The growing number of First Nations suicides is an indication of a country that has turned its back on the unfortunate and those in need, writes Gerry Georgatos.
CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses suicide
TEN YEARS AGO, I wrote my first article for Independent Australia, disaggregating from a racialised lens to the horrendous rates of death by suicide of this continent’s descendants of the First Peoples. The article was read widely. At the time, I disaggregated the suicide rate of this continent’s First Peoples at one suicide in 24 First Nations deaths.
Thereabouts, 4% of First Nations deaths were suicides — a leading cause of death. For Australians as a whole, the death by suicide rate is around one in 50 Australian deaths — 2% of deaths. It is the 15th leading cause of death.
This is the last article I will write on First Nations suicides. However, I will continue for a little while longer to write about suicidality in general and to categorical high-risk groups. There are now increasingly more First Nations suicide researchers, social and emotional wellbeing academics than in the decades past. During this period, I wrote more than 500 articles on suicidality, half of these articles focusing on the humanitarian crisis of suicide as a leading cause of death of the First Peoples.
I first began to write about suicide among First Peoples brothers and sisters at the turn of the century, although the crisis was evident to me since the early 1990s. Over the decades, particularly through my visits to hundreds of First Nations homelands and communities, I refined my assumptions as to the underlying narratives and stressors.
What I learned above all was that nearly all First Nations suicides are of individuals who were living below the Australian Henderson Poverty Line, a significant proportion in what I term “crushing poverty”. Most of this crushing poverty is borne of the intergenerational sins of this nation, till relatively recently, this invasion-acquired nation denying equality and citizenship to the descendants of the thousands of generations long First Custodians.
Identity became a liability, hopelessness for far too long, for far too many, with no hope on the horizon. No shining light to any hope within the prospect of their lifetimes — just Black suffering. Betrayed by systemic hopelessness, much became too much for many and it has been increasingly so for those continually left behind.
What can take a life above the poverty line – suicide, domestic violence, illicit drugs – is many times more likely below the poverty line. A stressor/trigger or a combination of stressors can be 30 to 50 times more likely to end a life by suicide for people living below the poverty line. The lower the income base, the more “crushing” the poverty, the higher the suicide rate.
First Nations suicide rates above the Henderson Poverty Line have been and continue to be much less than the suicide rates of Australians above the poverty line. This statistical narrative and its inherent premises scream the ways forward — for those who care to listen.
When I first argued this grim reality, I was admonished by some who had argued for too long other causal narratives. However, I learned long ago, to own corrections in life’s journey. Ultimately, this is about human life and none of us must ever stand in the way of truth – I despair at those who denigrate others for arguing a case that we need to investigate – to leave no stone unturned, especially in the saving of lives.
In the 2013 article, I wrote that Australia’s First Peoples are suiciding at among the world’s highest rates — one in 24. Ten years later, it is diabolically worse — one in 18.
There were 996 suicide deaths reported across Australia between 2001 to 2010 of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is a horrific statistic — translating into one in every 24 Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples dying by suicide.
By comparison, 99 Aboriginal deaths in custody over a nine-year period launched the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
More needs to be done now than ever before, particularly in poverty alleviation. However, we turn a blind eye and deaf ear to poverty alleviation as a solution. The presumption is it’d be costly. However, it is a due owed. The Australian identity will remain incomplete till this restitution is complete.
In 2016, I campaigned for a royal commission into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides. Instead, after a whirlwind campaign, as I was in Canberra advocating for the royal rommission, the nation learned on ABC’s Four Corners what had been occurring at Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre between 2010 to 2016. On the same day, I was to meet with ministers. Then Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, announced the Don Dale Royal Commission.
It's a tragedy that the royal commission didn’t eventuate. The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Care Organisation (NACCHO) is pushing for one in an article titled, ‘Royal Commission needed urgently into catastrophic suicide rates in Aboriginal communities’.
The reasons for the royal commission are summarily argued to the nation, in this eight-minute ABC interview from mid-2016. Please listen to it before returning to this article.
