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July 27th 2016 print

Anthony Dillon

Indigenous Suicide and ‘Culture’

Apart from calls for yet another royal commission, what sense can we draw from the appalling number of Aborigines who die by their hands? Again, we hear that a renewed celebration of heritage will make all the difference, yet suicide in remote communities is far more common

hangingThe 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. 

Comments [17]

  1. An excellent article, thank you Anthony. I look forward to your material in Quadrant and in the AUSTRALIAN.
    There is one passage towards the end of your article which to me holds the key to addressing the most effective ‘cure’ for almost ALL troubled souls/people and not just those people with aboriginal ancestry:-
    “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.”
    Well said! – A productive job, in philosophical terms in a free/capitalist society, is merely one way of ‘trading’ for ones existence. This concept will not be popular with the Gerry Georgatos’s of the world because it would be seen as being too ‘capitalistic’ for them. However I think you are correct and Gerry is wrong, because even a low status, poorly paying job is cause/reason for a fair degree of genuine self esteem/self respect. Self respect that can never be achieved by receiving welfare or by criminal activity. People who have genuine self respect generally don’t kill themselves, or want to harm others or indulge in criminal activity. Self respect also must be earned. It is not a ‘right’ that comes with merely breathing and existing.
    To finish, besides being a potent source for genuine self respect, jobs are valuable in that to my mind the only people who get continually and easily bored are those whose existence is guaranteed by the efforts of others. People who have the self respect that comes with being responsible for their own existence usually don’t get easily bored.

  2. Peter Williamson says:

    If I was an evil villian intent on destroying aboriginal people I would set them up in ‘homelands’ far removed from any employment possibilities, tell them everyday that they had a most wonderful fault-free culture, that they are the victims of terrible racist ‘invaders’. For good measure I’d overturn alcohol bans and build a liquor outlet close-by. Then step back and observe the result. Oh hang on! that’s been done already.

    • Jody says:

      Last night on Sky Nicholas Reece (past adviser to Gillard) told Rowen Dean on Paul Murray Live, when Dean suggested leaving indigenous people in remote communities, “people have an absolute right to gather to live together in any place of their choosing”. Dean was flabbergasted, but this lunatic comment went largely unchallenged. Reece may work in a university but there’s no doubt he’s an ‘educated (useful) idiot’.

  3. en passant says:

    Almost half a century ago, before I joined the Army I worked in the outback and mixed with aboriginal stockmen and on stations. They were the salt of the Earth. They were killed of as worthwhile people by the ‘do-gooders’ who criminalised the Station Owners for the low wages they paid. Suddenly, they were unaffordable, so they and their families had to return to Hades.
    15 years later I commanded a company of 100+ men in the Army. 15% of my soldiers were classed as aboriginal or kanaka (a term frowned on today). In conversations with them I always asked why they had joined the Army. 100% of the answers were “To get away from the clan and the culture.” All of them had been brought up on stations, or Missions so they were well-educated to Australian standards (at about year 9) and functioning people. Several commented that the lifting of the ban on alcohol in settlements and the payment of ‘sit-down’ money (Whitlam, from memory, though I am willing to be corrected) were the two biggest factors in the total meltdown that took place in less than three years. A century of care and nurturing destroyed in a moment by those who only wanted to do ‘good’.

    Then came the /stolen generations’, land rights, the victimhood ‘industry’, the various ‘heritage acts’ and the active drive to return to the stone age as that was where the free cargo was.

    As Anthony eloquently points out a life of living by whining for handouts is no life at all. There are Scottish Clan Societies, but I know of nobody who wants to live like Rob Roy in a smoke-filled, mud-floored bothy (cottage), subject to the whims of the Chief or Elders. Scotland flowered when the clan system was destroyed and every Scot joined the modern age. The answer is to become Australian (not a whining ‘first Australian’ [how many full blooded aboriginals are there left?]) and compete in modern society just like all civilised people have to.

    Of course, this does not apply to those seeking to stay in the 7th Century as that is where god wants us all. Ask me why I am an non-cultured, rational atheist …

    • Lo says:

      This experienced, recounted history has inestimable value. Thank you.

    • rosross says:

      Good post, however there is nothing rational about being an atheist. The rational position is agnostic – not sure, because none of us can ever know with any certainty if there is a conscious entity, God, responsible for this world, or not.

      There are indications that such an entity or force exists, but the only rational position is one of remaining open and not being adamant on either count.

      An atheist is just the other side of the coin of a religious.

  4. Bill Martin says:

    As always, Anthony Dillon’s article is a welcome change from the usual weasel-worded offerings on the plight of Aborigines. However, while he obviously understands the role played by indigenous culture, he refrains from declaring it to be the root of the problem.

    Over the millennia of recorded history there had been truly great cultures, many of them contributing greatly to the advancement of humanity, yet they did not survive the march of time. Our acquaintance with them is restricted to the sciences of history and anthropology. Why is the culture of indigenous Australians so vitally significant that it must be not merely recorded as one that served its purpose in its time, but must be practiced indefinitely. Its achievements go no further than the ability to survive in the given environment. That is not exactly a glorious attribute, is it?

    When one shakes off the shackles of political correctness, it becomes glaringly obvious that the overarching reason for the deplorable living condition of thousands of Aborigines is their culture, or more precisely the mindless, desperate insistence of continuing to live by it. Those Aboriginal academics championing this destructive attitude are either of very limited intellect or shameless charlatans, quite likely both in many instances. Proof of that condemnation is the fact that none of them live what they preach.

