A fortnight ago, Australia was shocked by the horrific news of a 10-year-old girl, Ariana Mangolamara, committing suicide in the remote community of Looma in Western Australia. This tragedy highlighted a worrisome trend, bringing attention to the high number of Aboriginal youths who kill themselves in Australia.
The Elders’ Report into Preventing Indigenous Self-harm and Youth Suicide, published in 2014, says that indigenous youth suicide in the past 20 years has gone from “being an extremely rare phenomenon to one where the rate … is now the highest in the world”.
“It should be unimaginable for Australia that such events should occur”, states Gerry Georgatos, a journalist, activist and suicide prevention researcher with the Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights and who works with several national projects in suicide prevention. It was under this capacity that he has been assigned by the Federal Government to provide crisis support to families affected by suicide in Western Australia.
Speaking to Neos Kosmos, Georgatos confirmed the shocking statistics regarding suicide rates in Australia’s indigenous communities, where a staggering 1 in 19 deaths are suicides – over 5 per cent of the total population.
“Some indigenous communities have the highest suicide rates in the world”, he says pointing out that it gets worse for younger people, aged 14 and younger, who are nine times more likely to commit suicide than people their age in other communities. As for the cause of these terrible premature deaths, he says it is for a large part because of government neglect.
“There is a constant narrative, by one government after another, denying equivalent services to the indigenous communities,” he explains.
Plagued by acute disadvantage, poverty, poor infrastructure, isolation and a sense of expectations not being met, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities are facing hopelessness and isolation. “This unjustified disparity toxically translates as racism”, he states.
A journalist who has received many awards covering Indigenous issues, Georgatos describes “a catastrophic humanitarian crisis”, taking place in an otherwise wealthy nation.
“We close down their schools and we allow them to live without clean water, they have to beg for it”, he says, describing a kind of neglect that further creates inequality and despair. “We need to built trust to the system”.
But why is the establishment failing these communities? Is it indifference, hypocrisy, or a deliberate attempt to keep them in the margins?
“It is all three. These are multifactoral issues. The more important is that Australia continues insisting on failed policies. We have to remember that the draconian policies of the past – banning people from speaking their language, removing children, and so on – came to an end only recently, but the thinking of assimilation and integration continues on”.
Georgatos puts his finger on a kind of endemic racism that is underlying in government policy, pointing out that, of the 226 Members of the Parliament in the Upper and Lower house, only 13 are non-white. “The parliament does not reflect the demography of the nation”, he states, explaining that “White Australia” continues to perpetuate “white privilege”. “Discrimination is the norm” he says, although he is hopeful. “This will change. Maybe not in our time, but change is inevitable”. Progress has been made in the past three or four decades, but there is still a long way to go for justice and equality.
One of the major problems is that, although the federal government has been spending a lot on policies that are supposed to address the issue and create the infrastructure that would allow for the indigenous communities to flourish, for years, there are people rorting the system. “We have to ensure that the money hits the ground”, he says, describing a usual scenario, in which the funds are “sucked up” by contractors and what little reaches the community is misused.
“Money should be directly allocated to the communities; this way it would be used to empower the local workforce, increasing employment”. As someone who is deeply involved in the matters of indigenous Australia he is quick to deliver the message of the people: “Don’t talk about us without us. Let us take care of ourselves”.
Georgatos believes that through education, counselling and guidance, things can improve. “The prison system is also a missed opportunity”, he says, pointing to the high jail rates among the indigenous communities, that are prone to alcohol and substance abuse, and violence, all symptoms of marginalisation. “There is no healing in prison”, he says, explaining how special programs could be implemented in prisons to educate people and create pathways to employment. “Each life we change matters”, he says.
This is a powerful message, one that Georgatos inherited from his parents, who migrated. Despite not being educated, barely speaking English, they became a voice for the Greeks in Sydney, establish in Greek language schools, and assisting many Greek migrants in the ’60s and ’70s.
“People strengthen people”, is his belief, after all his experience. “When we distance ourselves from the problems of our society, we only make them worse”.