I went through numerous stages with suicides. To begin with, the shock of seeing death first-hand and discovering just how determined some people were to end their lives. One early hanging was under a single-storey house with a little over a metre clearance. I’m six-foot imperial and this chap was only a little shorter than me. He had to crawl under and didn’t have the room to suspend or dangle. He lay down, put a thin nylon clothesline rope around his neck, and settled back so that he induced a “blood choke”, cutting the blood flow through the carotid arteries and jugular veins. Air chokes are not an effective suicide method, as they cause excruciating pain and air hunger. You’ll automatically fight hard just to stop the pain and relieve the suffocation. Even when unconscious, body instinct will lift the head to gasp for air, so if you are relying on muscles to hold your head down, you won’t complete. For this unfortunate chap, the blood choke caused a swift loss of consciousness. His muscles slackened, his head slumped chin-to-chest. The rope compressed his upper airway, so it became a simultaneous air and blood choke. It would have been uncomfortable just crawling under the house, let alone putting the noose over his head, not being able to hang, only lie back, then overcoming the throbbing discomfort to allow the blood choke to take hold. That was an eye-opener.
Reading suicide notes is another. Some are beautifully written. I’ve been moved to tears not just by the raw emotion but by the eloquence. Even the most inarticulate notes convey the emotions all suicides go through: pain and pointlessness, and the wish that those left behind will not be angry with them or judge them.
This essay appears in June’s Quadrant.
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Delivering death messages provides yet another perspective. The real psychological pain the suicidal feel doesn’t end with their deaths—the baton of hurt just gets passed forward. Everyone left behind feels pain, grief and self-recrimination. People hang on every word when you tell them that their child/parent/spouse/sibling/friend is dead from suicide. They want you to help process their grief and give what is senseless some meaning. Twenty years after one message I ran into a recipient who repeated almost word for word what I had said.
The most interesting perspective is the survivors, those whose attempts are uncompleted either because you prevented them or something just went wrong. I’ve had some really intimate conversations with them. I’ve learnt not to moralise, advise, validate, invalidate or even try to understand—just to listen. Possibly excepting talking and learning about traditional indigenous spirituality, those were some of the most weird and wonderful conversations I’ve ever had, listening to people articulate the contradictory conversations that are going on in their heads as they happen. I’ve heard people’s voices and tones change when an answering voice takes over. It’s more interesting than having murderers, pedos and rapists explain themselves to you.
Almost always, there is some part of them, one voice that is happy that their attempt was uncompleted. Yet other contradictory voices tell them that rather than a dodged bullet, an uncompleted attempt is yet another indication of their inability to succeed at anything. Regardless, every single one of them fears the return of the mental demons. The demons may have been forced back into the shadows momentarily, but in the dark they recruit, recuperate, return stronger in number and voice to repossess.
After the shock stage came the normalisation stage. It was unhealthy, because I became numb and indifferent. Suicide became just another unpleasant duty with even more paperwork than usual. I forgot that it’s a human life, a person who was once the focus of hope for their parents and relatives, a person who once had their own dreams and visions of the future. I spent about ten years in this stage, thinking that my lack of emotional response proved I was on top of my feelings.
I went to numerous spates of suicides in the Cape but remember one job in one spate vividly because it ended this stage. One young chap was discovered just before sunrise having hung himself from one of the taller street signs. I was acquainted with him: a drinker and a cannabis user, a bit of criminal history but by Cape standards nothing too serious. We had played touch football and hunted together. He was good at both. He was prone to fits of temper but had a sense of humour. I liked him.
Looking up, I saw the rope had cut right into his neck, indicating he had balanced precariously on top of the sign and jumped. Tracks of tears were still visible on his cheeks, so he had been weeping while putting the rope around his neck and climbing up the sign. The sun was just coming up. I watched the flies crawling over his handsome, dead, distorted and bloating young face. He hadn’t been dead long, but the maggot eggs were already laid around his eyes, mouth and nose. The smell and sight, combined with the sound—the excited, satisfied buzzing of the blowflies—caused a wave of emotion in me. Like demons returning from the pit, suppressed feelings rose: pity, anger, powerlessness, sadness, pain and futility came back stronger and in numbers. For me, the normalisation and numbness stage ended then and there.
I took action both on and off duty to prevent these avoidable tragedies. As part of that commitment, I read the findings of the 2020 Commonwealth Productivity Commission Inquiry into Mental Health. This report is going to shape national policy and action on the suicide epidemic which disproportionally affects indigenous Australians. When I read action 8.3, “Undertaking an evaluation of programs that use traditional healers in partnership with conventional mental health services”, I shuddered. That loaded statement isn’t a call for an impartial investigation. It assumes partnerships between traditional healers and real medicine are desirable and possible. Put aside the loud questions there would be if the Commission advocated aromatherapy, yoga, bio-resonance therapy, chakra or prayer healing for the mainstream.