    • RayB says:

      Agreed, Bill, that Anthony totally nails the issues.
      When it comes to keeping Aboriginal cultures alive, you overlook the vested interest of the multitudes of anthropologists & other “ologists” produced by our universities. They need those cultures kept alive so they have something to study. Sure, they care about the sorry state of the communities they are studying, but for them, the more important issue is gaining advancement in the academic or bureaucratic world they occupy, thus enabling them to not see their involvement in the continuation of that sorry state.

  5. Bran Dee says:

    Likewise many troubled men of Middle Eastern appearance in Australia do not work. One who was recently incarcerated was on unemployment benefits of the higher disability rate but was able enough to have 2 wives whilst helping his multicultural contacts move overseas to fight for ISIS. Idle hands find mischief!

  6. Warty says:

    OK . . . who silenced Rob Ellison?

  7. Mark Smith says:

    I’m probably dreaming here, but here’s a crazy idea. What if all state governments demolish all councils situated in bush fire prone areas and steward work of seasonal controlled burning to aboriginal communities, drawing many out of the welfare holes? It would be a powerful gesture to their superior land management before 1788, PLUS, it would dislodge damaging Greens councils. They could be subcontractors or public service. Nothing’s impossible, right?

  8. mags of Queensland says:

    Another well thought out article Anthony. At least here at Quadrant we are not labeled a racist for asking the unpopular questions or giving a non PC response.

    Many years ago I happened to meet a young aboriginal man who had been incarcerated in Long Bay. I didn’t ask what he had done to get there but he told me that the biggest thing that was brought home to him was that the aboriginal legal people did not come near him once to see if they could help him. He told me that the days of the elders being the glue that held his people together had disappeared in a haze of handouts and alcohol.There were too many activists bleating on about rights but none were prepared to be part of the solution to the growing number of aboriginal people with drug and alcohol problems that was affecting even children by this time.

    After more than 200 years it should have dawned on those who want to live like the ancestors that this doesn’t include sit down money or a perpetual chip on the shoulder that they are somehow more entitled than those who provide for them. There are so many successful aboriginal people that should be mentors and examples of what can be achieved with a little effort that I can’t understand why they are not more proactive in becoming part of the solution to the despair and poverty of their brothers.The fact that many aboriginal children have as an example parents and relatives who have never been to school or had any kind of job must surely be a factor in the terrible instances of suicide. Same with white kids too. With all the will in the world those who would like to help our aboriginal citizens to escape the draining and deadly apathy that seems to infect them are just wasting their time if aboriginal people don’t want to accept that they,too,have a role in this.They could start by being parents rather than just the begetters of children. making them safe and cared for would go a long way to resolving some of the issues that see children on the streets and likely to end up in detention sometime. The pressure on these children must be enormous. What a pity that they are denied access to a loving home because of the activist cry of ” stolen generation” drowning out common sense.

  9. ArthurB says:

    In my home state the colonists are just about unanimous about the Aborigines that they encountered: they praised them for their skills as hunters, and as trackers, but describe traditional Aboriginal culture as full of violence, particularly towards women, who had no rights at all – they were promised in marriage to older men, and were beaten if they refused to co-operate. There was also the custom of so-called revenge or honour killings – if a person died, they believed his death was caused by the spirits, and felt obliged to kill someone else in compensation. This is one aspect of Aboriginal culture that should not be revived.

  10. rosross says:

    The word culture is tossed around but has no true meaning or foundation. When Aboriginal culture is thrown up as a term, it is generally taken to mean a fantasy of life which supposedly existed before the English arrived, but in fact never existed then and most certainly does not exist now.

    In 1788 Aboriginal culture was brutal, cannibalistic, misogynistic and often cruel in the way of so many nomadic, primitive hunter-gatherers. Cannibalism of enemies was a norm, but so too was cannibalism of their own children, women, the aged and the sick. Violence toward women was also a norm, with the earliest reports from the English, of savage beating of women by their husbands. Child marriage was also a norm and old men, took many wives, and sold them for sex when it suited.

    There may well have been tribes who were more evolved and enlightened but, in the main, Aboriginal life was brutal and backward and it was a culture of domination and fear. No wonder so many Aboriginal women were quick to take up with non-Aboriginal men.

    This is not to deny, like all primitive peoples, the existence of creative acts of value – art, myth, story, but they were a small part of the culture and not enough to diminish the brutality in most instances. And the best of artistic and creative Aboriginal culture has been retained because of the intervention and efforts of the colonisers.

    In essence, the use of the term culture for Australians with Aboriginal ancestry is meaningless until accurately defined. And since in 1788 tribes were divided, at war with each other, without a common language, and since then, the mixing of peoples has continued unabated, so some so-called indigenous are more Anglo/European/Asian than Aboriginal, and the experiences of someone descended from middle-class city life have nothing in common with someone descended from a remote community or a country town, it is pretty clear there is no common culture still for indigenous.

    We also have a unique and ridiculous situation in Australia, unknown in any other country, where one can be indigenous, or classify themselves as indigenous, with no known Aboriginal ancestry, or with ancestry so minimal it is meaningless. Having a great-great-great grandparent who was Chinese does not make one Asian or Chinese and neither does a distant Aboriginal ancestor make one indigenous. Most Australians are of very mixed race and culture and very few, beyond indigenous, if indeed any, define themselves by the ancestry of their parents, grandparents or beyond.

    This is not to say a new definition of indigenous culture cannot be invented and learned, if indeed it were ever possible to have unity between indigenous, which is unlikely, but to say that there is no common indigenous culture at this point and it is ludicrous to talk about it, when it does not exist.

    The irony of course, is that if the ‘claims’ made for Aboriginal ancestry were made in the name of any other group – Muslim, Asian, Anglo etc., it would be called racism.