There have been more recent disturbing and distressing reports of two Aboriginal girls’ suicides in Western Australia within a day of each other. WA is still awaiting the final report from an inquest into 13 suicides of Aboriginal young people in the Kimberley region from 2012 to 2016. These tragedies affect the whole nation, not just Aboriginal people.
While possible solutions are debated and theories about causes advanced, we typically hear the same worn-out offerings like “we need governments to address Indigenous suicide rates” or that colonisation is a contributing factor, even in 2019. Governments certainly have a role to play, but they can only do so much.
Blaming government, while seductively appealing, is extremely disempowering – and let’s not forget who Australia’s most disempowered people are. Over-emphasising the role of government communicates the message, “You are powerless to do anything that will improve your own lives.” A solution to the suicide problem must encourage the demise of the misplaced hope that government can and will fix all problems. Rather, what we need to see is the promotion of strategies that endorse the internal message of: “There is hope, and I can make a difference”.
Solving the suicide crisis will mean discussing issues that many do not like discussing, like the high rate of sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities. It was encouraging to read in The Guardian that National Indigenous Critical Response project coordinator, Gerry Georgatos, is saying that there was an urgent need to overhaul suicide prevention to look at the full spectrum of issues that led to it, including child sexual abuse. Others attempting to raise this aspect of the suicide crisis aren’t so lucky. Look at the clip below and notice the reaction of politically correct TV personality Yumi Stynes, who immediately cries “Racism!” when the topic is raised.
But as we have seen this year yet again, people of a certain mindset much prefer to talk about, and be outraged by, the celebration of the First Fleet’s arrival in Sydney Cove. I doubt very much if those two young girls cared if Australia Day is celebrated on 26 January as they ended their lives.
When writing about another Aboriginal suicide in 2016 – that of a girl just ten years old — commentator Karalee Katsambanis also dared suggest a possible link between suicide and child sexual abuse, stating that remote communities can become a playground for paedophiles. She also said, rightly, that fear of being branded a racist prevents the airing of some uncomfortable truths. Available research supports what Katsambanis and many others have long known to be true: child sexual abuse victims are at increased risk of suicide.
In discussing unsafe communities that lack employment opportunities and occupational role models, WA’s then-minister for child protection, Helen Morton, put it succinctly in The Australian in 2015. “The bright eyes of children’s early hopes and dreams quickly fade without opportunities,” she wrote. “In an unsafe community, children feel helpless and hopeless, sometimes choosing death as a means of escape.”
Is there a common solution to the related problems of suicide and child sexual abuse?
It seems obvious, to my eyes in any case, that any attempt to address these problems must address two fundamental human needs: a sense of purpose and feeling of connectedness with others. Meeting these needs will also see a quantum reduction in many other problems that plague dysfunctional Aboriginal communities, such as violence and self-harm, thus creating much needed stability.
So how can these fundamental needs be addressed? Warren Mundine has said: “Social stability requires that people embrace the idea of contributing to their communities. Employment, though not the only way, allows people to burnish both their own self-worth and contribute at the same time to their societies. As politician and Aboriginal woman Alison Anderson frames it, having a job has everything to do with status, respect, responsibility and dignity. A job is more than just a job – it is a key ingredient in mental health.
It is difficult for those living in job-poor remote communities to bring about change in their lives. We need to ask why people live in these places while so many of their city cousins enjoy the benefits of locations with easy access to fresh food, education, jobs, and modern services?
Putting the focus on jobs can only promote a sense of purpose, self-worth and a recognition of the responsibility to care for others. Jobs will not save everybody, but they will contribute significantly towards ending despair and promoting hope for present and future generations.
It is time to move forward, to ignore the cries of “Racist!” and ask rational questions about the efficacy of sustaining remote communities, about the lack of employment in them and, most of all, to set aside harmful, patronising sensitivities and no longer look upon indigenous Australians as some sort of bipedal fauna. Until that change occurs Aboriginal Australians will be diminished, and when they are diminished all Australians are diminished. It is not about ‘us’ and ‘them’ – there is only us.