Traditional healing is unregulated. Even homeopathy has practitioners’ associations and a form of guild regulation. Who defines what is “traditional”? It’s not going to be some wise old elder in the Cape who may actually have some residual knowledge of herbs that make boils and sores heal quicker. What this is going to mean in practice is two things.
First, there will be big-city quacks and charlatans relabelling anything rejected by science, reason and the mainstream as “traditional”. There will be a flood of Bruce Pascoe-like discoveries that indigenous Australians were right into crystal healing, energy field healing and psychic surgery, and practised a form of reiki. Hordes of fakes, imposters, swindlers and, perhaps worst of all, dedicated deranged devotees, are going to be publicly funded and let loose on the most vulnerable in our society. The government and establishment stand firmly against anti-vax people. They have criminalised Christians praying over consenting homosexual people. Yet the same people are looking to fund and institutionalise if not snake oil, then kangaroo and dark emu oil. These concerns should make anyone who cares about indigenous health shudder. But even this is not the biggest issue.
Today, university departments of anthropology are shoddy ideology factories, but there was good work done in the past. McKnight, Haddon and others spent years trying to describe and understand the First Australians. Their studies recognised the power of practitioners of traditional religion and the centrality of sorcery to the indigenous mind. I understand the frustration felt with continued indigenous disadvantage, articulated in a statement I often hear: “But we’ve been here for 200 years.” Putting aside who “we” are and the complete lack of consistency of message over that 200 years, Aurukun was founded in 1904. Aurukun was under 100 years old when I did my first stint. The children of those who were there for the first coming of the white man were alive and sharing their memories. “We” have been in Botany Bay for 233 years. “We” are still colonising this country. The old ways are the default setting. You can’t slap a thin coat of paint over 60,000 years of religious belief and practice then act surprised when, like painted-over rust, the traditions and values bubble up and display themselves.
Like a Kadaicha in the shadows, the old ways reveal themselves when the time is right, and death is the right time. There is no such thing as a natural cause of death in traditional Cape culture. There is always human agency, either directly through weapons or indirectly through curses and sorcery. This cannot be blamed on the white man or the trauma of colonisation. In places like Aurukun sorcery is part of life. This traditional religious view is woven into everything and contributes in no small way to the endless cycles of violence, including suicide, in the Cape. There are people who engage in traditional religion and practise in every mainland community I’ve worked in. They are called “Clever Men” and “Clever Women” in the Cape. Some are seriously sinister people and hold real sway.
This is the second thing that will result. “Traditional healing” will mean reviving traditional religion and spiritual practices, and empowering practitioners. The state will fund a return of whatever post-contact mishmash monstrosity is defined as traditional Aboriginal religion by some Commonwealth committee of identitarian ignoramuses with agendas. These people will fund, privilege and encourage the “Clever Men/Women”. The state will facilitate the return of the Kadaicha.
Kadaicha are often called “Travelling Murries” because while they are occasionally purely spirit beings, a Kadaicha is more often a real person. Anyone dispatched to carry out a curse holds the office and gets the title. For every Cape suicide I went to there were whispers of sorcerers and curses. Even with some murders, relatives of the offender would swear he or she wasn’t actually responsible because he or she had been magicked. For credibility, police were often woven into the stories. After one suicide a rumour went around that a travelling Murri had come to carry out a curse which caused the suicide. To give this some credibility, rumour had it that I had been seen speaking to the travelling Murri just before the death. Even time and street name had been given and because of this I knew it never happened. A couple of mourning relatives came to the station to find the identity of the “Travelling Murri”. When I looked at them quizzically, they got frustrated, as if I was holding back from them, part of the conspiracy. I later heard from the Aboriginal coppers that my denial had gone around the community too but rather than undermining the rumour’s credibility, this was reframed as evidence of the strength of the Kadaicha. Even white coppers were subject to his powers of deception.
This is not just a traumatised Cape Bullyman venting (Bullyman is Cape indigenous slang for a policeman). The latest statistics I could find demonstrate the seriousness of suicide. In 2019, for indigenous Australian males the second leading cause of death was intentional self-harm, whereas across the sexes for the mainstream suicide is the thirteenth leading cause of death. Nationally 195 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people died by suicide in 2019, about one every second day. The most recent and Queensland-specific statistics reveal that in 2019 there were sixty-one either confirmed or suspected suicides by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Queensland alone. It’s disproportionately the young. Youth aged under twenty-five accounted for 41 per cent of those suicides and the percentage increases to 60.7 per cent under the age of thirty.
I’m against using vulnerable people as guinea pigs for social experiments, especially for policies that are known not to work, that will exacerbate problems and add to pain. Outside of proven, well-understood, limited and clearly defined activity, much government action is counter-productive. For example, in 2009 Kevin Rudd delivered the first Closing the Gap report. There were seven targets. Only two are on track to be met and one of those—to halve the Year 12 attainment gap—may be because of drops in non-indigenous achievement rather than indigenous improvement. Out of three of the remaining five, despite or I suspect because of government action in those areas, things are worse.
