The ABC News website recently posted an article under the headline: “Indigenous suicide: Thousands call for royal commission, prevention measures.” Given the greatly higher rates of suicide among the Indigenous population, clearly something needs to be done. But is a royal commission the answer? We once had a royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody which showed that Aboriginal people are no more likely to die in custody than non-Aborigines, though this message fell on too many deaf ears. A very important conclusion coming from that royal commission, which is highly relevant now to the problem of suicide and a host of other problems, could be summarised as it was here: “There is no other way. Only the Aboriginal people can, in the final analysis, assure their own future.” This, too, seems to have been ignored, hence the calls for another royal commission.
The Australian newspaper reported early in 2016 that Malcolm Turnbull is “urgently seeking novel ideas to break the deadlock ahead of what is expected to be another damning Closing the Gap report.” Sadly, when it comes to suicide, we hear the same old, worn-out offerings. For example, in the previously mentioned ABC article, Wes Morris, coordinator of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre, is quoted, “The number one resilience factor is culture — if people understand where they fit into the world and their place in the world and are proud of their identity, then that is the number one protective factor.” Interestingly, in some parts of Australia, such as remote communities, Indigenous people have their culture, yet the suicide rates are higher. This should not be surprising when you consider that Aboriginal culture as practised by those who turn away from modernity includes the acceptance of interpersonal violence as a valid way to settle disputes, and the demand-share economy that leads to the inability to deny kin access to assets and incomes even when it funds addictions that lead to unending poverty.
Is ‘culture’, then, really the solution to reducing Aboriginal suicides? According to Pat Dudgeon, who co-chairs the federal government’s Aboriginal suicide prevention advisory group: “Culture has become life-giving medicine for our people, closing the wounds of the past and standing us strong to face the future.” Really?
A successful intervention on suicide and related problems must enable people to have a sense of purpose and connectedness with others. When this happens, the internal message of “Life is not worth living” is replaced with “There is hope, my life is worthwhile, and I can make a difference.” One of the most effective ways of achieving this is by creating conditions that enable people to contribute to their communities. This is why paid employment is so important. Aboriginal politician Alison Anderson, when discussing the importance of jobs, has stated, “It is not just about the money … It is about status and respect, about responsibility and dignity.” So having a job is more than just a job – it is a way towards meeting fundamental human needs and attaining sound mental health. So if Mr Turnbull wants a more encouraging Closing the Gap Report in 2017, the focus must be on meaningful employment.
At this stage I should acknowledge that in some parts of Australia, often in remote communities, living environments are so toxic, with so little chance of gaining meaningful employment, that it is difficult for residents to bring about change in their lives. We need to question why people live in these conditions while so many of their city cousins, who have the advantage of ‘city privilege,’ enjoy easy access to fresh food, education, jobs, and modern services? However, I believe that even in the most difficult of situations, people can often call on their internal strengths and make a positive difference – as so many Aboriginal people have proven, such as Bess Price, Alison Anderson, Stan Grant, and so many others.
Focusing on jobs contributes significantly towards meeting fundamental human needs, promoting a sense of purpose, self-worth, and care for others, such that they can begin to celebrate living and resulting in safe, stable, and vibrant communities. Jobs will not save everybody, but they will contribute significantly towards ending despair and providing people with optimism and hope for present and for future generations. It is time to move forward. While Aboriginal Australians are diminished, all Australians are diminished.
On important topics like this, it is important to be open to opposing views. Gerry Georgatos is someone who has written extensively on Aboriginal suicide, and someone with whom, on this matter, I have some disagreements . Some of Gerry’s views are here, here and here. All are worth reading to appreciate the frame of his perspective. Given his passion and his professionalism when dealing with opposing views, I asked Gerry some questions on the topic of Aboriginal suicide. These questions and his responses are below.
Q: How will a royal commission reduce the number of Aboriginal suicides?
A: A royal commission is the nation’s most powerful change agent powered by significant human and material resource. We need to disaggregate to the elevated risk groups, not just the demographical risk groups, but to individuals removed from their families, to former inmates, to the houseless, to those who have been victim to acute violence and abuses, to those within socioeconomic disadvantage compounded with various aggressive complex traumas and from comprehensive understandings we respond tailor made in assisting them to wellbeing before assisting further into other opportunities.
Q: What impact do you think constantly hearing the message “The government should do more to address the problem of Aboriginal suicide” has on Aboriginal people?
A: Some may argue that I am perpetuating a narrative of victimhood however I argue that there is a narrative of victimhood. I have walked neighbourhoods and shanties where there is no prospect of people rising from their third-world-akin lot and despair or from their train-wreck lives. Officially, we have more than 5 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders deaths registered as suicide and in my estimation the real toll is more likely 10 per cent. More than half the nation’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population lives below the Henderson Poverty Line.
Q: The high levels of sexual abuse are well documented in the Aboriginal community, do you believe this to be a significant contributor to the high rate of Aboriginal suicide?
A: With suicide, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, sexual abuse is a trigger in degenerating some to a constancy of traumas and aggressive complex traumas and to suicide. In my experience in engaging with hundreds of suicide trauma related Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and with hundreds of individuals who have attempted suicide I have found that the major trigger is the sense of poverty related hopelessness and its translation as racism but sexual abuse, domestic violence have also led to suicides. There are varied stressors and we have to uniquely respond to them as opposed to generalised counselling. I also advise that in my experience 80 per cent of those who took their life or attempted suicide had never sought support from any service.
Q: What role do you think the Aboriginal people have to play in reducing the high rate of Aboriginal suicide?
A: Indeed they must lead the way but it’s for them to determine the level of engagement but our imperative as researchers and advocates is to ensure that we have articulated the narrative demographically and to elevated risk groups and identified in detail what needs to be addressed. If we do not disaggregate we make people invisible and leave them behind. It is my view that the whole story needs to be told and that we validate everyone’s trauma and the inherent ways forward. It is my view that the political landscape is offering a window of opportunity where together we can all deliver long overdue vital transformational difference and in so doing improve living conditions and reduce negative circumstances. The whole nation would benefit from the education that a royal commission can provide.