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(Image via thestringer.com.au)

Australia's suicide rates among Indigenous children is a national abomination borne of dirt-poor deprivations, says Gerry Georgatos.

THREE children, together, attempted to end their lives.

Such was the despair they felt from a sense of hopelessness in an Australian community where no one completes school.

Three children, aged six, eight and ten, climbed a tree. Older children saw them and ran to them and held them up and saved their lives. What drives children so young to fathom all as bleak and insurmountable? It is a tragedy all too common in remote Australia — but predominantly for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

What I describe above occurred in a central Australian community earlier this year, but it could have been so many other remote and regional communities and towns I have journeyed to right throughout the Australian continent.

Last month, I spoke at the National Indigenous Education Forum in Darwin. Educators and leaders in their field presented their good works with predominantly Indigenous students. But I felt a sense of emptiness for the far too many Indigenous children who do not attend school, who live without hope and who despair at the hopelessness and are traumatised by the degeneration into various aberrant behaviours.

In listening to a variety of strong educational leaders and educators, I remembered those three children. The conference, though a national effort, did not represent them nor many thousands of others.

Suicide rates

30% of Australia’s child suicides aged 17 years and less are of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children but they comprise only 5% of Australia’s child population.

80% of Australia’s child suicides aged 12 years and less are Indigenous children.

I was asked to present at the National Indigenous Education Forum because I represent the children and older individuals who were not represented by the rest of the conference presenters and attendees.

I spoke about work being done on the formidable need to educate children and individuals who schools suspend or boot out that everyone else has given up on. I spoke about individuals who are relegated to the too-tough-to-deal-with basket. There are projects I am involved with where we are assisting these individuals with year 12 completions and tertiary or trade qualifications. We are working at pace with former inmates, the homeless, the marginalised, those living below the poverty line and, in particular, remote and regional living peoples.

I did tell the audience that the conference was not truly national or representative of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I criticised the collectivised "Closing the Gap" education targets and data and argued that it masks grim realities. I called for the disaggregation of the data to peoples living in remote and regional communities.

The majority of the Northern Territory’s communities have few year 12 graduates, with the majority of young people not attending school. That one government after another has allowed this to continue is an abomination. In fact, one government after another has perpetuated and escalated this crisis.

Excerpts from address to the National Indigenous Education Forum

It is no coincidence that communities where no-one completes school, where no-one graduates, that they have both high and increasing suicide rates, particularly of child and youth suicide.

Ntaria, also known as Hermannsburg, only 125 kilometres from Alice Springs, has not had a single Year 12 graduate for seven years. The community is living in harrowing despair, deprivation and collective hopelessness. Where are the relentless psychosocial supports, and the equivalency of infrastructure that non-Indigenous communities and towns enjoy?

Ntaria is fast becoming a corral of human misery, and suffering and these corrals of human misery and suffering are the degradations, the abysmal works of one government after another — of governments that have neglected these communities since their abomination as missions and reserves.

Gunbalanya’s first Indigenous female high school graduates were in 2013. Groote Eylandt has three communities, but only three students in the whole of the island’s history have graduated from the island’s school. Without education, the risk factors for aberrant behaviour are through the roof. There arises the guarantee of a tsunami of ruined lives.

The majority of the Northern Territory’s remote schools are an abomination – an insult to dignity – they are reductionist and minimalist; they are racist. But it is not only the Northern Territory, it is also Anangu Country – the APY – in northern South Australia, which has had very few graduates over the last two decades, with most communities having no graduates.

It’s a similar story in Western Australian remote communities and in other regions.

The Closing the Gap data on education targets is collectivised and whatever little worth these targets are, in the very least, they should be disaggregated so that the soul-destroying debacle in the remote and the regions I am describing is not masked. If we do not disaggregate we discriminate, we leave people behind. We must report as part of the closing of the gap education targets, the remote communities stand alone — their data and outcomes.

High levels of education are a more significant protective factor than 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.

Nearly 100% of Indigenous suicides are of people living below the poverty line. Nearly 100% of these suicides are of people without substantive education or with poor quality education — of people without education and therefore without hope. It is in the high cultural content regions where the highest proportion of suicides occur. The diabolical, dirt-poor poverty is killing the Indigenous youth, killing young parents.

It is the dirt-poor poverty that prohibits so many from going to school.

So the suicides and aberrant behaviour are not occurring because of a lack of cultural content, connection to traditional, historical and contemporary culture, but because of abominable poverty and deprivations. These disgraceful levels of poverty in the world’s 12th biggest economy translate toxically as racism. Children internalise the grief and it debilitates them.

Officially, one in 59 Australian deaths is suicide, but one in 18 Indigenous deaths is a suicide and this abomination will become even more catastrophic.

Between 2001 to 2010, officially, there were 996 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides (on average 100 suicides per year), but in the five years from 2012 to 2016 there were 718 suicides (144 per year). This is a 44% increase. Unless we improve the living conditions and life circumstances of degraded remote communities, and unless we adequately educate instead of minimalising education in these communities, I estimate that by 2030, one in ten Indigenous deaths will officially be a suicide and more children than ever before will be taking their lives. At present, 80 per cent of Australia’s child suicides are Indigenous children.

It is possible to change the lives of the poorest and most neglected. I am part of projects successfully mentoring, training and employing the poorest — those who were chronically unemployed, without an education, illiterate. My colleagues and I have brought scores out of homelessness and prisons into tertiary education. And with relentless multi-layered psychosocial support, we got them across the line, they graduated and they are leading the way for their families — breaking and ending cycles of poverty and aberrant behaviour induced by one Australian government after another.

Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention researcher and restorative justice and prison reform expert with the Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights. You can follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryGeorgatos.

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