This racialised humanitarian crisis will get worse unless many more than ever before stand up and call out this abomination. The responses by one government after another have been hideous reprehensions. They are a betrayal to the human family. Australia is the world’s 12th largest economy with a double trillion annual gross domestic product and a fifteen trillion treasure trove. These are from the invader’s unearned assets, taken from the First Peoples and who were thereafter corralled in hovels of human misery.
Western Australia has the highest rate of First Nations youth suicides aged 15 to 24. In tracking suspected suicides, it appears 2023 will record higher than usual annual tolls of suspected suicides for all Western Australian youth aged 15 to 24 and similarly for First Nations youth.
Perth and the southwest, and thereafter the Midwest Gascoyne Murchison, will record the highest tolls — higher than the Kimberley and Pilbara.
Western Australia, the richest jurisdiction per capita, records the nation's highest suicide rate for First Nations aged 25 to 34. It's through the roof and pales over all other comparators. Thereafter, it's the Northern Territory. This perennial skyrocketing high rate must be highlighted with publicly available real-time data.
The leading cause of death for both – Western Australian youth 15 to 24 and the state's First Nations' 15- to 24-year-olds – is suicide. The toll and rate of suicide will be higher by the end of this year compared to most other years. It is abominably tragic. Most Western Australian youth suspected of suicide so far this year are comprised of youth from the lowest two quintiles of income base.
Nearly all of Western Australia's First Nations youth suicides so far this year are from the lowest quintile of income base — most at the bottom of the poverty line. What takes a life, young and older, above the poverty line is many times more likely below the poverty line.
The impact of deaths of youths and children is far greater than imagined by those not touched by suicide, beyond harrowing. It is effectively indescribable. This is where postvention is a must.
Western Australia has a high rate of suicide — 418 lives lost in 2019, 381 in 2020 and this year will be tragically higher. Furthermore, the 15-to-24-year-old suicide toll will exceed the last reported annual toll of 47 and is tragically trending to 60.
The First Nations toll for that age tier is trending to one that is higher than usual. From 2019 to 2021, Western Australia's First Nations suicides overall were reduced by a quarter from preceding years but this will not be the case this year, with likely more than 50 First Nations suicides by the end of 2023.
WA's First Nations suicide toll had decreased to 32 and 40 in recent years, despite dramatically increasing across the rest of Australia by more than 10% in each of those years, as I sadly predicted at the time — going from 169 to 196, to 223, to 221. Between 2001 to 2010, nationally there were 100 deaths by suicide of First Nations people — one in 26 of all First Nations deaths a suicide. Presently, it is horrendously one in 18. It has gotten worse. And it's higher in Western Australia. The nation should know.
Western Australia remains one of the few jurisdictions without a publicly available death register. This needs to eventuate, with all the relevant disaggregation. The real-time deaths and attempts data is vital.
Western Australia is the nation's laggard on aftercare models for suicidality. It has committed to aftercare but hasn't framed any steps to bedrock aftercare and therefore not eventuated any form of substantive aftercare, which is no-brainer critical. WA is still one of the few states that has not committed to universal postvention and that's unbelievable. WA and Queensland are the jurisdictions that have not developed accreditation for evidence-based services in suicide prevention. WA is always saying this is in development.
I met hundreds of suicide-affected First Nations families and they all wanted to speak. They all wanted support. They broke my heart. I mentored far too many children and youth and older who had attempted, and I am glad I did. I was fortunate enough, in the decades of being there for as many as I could, that I never lost anyone.
But as a nation, we continue to lose children, youth and older at escalating rates. It just cannot be allowed to continue.
Half a decade ago, I wrote:
I remember a father who found his son hours after his suicide. The father lay 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.
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.
I have often said the nation should weep at this harrowing tragedy, which is more than just a national shame. It's a national disgrace, an abomination, a damning condemnation of who we remain as a nation.
If you would like to speak to someone about suicide you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher with an experiential focus on social justice.
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