The internet has brought teenage suicide to island communities
Child suicide rates are the highest they have ever been, and we know bullying is a factor in at least a quarter of them
Recently, I travelled to two island communities that had recorded their first suicides. These First Nations islander communities had been sheltered from the internet and social media platforms where bullying and mobbing play out in pronounced ways. In the middle of last year both islands were connected to the internet. Before this they had never had a recorded suicide attempt.
We must demand that bullying is tackled, and all other factors that culminate in suicide are radically challenged but with a salt-of-the-earth approach, with the spreading of love. This does not mean we dish out more expectation to families. They are already doing everything they can. It is a slap in the face to suggest that they need to talk openly. They do talk but they need support, outreach services, pathways that improve their lot and that resource them and tool them up to assist their loved ones.
In at least one in four child suicides we have been able to identify bullying as an underlying narrative.
The death of a child is always heartbreaking but when it is by suicide it is as devastating as it gets, with long-term negative psychosocial effects for those left behind. There is a whole different level of anguish and grief. Grimly, deaths of children by suicide are increasing, but they can be dramatically reduced. Each year, I support hundreds of suicide-affected families. I have supported families who have lost a child as young as nine to suicide and with attempted suicides of children as young as six. I often reflect that there should be no words for what should be unimaginable.
Only in a third of child suicides did the child tell someone that they were contemplating suicide. However, in at least one in four child suicides we have been able to identify bullying as an underlying narrative or as the abominable tipping point.
The tragedy of 14-year-old Dolly Everett should have galvanised the nation to respond not only to suicides that culminated from bullying but also to child suicides, period. In the weeks before and after Dolly’s death there were other children lost to suicide. We must come together to tell their stories too, and talk about the ways forward.
Tragically, the child suicide toll discriminates. Proportionally, suicide takes more Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children than it does non-Aboriginal children. Suicide also takes more migrant children from non-English cultural backgrounds. I work in trauma recovery with suicide-affected families; Aboriginal, migrant, everyone. At least one quarter of these children would still be with us had it not been for bullying and relentless psychological and emotional abuse.
Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander suicides comprise 6% of Australia’s total suicides, but shockingly, 80% of child suicides aged 12 and below are of Aboriginal children. Thirty per cent of the child suicides to age 17 are comprised of Aboriginal children. I have often said “the nation should weep” at this harrowing tragedy, which is more than just a national shame – a national disgrace, an abomination, a damning condemnation of who we remain as a nation.
In general, the socioeconomically poorer someone is the more vulnerable they are to bullying, aberrant behaviour and to suicidal ideation. Forty per cent of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders live below the poverty line and my research has found that nearly 100% of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander suicides are of people who lived below the poverty line. The suicides of Aboriginal people living above the poverty line are negligible and less than non-Aboriginal Australians living above the poverty line.
The suicide rate in Australia is a humanitarian crisis we can no longer ignore
Newly arrived migrants from language-diverse backgrounds are also at significant risk. The majority are impoverished and face economic stressors and a divide borne of incidental isolation and inequalities. I remember a young mother, newly arrived, living in public housing with two children, the youngest not yet two, ending her life. Her family devastated. Her eldest child, seven, was subsequently at risk. To reduce the threat of the “unimaginable” we supported relentlessly. People need people.
There are no words possible to any family after the loss of their child. I remember each child’s funeral that I have attended. I remember the funeral of a 10-year-old, an 11-year-old, 12-year-olds. I remember one community, three children buried in five days, three graves in a row, the youngest a 15-year-old girl. In two of the tragic losses bullying was the tipping point, although neither confided in anyone about suicidal ideation.
Child suicides are no longer rare. Child suicide rates are the highest they have ever been. More than 40,000 children aged 12 to 17 years are known to make a suicide attempt. One quarter of 16-year-old females self-harm.
Bullying has to be taken on. The stories have to be told so as to galvanise tailor-made education, to stop bullying, to educate protective factors into victims, to educate perpetrators.
We should weep, but more importantly we should act to stop Indigenous suicides
Education campaigns must be national and reach every layer of society. They cannot be predominantly within the school because the majority of Aboriginal child suicides have been of children who did not attend school.
As a nation, our governments and institutions should be doing everything possible for a civil and courteous society, for loving narratives, for outreach support, for technology primed to the betterment of its users and unable to be misused to the detriment.
