Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his suicide prevention advisers straddle along as if there is no urgency while children as young as six attempt suicide, writes Gerry Georgatos.
ALARMINGLY, there is child suicidality at ages once presumed unimaginable.
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.
I wrote recently that a couple of years ago, I fought to save the life 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. Recently, I dedicated long-haul support to another suicidal six-year-old child, this time in one of our large cities.
However, it appears that there are more children than ever before experiencing suicidality. I have supported suicidal children, six, seven, nine, ten, 11, 12, 13, 14 years of age. Without dedicated support, it is my very certain belief that some of them would not be with us today.
In the last several days, I have been supporting children who presented suicidally. One child, seven years old, had attempted. I was distressed. His tragic circumstances funnelled my memories back to 11-year-old Peter Little who ended his life in 2014 and to ten-year-old Ariana Mangolamara who ended her life 18 months later. Their stories became headlines.
It breaks my heart that a seven-year-old was a couple of minutes from ending his life.
His 13-year-old brother found him in time — saved him. The family is scared. Scared of headlines, scared of hospitals and of “authorities” that could see their children removed. They were advised that they could trust me. Trust is imperative as it defines relationships and outcomes.
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 be such divide and disarray. There needs to be a building of unflinching trust so support can be provided.
When 11-year-old Peter Little suicided in 2014, I was contacted. The services were not. Trust had long broken down between the family and the services. The family had long sought help from everyone imaginable but ultimately were failed. The child had made previous attempts. He was a quiet boy who loved gardening. He was playing with other children. He said to some of the other children that he would end his life. He walked across the road into the bush scrub. He was found an hour later.
Master Little is buried close to 22-year-old Ms Dhu at Geraldton Cemetery. This young boy, half Ms Dhu’s young age, died several weeks after Ms Dhu's harrowing death in a police watch house. Two lives lost because services, including a hospital, failed them. Because there was no trust.
When ten-year-old Ms Mangolomara ended her life in Looma in March 2016, once again, I was the first person contacted. Publicly, few know that her troubled family sought help from authorities and very little was provided. Both Master Little and Ms Mangolomara had been known to be suicidal but there was no outreach support and no early intervention to validate them, and subsequently, disable trauma and lovingly journey them and their carers to positive selves.
Ms Mangolamara’s tragic end made national and international headlines, and suddenly, a swathe of agencies and services gathered as showpieces in Looma, following the tragedy. But in effect, they deserted the affected after the media disappeared. Ms Mangolamara left behind a five-year-old brother who is now eight.
In memory of Master Little, Ms Mangolamara and one other – 18-year-old Phillinka Powdrill who suicided in the Kimberley’s, Fitzroy, weeks apart from Master Little – I championed the need for a national postvention service that outreaches to the sea of grief. And at least for First Nations families, I helped make this come to pass with the effort that is the National Indigenous Critical Response Service. The service is at least a shoulder to rest on and a lever to galvanise some support. The service is postvention – it is not suicide prevention – but it is there for children, such as Ms Mangolamara’s little brother.
After two and a half years as the inaugural national coordinator of the National Indigenous Critical Response Service’s outreach taskforce, I stepped down in April this year.
Postvention services need to expand and all our nation’s children and parents grieving from suicide should be supported. A society is only as good as its responses to one another.
However, suicide prevention is our nation’s most urgent and greatest need. This is why I have founded the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project — working to establish it as a 24 hour, seven-days-a-week service, with a firmament of outreach.
It hauntingly aches as I support a seven-year-old to start to believe in living, that he should live and that even the most reprehensible traumas should never defeat. Whispers swirl of the sad lack of support for Master Little, Mses Mangolomara and Phillinka — had there been support for them they’d be with us still, in the prime of life.
Outreach is the most significant missing link with suicide prevention. There are many that have kept alive by someone being there for them, by improving their lives, by validating their trauma and subsequently disabling their trauma. There are migrant-born youth and homeless individuals who we have reached. People who have left prison who we have been there for, who would not be with us if we had not been there for them.
I am disappointed in our governments, and the civil services, which includes the huddled bureaucracies that manage our Commonwealth, state and territory governments. They straddle along as if there is no urgency — as if everything is a slow burn.
I am disappointed in Prime Minister Scott Morrison and in his suicide prevention advisers that argue that they need more time and more research, to figure out suicidality and in what to invest. If these advisors do not know what the causal narratives and pathways to suicidality are and if they do not understand why Australians are suiciding, and if they do not know the ways forward, then please resign your commissions. Get out of the way.
There is a lot of posturing by far too many on the suicide crises and not just by our political leaders. A lot of institutions, government departments and services are bent on being seen to be doing something, but their interface with the people-at-risk is negligible.
There is a litany of suicide prevention badged organisations but few of them sponsor outreach to the critically vulnerable. The majority of organisations are a whirlpool of information services, information gathering organisations, research institutes and the like. But these consume the majority of "suicide prevention" funding. There are noble organisations, but they are very few.
The carpetbaggers line a country mile for funding.
Governments – state, territory, Commonwealth – deliver at best piecemeal, minimalist responses, leaving those at the coalface of the crisis frustrated.
The same old who have long failed to deliver get funded. Yes, there is a "mental health" and "suicide prevention" elite, who lobby for funding for their inner circle. The majority of this funding is subsumed in substandard research and data collection. But, the majority of funding is used up by the research fraternity and its bureaucracy, with little or no flow-on effect to those they rarely or never engage with: people at-risk.
We have worked alongside thousands of people affected by suicidality and to date – and though it may not always be so – we have not lost anyone. This way forward must be invested in and the posturing and misplaced funding and under-investments at an end. So, too, reports, reviews and other delay tactics.
I remember everyone lost to suicide. But foremost I remember those lost to suicide that we could have helped if we had been resourced to do so. I will never forget Mr Little, Ms Mangolomara and Ms Phillinka.
That children so young – barely out of the cradle – should contemplate suicide is more than a national shame and indictment. It is the cruellest abomination and unforgivable.
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 and national coordinator of the National Suicide Prevention & Trauma Recovery Project. You can follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryGeorgatos.
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