In the last few years I have written more than 300 articles on the suicide crises and on suicide prevention. In those same years I have supported hundreds of suicide affected families and thousands of critically at-risk individuals. There has never been an article I have written that in its midst I was not notified of a suicide. In my view, understanding why one suicidally ideates should be our most pressing need.
The suicide crises are harrowing and the grim reality is that they will get worse. Many more will be prematurely lost; the majority surrendering up to a half a century of potential life years.
We are losing to suicide at least 3,000 Australians each year. More than one quarter of the national suicide toll is comprised of migrants, particularly of relatively newly arrived migrants from language diverse backgrounds. Refugees who have endured immigration detention are at elevated risk to suicide. The suicide rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, one in 18 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths is a suicide. However because of under-reporting issues and circumstances where there is an inability to gather adequate evidence to satisfy the Coroner of a suicide, I estimate that one in 10 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths is a suicide.
The nation should weep, but more importantly should act, when 80 per cent of suicides of children aged 12 years and less are of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children.
We do not need endless research to identify the elevated risk groups or the ways forward. We know them. We only need to disaggregate. If we do not disaggregate we discriminate, we leave people behind.
Disaggregation to elevated risk groups inherently informs the bases of the ways forward.
The most elevated risk group to life-threatening aberrant behaviour and to suicide are individuals who as children were removed from their biological families, followed by former inmates, the homeless, foster children, the chronically impoverished, newly arrived migrants, culturally and linguistically diverse migrants, LGBQTI people.
Impoverishment is one of the more significant risk factors that leads to suicidal ideation. Aberrant behaviours and depression are more pronounced among the impoverished. The more education someone has completed the greater the suite of their protective factors to steer clear from suicidal ideation.
The majority of the national prison population has not completed Year 12 – in fact the majority have not completed Year 9. High levels of education are a more significant protective factor than fulltime employment. The more education someone has achieved 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.
Identifying trauma in any given population must recognise underlying narratives, and from within these narratives consequently understand the triggers that can lead to serious depression, to disordered thinking, to the tipping points.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides are predominately borne of poverty and disparities.
I have travelled hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and with many of these communities the poverty is third-world-akin. Many of these communities have been degraded from missions and reserves to corrals of human misery and suffering; where no one completes Year 12, where few have any serious employment, where all hope is extinguished.
That this should be their lot is an abomination – moral and political.
The degradation of these communities is not the fault of the communities but the fault of our governments.
We were not put on this earth to bury our children, but tragically it happens and it will continue to happen.
That the hopelessness is allowed, indeed perpetuated, the grief, the displaced anger translate toxically as racism. Within these narratives a relationship breakdown – whether with family or friends can tip one to suicide. Where a relationship is all someone believes they have and it breaks down, all becomes bleak.
Very few Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders living above the poverty line suicide, in fact at a less rate than for non-Indigenous Australians. The improving of life circumstances for impoverished and disadvantaged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is the only way forward to reducing one of the world’s highest suicide rates, that of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
More needs to be done for the impoverished; for those without hope – for those who are being denied the right to expectations all other Australians have a shot at.
The multifactorial issues that lead to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides are the same that lead to the abominable arrest, jail and homeless rates of Aboriginal peoples. Today, one in 13 of Western Australia’s Aboriginal adult males are in prison. Prisons are filled with the low-level offending borne of the tsunami of poverty-related issues.
The improving of life circumstances is significant. In my time in the tertiary sector, I assisted many former inmates and homeless individuals into education, into gaining entry to an educational institution and hence in supporting them from the point of entry to the point exit. None of those souls I assisted landed back in jail or on the streets. People need people – people can strengthen people.
Of the world’s middle and high income nations with recent colonial oppressor histories, Australia has the widest divide in all measurable indicators between its First Peoples and the rest of the population.
For all Australians, whether they are descendants of the First Peoples, newly arrived migrants from culturally diverse backgrounds, whether marginalised Australians, there are an accumulation of stresses today the likes never before had in our nation. We have to ready the firmament of our institutions, the bastions of the identity forming, with the people-first focused education to counter the pressures. There is also a capacity of hate today the likes never before known.
It plays out in racism, in competition, in general unhappiness and degenerates into hate, anger, mobbing and bullying. The constancy of these traumas can become irrecoverable for some.
We cannot continue to live in the silences and dangerously internalise this tragedy. The hundreds of suicide affected families I have sat with, who have lost their loved ones, they are crying out to be heard, they are screaming.
Self-destructive behaviours that can culminate in suicidal behaviours are preventable, avoidable.
I remember the suicide affected families and those lost who continue to echo in the hearts of those they have left behind. I remember children lost to suicide, as young as 9. We need education to lead with the knowledge that at all times we need to be civil, courteous, kind to one another. We need to be there for one another – people need people. We need education that focuses on what happiness truly means, how we can support each other, how we should interact with one another, in how we should live our days on this earth.
We should tell the stories of those lost. Let us be fearless in this, for in the telling of their stories the imperatives of the ways forward will be reinforced.
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 till 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 three graves.
I remember a father of 6 children who took his life, a mother of 5 children who took her life, a pregnant mother who took her life, I remember a 10-year-old child who took her life, an 11-year-old boy who took his life, a 12-year-old girl who took her life.
There are the refugees that I have worked with who trauma consumes, who Australia’s immigration detention has failed, indeed damaged. There are refugees who soon after being released have taken their lives.
As a nation we lay claim to responding to the suicide crises. We are one of only 28 nations with a ‘suicide prevention plan’. But it’s paper-thin. It’s about encouraging services to work a little bit harder, to work together in suicide prevention and postvention. This is nowhere near anywhere. As a nation we have not prioritised this harrowing crisis.
As a young child I remember the absorption of sadness by some of Sydney’s Greek community of the suicide by a newly-arrived young Greek male. Years later I would read some of his letters to the homeland, yearning to return after he made his quid in a country he believed found it hard to accept him. This is a tale of many newly-arrived migrants albeit to one of the world’s most culturally diverse nations. Racism has many veils and layers and misoxeny and xenophobia are toxic. Today, in my work with suicide affected families and in my experiential borne research, in my many journeys I find that there are more stresses today than yesterday, more unhappiness today than yesterday.
Identifying trauma and understanding the issues that despair individuals and collectively as families are imperative in tailor-making the education, the conversations and the support. We start with behavioural observations and proceed with the opportunity for the individual to tell their story. People need people, 24/7. The positive self is imperative and to this we must work alongside people. What makes for unhappiness and happiness has to be understood – human beings are inherently courageous. People want to choose happiness but a muddle-minded society has been getting in the way. The factors that can culminate in suicide are the most preventable of the various destructive behaviours that impact on families and communities.
Understanding one another, understanding unfairness, helping one another, being there for one another are the most profound steps to suicide prevention. We have to spread the love and do this with a salt-of-the-earth approach. We must lead by example in making sense of the world, in supporting others to improve their life circumstances and to understand happiness.
* Gerry Georgatos is the nation’s most prolific writer on suicide prevention; a suicide prevention and prison reform researcher and advocate with the non-tertiary Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights. He is a member of national projects to further develop real-time suicide prevention and postvention. He has developed programs to improve the well-being and life circumstances of individuals leaving prison or who are homeless. Gerry’s research has a focus on trauma recovery and restorative approaches. He works first-hand with the critically vulnerable and marginalised. He is also a prolific writer on the understanding of racism and on the ways forward from racism.