• 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 researcher and restorative justice and prison reform expert with the Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights. He is also the national coordinator of the National Indigenous Critical Response Service and the National Migrant Youth Support Service
We should weep, but more importantly we should act to stop Indigenous suicides
I have sat with hundreds of families in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities that have lost loved ones to suicide. They are crying out to be heard
In the last few years I have written more than 300 articles on the suicide crisis and on suicide prevention. In those same years I have supported hundreds of suicide affected-families and thousands of critically at-risk individuals. In my view, understanding why one has suicidal thoughts should be our most pressing need.
We are losing at least 3,000 Australians to suicide 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 rather one in 10 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths is a suicide.
The nation should weep, but more importantly should act, when 80% 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 don’t, we discriminate; we leave people behind.
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, and 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 steering 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 full-time employment. More education 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, disordered thinking – to the tipping points.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides are predominately borne of poverty and disparities. I have travelled through 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 hardly anyone 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.
Very few Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders living above the poverty line kill themselves. 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. More needs to be done for the impoverished, for those without hope.
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.
In my time in the tertiary sector, I assisted many former inmates and homeless individuals into education, 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.
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, or marginalised Australians, there is an accumulation of stress that we never before had in our nation. There is also an unprecedented capacity of hate today. 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 silence and dangerously internalise this tragedy. The hundreds of suicide affected families I have sat with, who have lost their loved ones, are crying out to be heard, they are screaming.
Self-destructive behaviours that can culminate in suicidal behaviours are preventable.
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 nine. We need education to lead with the knowledge that at all times we need to be civil, courteous, kind to one another. We have to be there for one another – people need people.
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 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 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.
As a nation we lay claim to responding to the suicide crisis. We are one of only 28 nations with a “suicide prevention plan”. But it’s paper-thin. It’s about encouraging services to work together in suicide prevention and postvention. We are nowhere near it. 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 the 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 my 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.
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.
· Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 in Australia, the Samaritans on 116 123 in the UK, and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline on 1-800-273-8255 in the US.
The suicide rate in Australia is a humanitarian crisis we can no longer ignore
The high suicide rate in Indigenous Australia is underwritten by acute poverty, disadvantage and marginalisation that should make no sense in one of the world’s wealthiest nations
As I begin to write this piece, I have been informed of a former refugee who has taken his life, of a mother who has taken her life, of a young Aboriginal woman who has taken her life, of a former inmate who has taken his life, of a newly arrived migrant who has taken her life. Each of these individuals was aged in their 20s.
Suicide takes twice as many Australian lives as all other forms of violence combined, including homicides, military deaths and the road toll. The suicide toll should be the nation’s most pressing issue – the issue of our time. But alas it is not.
There is a humanitarian crisis in this affluent nation, a catastrophic, systematic crisis: suicide accounts for more than 5% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths. It’s a staggering, harrowing statistic. In fact in my estimations, because of under-reporting issues, suicide accounts for 10% of Indigenous deaths. The contributing factors are many and intertwined, underwritten by the kind of acute poverty, disadvantage and marginalisation that should make no sense in one of the world’s wealthiest nations.
But they are not limited to socioeconomic factors. From within the cesspool of this situational trauma – this narrative of victimhood – there has manifest a constancy of traumas – multiple, composite, aggressive, complex traumas.
We need more than just generalised counselling, but this last resort is the first resort. Resilience selling is part of this generalised counselling where we beg the victim to adjust their behaviours – but how far and for how long without hope on the horizon?
The factors that can culminate in suicide are the most preventable of the various destructive behaviours that impact on families and communities. There are many ways forward.
A national inquiry or royal commission into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides – and in fact into all suicides – is long overdue. We cannot live in the silences and dangerously internalise this tragedy. I have travelled to hundreds of homeland communities and the people who are losing their loved ones are crying out to be heard, they are screaming.
Despite all the good work done by many in saving lives, the suicide toll, particularly for the most elevated risk groups, is on the increase. Without the deep examination that a royal commission will provide, the suicide prevention space will remain inauthentic – hostage to carpetbaggers and the ignorant.
It is never enough to deal with the symptoms. The cause must be validated without languishing within it so as to avoid drowning in negatives and misery.
Identifying trauma in any given population, including among LGBQTI people, former inmates, foster children, the homeless, the chronically impoverished, newly arrived migrants, culturally and linguistically diverse migrants and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, we start with behavioural observations and proceed with the opportunity for the individual to tell their story. People need people, 24/7.
Our capacity to listen is an imperative and must be achieved without judgment, for often redemption is needed: forgiveness in addition to sympathy and empathy. These skills do not come easy to everyone but they are vital in the suicide prevention space, in trauma counselling, in restorative therapies, in navigating people to a positive self.
There is no greater legacy that any government can have than to prioritise and invest in the improving of lives, the changing of lives, the saving of lives.
· Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.