016, a 10-year-old girl suicided, and in 2014, an 11-year-old boy suicided. 

In 2014, there were 89 child suicides, 89 again the following year, 91 in 2016, 98 in 2017 and 100 in 2018, and I estimate higher for 2019. In the first ten days of 2019, there were the tragic deaths by suicide of five girls aged between 12 to 15; two of them aged 12, one aged 14, two aged 15.

2018’s 100 child suicide deaths were the leading cause of death among Australian children.

25 per cent of those who suicides are females and 40 per cent of all child suicides are of females. The highest rate of child suicides is in the Northern Territory, which is five times the national rate of child suicides.

In early January, Queensland’s Child Death Register emphasised that suicide remains the leading cause of unnatural deaths for children. The Register’s latest report recorded the highest rate of suicide since it commenced in 2004. In the financial year 2017/18, there were 37 suicides of Queensland children aged to 17.

The report informed that ten of the 37 children had not presented any suicidality prior to their loss. Fourteen of the children were known to child protection authorities – what more could have been done for them? Child suicidality of out-of-homecare, or of children known to child protection, are the most overrepresented disaggregation.

Ten of the 37 children were First Nations. Eight of the 37 children were aged 10 to 14 years.

We need the long-overdue investment in outreach, the psychosocial, and journey alongside our sisters and brothers, children. Child suicidality, particularly where there has been an attempt, is more likely to ultimately end in suicide than for older youth and adults.

There appears more child suicidality today than yesterday. Children suicidally at-risk need the earliest possible intervention, uninterrupted until the evident and hidden traumas are disabled.

A couple of years ago, I fought to save the of a six-year-old child, to make sure she never attempted again. This child is doing well but that is because I was able to travel to her – in the heart of our continent – to one of our remotest regions. I was shocked that one so young would contemplate suicide. At the time, I believed or hoped, that I would never again come across a child so young and suicidal. I was wrong. Relatively recently, I dedicated long-haul support to another suicidal six-year-old child, this time in one of our large cities.

More recently, I supported a child, seven-years-old, who attempted. His tragic circumstances funnelled my memories back to 11-year-old Peter "Rabbit" (as his mum called him) and to ten-year-old Ariana who ended her life 18 months later. Their stories became headlines.

It broke my heart that a seven-year-old was a couple of minutes from fading from life. His 13-year-old brother found him in time – and saved him. The family was scared. Scared of headlines, scared of hospitals and of "authorities" that could have led to their children removed. They were advised that they could trust me. Trust is imperative as it defines relationships and the ways forward.

In supporting the child and the family, I kept on reflecting on societal narratives that culminate in a distrust of relevant services, that there should such divide and disarray. There needs to be a building of unflinching trust so support can be provided. There needs to long-haul support, a journeying alongside each other, a capability to be able to help those who without us will be lost.

Trae will never forget his mum, his brother. He loves them dearly. He knows none of us need be alone. It’s been a humbling experience being around Trae. He will never forget Megan. Trae just bought a car and is driving 400 miles to Geraldton to mix it with his family – the family that he loves.

Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636.

Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher. He is also the national coordinator of the National Suicide Prevention & Trauma Recovery Project. You can follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryGeorgatos.

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