Human rights

Aboriginal suicide at crisis levels and the nation should weep

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'The nation should weep when six-year-olds contemplate suicide ... the disconnect is not with culture but with hope.' 

Gerry Georgatos

DAD, I pray that I will not wake up ... ” These are the words of a six-year-old Noongar child.

Australia remains hostage to its racism, imperiously denying the grim reality. This racism plays out in an oppressor/oppressed dichotomy ruthlessly holding people hostage to "assimilate or perish" imposts. Those who cannot assimilate are corralled in the damnation of marginalisation. The imprimaturs of "assimilate or perish" have led to fractured societies, where those who can choose to assimilate leave behind the others to rot.

The nation should weep – indeed wail – that because of the colour of her skin and of the cultural heritage that goes to identity her, a six-year-old child should feel this nation sees her as abhorrently different. Dire contemplations in a child so young – only a few years on this earth – worn down so soon to a sense of hopelessness.

The nation should weep that officially one in 18 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths is a suicide. The nation should stare into an abyss of shame that a significant proportion of three per cent of its population see suicide as a solution. The nation should weep that nearly one in three of the nation’s child suicides (five to 17 years of age) are of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

The nation should weep that a nine-year-old child suicides, that a 10-year-old child suicides, that an 11-year-old child suicides.

The nation should weep that a father suicides leaving behind eight young children.

A mother suicides and leaves behind five children.

Three young men, close friends, take their lives within weeks of each other.

A 17-year-old takes his life — and his 14-year-old brother attempts suicide hours after the burial.

In one community, three young people, the youngest a 15-year-old girl, are buried within five days.

A father cuts down his son's rope. He is too late. The father lies next to his son through the night till the responders arrive when night wakes into day.

I am describing people who felt they could take no more, whose resilience was done, who sought relief in death because of the disconnection with hope. It is not that there is a disconnection with culture, the disconnection is with hope. Oppression and its most powerful tool, racism, are responsible for the disconnection. There is a near freezing coldness in the soul of a nation that gives birth to such ignorance, that discriminates and leaves people behind — and lies to justify hopelessness, the divides, the marginalisation, the abominable suicide toll, the mass incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

I have described some of the more than 300 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders lost to suicide in the last two years. The average age was 28 years old. More than 90 per cent of those lost to suicide lived below the Henderson poverty line. Here within is the major problem and in this fact lay the solutions.

I spent two hours on the phone with a young man with a rope around his neck until I talked him out of ending his life. When I took this call, I was in Groote Eylandt responding to the tragedy of a 13-year-old girl who had ended her life. In the Western Desert, thousands of kilometres away, the 20-year-old man was facing death. He talked of his pain at the sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

In one Arnhem community, out of a sense of having to do something, all the rope was confiscated.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides are predominantly a socioeconomic problem. This is fixable but it is not being fixed. The political will is not there. The majority of the nation remains hoodwinked. It is not my well-heeled Indigenous colleagues who are taking their lives. Those of my Indigenous friends who are titled up, those with stature, those with an education, those full of the quid — it is not from among them that the prisons are filled or who are taking their lives.

The gaols are being filled by the poorest of the poorest, by the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. More than a third of the prison population was homeless before arrest. Culture is not the problem, there is no effective disconnection with culture but instead, the disconnection is with hope. The gaols are full of "culture" — they are filled with people who speak their languages, who are from high cultural content regions. The gaols are filled with quality artists and sculptors, but the majority came in dirt poor.

Culture is about one’s form and content; culture goes to identity and can nurture "resilience". To enjoy culture, one must be able to navigate their two cultural settings — that of their own and that of the mainstream. Resilience without hope on the horizon is time-limited. Resilience asks that there is an adjustment of behaviour, but how far and for how long without hope on the horizon?

Some insist that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide is “different”. This is true in terms of its historical drivers, from the intergenerational impacts borne of the cruel racism, eugenics, apartheid and segregation, and from the insane social engineering that has culminated in the horrific levels of marginalisation and third-world-akin poverty that many are corralled within.

The answers are not in culture, but in ending the inequalities, the chronic and acute levels of poverty. Culture is to be cherished and enjoyed as an inalienable right. However to enjoy culture and one's heritage, one must have the opportunity to do so. A tsunami of poverty-related offences are flooding the so-called criminal justice system, filling the prisons. Prison after prison is being built. The spending on each gaol cell, if reallocated, could turn around the lives of 10 families.

The historical causes and some contemporary drivers – particularly the racism, discrimination and unfairness – differentiate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides from non-Indigenous suicides but much less so from migrant suicides. Of the Australian suicide toll, more than one in four of the suicides are of Australians who were born overseas, of migrants.

It was 2013 when Gunbalanya succeeded with its first two female high school graduates. Two. What hope for all the others of their generation and for their children?

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages should be electives in every school in the nation. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories should be comprehensively included in every layer of the national school curricula so the nation’s identity can be properly defined. Cultural and language reclamation and preservation should be comprehensively funded. The Australian flag should be replaced to reflect the demography of a polycultural nation. But the inalienable entitlements to access quality services and social assets, to score a quality education, to be able to earn an adequate living should not be denied to any individual who walks this continent.

There is an arc of issues and they all have to be sorted.

There are fathers and mothers taking their lives because of socioeconomic pressures, who are unable to mediate conflict in their families borne of acute poverty. I have travelled hundreds of communities, met with thousands of families. I have seen the displaced anger of the young who see the world passing them by. The greatest investment that needs to be made is in access to quality opportunities.

Years ago at the commencement of my doctoral work, I wrote:

Anger is displaced on to the parent, back on to the self, displaced to extended family, back on to the self, displaced on to community, this can lead to violence, the anger always comes back to the self, displaced on to authority, often leading to confrontation and arrest, to incarceration where self-destruction is at a premium, and for those who do degenerate into confrontations with community and authority, and who do not have solid support to turn to, the anger accumulates, becomes unbearable and to find relief it culminates in self-harm, in substance abuses, and tragically for some, in suicide.

It is a portrait of self-destruction that leads to suicide, but this self-destruction has been sponsored by inequality, discrimination, by the policies of assimilate or perish, by the degradation of homeland communities by one government after another.

It is the birthright of every person to expect a full, healthy and happy life.

Hopelessness is a devastating experience.

We must be honest about what constitutes "suicide prevention".

The grim reality

  • The Kimberley endures a suicide rate among its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of 80 suicides per 100,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population — second highest in the world, behind Greenland’s Inuit peoples, 92 per 100,000.
  • The Far North Queensland’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ suicide rate is over 50 per 100,000.
  • More than 30 per cent of Australia’s child suicides are of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.


Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention researcher at the Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights and a member of several national suicide prevention projects.

Independent Australia subscribers can listen to Gerry speak to managing editor David Donovan on one of IA's exclusive podcasts hereYou can also follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryGeorgatos.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Beyondblue on 1300 224 636, Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.

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