Human rights

Suicide, Australia's leading cause of unnatural deaths — not a national priority

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(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

We’re at the end of 2019's first quarter and tragically the Australian suicide toll stands at 750 thus far.

Suicide is the leading cause of unnatural deaths, yet suicide prevention is not a national priority.

The Australian suicide toll is:

  • more than two and a half times the national road toll;
  • more than 30 times domestic violence homicides;
  • one in 50 Australian deaths;
  • one in 17 First Nations deaths is a suicide;
  • the leading cause of death of Australians aged 15 to 35;
  • in 2017, there were at least 3,128 suicides, with nearly a third comprised of the migrant born; and
  • between 70 to 100 Australian children aged 17 years and less suicide each year.

Suicide crises and suicide prevention are not on our governments' agendas.

In 2019:

  • harrowingly, four children aged 12 years have lost their lives to suicide;
  • three of the12-year-old children were First Nations children;
  • First Nations suicides are at 42, 24 males and 18 females;
  • on average, at least three First Nations people take their lives each week; and
  • on average for all Australians, there have been 62 suicides each week of the first three months.

It is a heartbreaking tragedy across the continent.

The youngest Australian suicides, in recent years, are of three children who were aged nine. The youngest Australian to attempt suicide that I have come across was aged six.

On the catastrophic tragedy of First Nations suicides, of the 42 losses this year, the majority – two-thirds – were youth suicides. It is an indictment of this nation; 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 1,000 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 establish 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.

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% of First Nations suicides are of people living below the poverty line.

Understanding and addressing poverty is the major way forward to saving from suicide First Nations children and youth, and reducing of the Australian suicide toll. 

There have been many studies that compared First Nations populations with non-First Nations populations in examining the arc of disparities, but few that compare factors within First Nations populations. But Canada's very recent Dalhousie University examination of First Nations peoples corroborates my argument of socioeconomic inequalities and poverty as the drivers to disparate rates of mental unwellness and suicide.

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. By the end of the eighth year of this decade, the recorded toll exceeded 1,000. From 2011, the number of First Nations’ suicides has increased each year.

This is a harrowing toll.

In the first three months of 2019, there have been at least 42 First Nations suicides.

Of the 42, 41 lived below the poverty line. Between the two teams I coordinate, the National Critical Response Trauma Recovery Project and the Indigenous Critical Response, we respond to just about all First Nations suicide-affected families, and to a significant number of Australian suicide affected families.

Increasing suicide toll of First Nations women and girls

Alarmingly, there's a now fast establishing increase in female suicides. Of the 42 suicides, 18 have been of females. 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 nearly half of the suicides this year, compared to last year at 32%

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.

Suicide and poverty

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 are 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.

Some have argued that there are other drivers in addition to poverty. They argue excessive alcohol misuse, illegal drugs, domestic violence, relationship breakdowns, bullying, etc. Yes, but it's below the poverty line that they're taking lives by suicide and not above the poverty line. These impacts are more likely and more pronounced below the poverty line. Above the poverty line, there's more agency for one to deal with these factors and indeed to prevent them altogether. I often hear from the poor compounded by such traumas, "How much more can I take?"

The national prison population is comprised of people who live below the poverty line, not from above it. Furthermore, 86% of the national prison population did not complete secondary schooling while nearly 100% of the nation's First Nations inmates did not complete secondary schooling.

We should all urge every state and territory and the Commonwealth to nobly and steadfastly prioritise authentic suicide prevention and in so doing fearlessly ask, "What is suicide prevention?" and deliver that authentic support to the coalface.

Of the last reported Australian suicide toll, 2017, 3128 suicides, 804 of the suicides were in Queensland, a dramatic increase from the preceding year's 674. The intersection with socioeconomic disadvantage and disordered thinking and suicidal ideation is indisputable and there must be vigilant focus. More than two-thirds of Australia’s overall suicide toll is always comprised of people who lived below the poverty line. 

In remote Australia, more than eight out of ten First Nations children do not complete school. According to my research, in the urban masses, nine out of ten First Nations suicides are of people living in public housing where at least five to seven of every ten 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 4% of Australia's households and after the homeless, it's where you'll find the poorest Australians. Nine of ten 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.

What is suicide prevention?

Poverty as a widening chasm, trap, 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. I have argued in previous articles that Australia's number of homeless is underreported and that instead of the reported 116,000, it's in fact thereabouts 300,000.

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.

Suicide crises and suicide prevention are not on our governments' agendas.

At the rudimentary level, our Commonwealth 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% of assessable income instead of thereabouts 25%.

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

I will remain fearless in calling out what are actually the drivers of suicide and in calling out inauthenticity because this is about people's lives.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact: Lifeline on 13 11 14, the Aboriginal Health Service or Headspace at Yarn Safe.  

Gerry Georgatos is the national coordinator of both the National Indigenous Critical Response Service and the National Migrant Youth Support Service. You can follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryGeorgatos.

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