If a policeman from North Queensland can quickly see that institutionalising “traditional healing” will widen the gap, surely the great and good can. Perhaps the relatives who saw me after that Cape suicide were correct about the Feather Foot* having the ability to deceive highly educated whites, because they cannot even conceive of his existence. The people advocating “traditional healing” and other stupid, counter-productive ideas broadly fall into one of the following categories.
The ignorant. People haven’t got the time or the inclination to do the reading and thinking. It’s difficult to engage in an intellectual, technical discussion about whether or not any specific measure will result in the outcomes hoped for without causing undue cost. I think most fall into this category. However, their ignorance means they get easily swept up in hyperbole, virtue signalling and emotion.
The sinister. Some people know just how devastating these measures will be but because they have other agendas they advocate for implementation regardless. They lie big and they lie often. Considering how easy it is to find the facts, there is a worryingly high number in this category.
The silent. They know about the lies, and while they do not actively promote the falsehoods, they remain silent. Silence was conspicuous when many well-informed prominent people were lying about police killing indigenous people. There were plenty in the social sciences, journalists and politicians who knew these were outright lies. They looked the other way and said nothing.
Why the silence? For indigenous issues, evidence and consistency just don’t matter. We all respond to horrors the same way, and that’s why the emotional blackmail that social justice warriors use is so effective. It’s easier to moralise and feel rather than think, act and shoulder responsibility. Emotion and hyperbole trump reason and evidence.
To quote Thomas Sowell, we are replacing what works with what sounds good. This would be forgivable if we didn’t already know that what sounded good was in fact catastrophic, but we’ve had the social experiments and the data is in. We know that unscientific “healing” doesn’t work and much of it is actually counter-productive. We know that sorcery contributes to violence. We know that once we go down this cul-de-sac it will be impossible to back out. Even when it becomes too obvious to deny systematic failure, advocates will still not admit their mistake, as that would be taking responsibility. By then the “traditional healing” movement will have gained unstoppable momentum. Profits, jobs, companies and entire government departments will be dependent on this policy. The vested interests will find someone to tearfully declare on Q&A that dark emu oil and shamanic didgeridoo dance healing brought them back from the brink, and a deeply moved crowd will nod to perpetual funding.
This can only widen the gap between the mainstream (including well-treated indigenous elites) and the remote indigenous unwell. None of the urbane proponents will be relying on dark emu oil and shamans. If depressed and suicidal, they will be going to the best psychologist public money can buy. This is a rotten system, a joke that is being played on the people who can least afford to laugh.
I cannot see the introduction of counter-productive measures being stopped. Proponents of “traditional healing” as an antidote to suicide will use a simple fact as leverage. From what we can glean, there wasn’t much of an issue pre-contact with suicide. This will result in “whiteness”—meaning Judeo-Christian values, democracy, capitalism and science—being diagnosed as the pathogen that causes suicidality and mental illness in indigenous people. That way, eliminating whiteness—“de-colonising”—will be linked with addressing indigenous suicide and restoring indigenous mental well-being.
Conflating concepts is a major weapon in the already extensive armoury used to attack the West from within. Authoritative commentators will tell a concerned public that a pre-requisite to progress is the destruction of “whiteness” and the creation of the perfect woke-utopian future. Anyone who disagrees or points to data from the mission years which disprove this will be labelled as a racist indifferent to indigenous suffering. The fact that introducing this policy will cause much more harm to indigenous people than good is incidental because the eliminating-whiteness brigade have agendas, choose convenient truths and get caught up in the endless loop of circular reasoning required to preserve false political narratives. The sinister, aided by the ignorant and abetted by the silent, will perpetuate the narrative. The Kadaicha’s deception will triumph.
When introduced, the combined dark emu oil/re-paganisation policy will add not just to the national debt and the widening gap, but much more importantly to the death toll. Those who prioritise mitigating human suffering over ideological virtue signalling are forced to speak out against stupidity.
I don’t know how many suicides I’ve been to. All of those people, especially the kids, had real promise that will forever remain unfulfilled. Murder is bad, paedophilia destroys lives, but there is something about suicide. It’s the choosing of death, the utilisation of free will and the sheer number of suicides that really moves and affects me.
I wish anyone suffering suicidal thoughts would hold on, just for a bit longer, to get help. I also wish that indigenous lives mattered to Black Lives Matter and that suicide prevention reports were primarily concerned with stopping people from killing themselves. I yearn for the day that the stated aims of these organisations and policy were, in fact, the principal purpose. Then a united “we” could address the epidemic of Australians taking their own lives.
* To hide their tracks, Kadaicha attach the breast feathers of birds, frequently emus, to their feet, often using the blood of the slaughtered bird. Hence “Feather Foot” is a way of referring to the Kadaicha without speaking his name.
Martin Lynch is a policeman in Queensland. He wrote the article “Why Alice Can’t Get Ahead” in the October 2019 issue, and “Black Lives Matter: The Police Perspective” in November 2020