Suicide, youth and the wisdom of an Elder
This is a story borne out of a deep collective despair that as a society we are not better able to take care of our young people in the face of ever-increasing suicide rates.
It is about systems in health and education, historic and current, which are not able to reflect an urgent need for change.
Mostly though, it is about human beings and our need for love and connection, to ourselves, each other and the earth.
In Australia we are losing our young people to suicide at frightening and increasing rates. Suicide represents the leading cause of death for our young people, and disturbingly — though not surprisingly in this country – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth are four times more likely to take their own lives than non-Indigenous youth, with the rate of suicide of young Aboriginal Australian men among the highest in the world.
Uncle Charles Moran is a respected Bundjalung Elder who lives with his wife Glennys in Northern New South Wales. In 2016 Charles and Glennys tragically lost their 15-year-old great-grandson Byron to suicide.
Byron had been in the care of the state of Queensland following a breakdown of family and foster care placements. Previous attempts to reconnect with his mother had failed, and Byron was also grieving the sudden death of his 48-year-old grandmother. Byron spent Christmas 2015 with the family and appeared to be okay, although Glennys recalled there were limited opportunities that day for deeper conversations.
Byron’s death led to this conversation with Uncle Charles, who in a generous offering of lived wisdom and cultural perspective, spoke about how in Australia we can better support, protect and take care of our youth – how we could bring about change to the way we view health and education, while instilling in our young people a vital sense of hope for the future through understanding the human capacity for immense resilience.
It is always a privilege to sit with Charles and Glennys and to share conversations that engage their deep curiosity about human beings and life. It is a curiosity that transcends age, occupation, gender and culture. Within their compassionate presence, it feels as if you are held in a profound acceptance of human imperfection that offers a safe space to acknowledge shame, suffering and vulnerability.
One of the things I remembered when I first met Uncle Charles were his hands. He has beautiful hands and from his humble, gentle presence radiates a twinkling, humorous gaze that reflects 86 years of lived human life.
His contribution to Australia is significant and documented in his book Talk Softly, Listen Well, in which he states, “With all my hardships, having to cope with racism, I don’t feel any bitterness towards anybody. I do not blame anyone else for my mistakes in life. I am in control of my own life, I am my own man.”
In Australia, we continue to witness injustice and racism through systemic unconscious bias that underlies government policies and institutional rhetoric. ‘Unconscious bias’ is the mind’s way of merging conditioned historical learning with the present moment, and lurking beyond the confines of conscious awareness it prevents us from understanding clearly and knowing each other as human beings. Moreover, it surfaces at inopportune moments to separate us from the essence of our humanness.
Mirroring the deeply shameful secrecy, trauma and disconnection inflicted on families through governmental policies that enabled the ‘Stolen Generations’, Charles says that when he tried to find out information about Byron’s placements he was told the information could not be provided: yet again he encountered a policy that further served to reinforce a sense of disconnection for his great-grandson.
Uncle Charles speaks of the importance of not just having a roof overhead or making sure there is food on the table, but of having human connection and attachment. He said in the old days “when young people went off track” they would be asked “what did you do wrong? And if you had done something wrong, would you do it again? And, if so why if it is going to get you into trouble?” He spoke of the importance of looking beyond the behaviour to find the “actual person”. It is an important cultural perception, that people are basically good, a perspective often in discordance with the westernised view that leaves us sensing that we are never good enough.
Uncle Charles grew up immersed in culture during his early formative years, learning and listening to initiated men and developing connection and a deep respect for Bundjalung language. It is known that the complexity of Aboriginal languages reaches far beyond the Latin basis of English. Uncle Charles describes the importance of mastery of language: that the old people refused to accept anything less than perfect, giving language a sacred place within culture. “Young people developed connection through language; the old people would teach until we got it right, learning to make mistakes, listen, be guided, develop connections, to feel safe and learn to make mistakes”.
He recognises the need for young people to be self-reliant and to develop and recognise their own resilience and internal resources. He says, “Independence is important and the best thing you can give your kids. I don’t like excuses, I don’t like liars, and I don’t like broken promises. I was brought up by my Mum who was single, but I knew that if I didn’t do the right thing there would be consequences”. Charles was 16 when his mother died. “I lost my best friend,” he says. “I had a good cry and told myself well you’re on your own now … just keep going.”
Uncle Charles remains a strong advocate for human rights of Aboriginal people. In Talk Softly, Listen Well, he writes about fighting “for a fair compensation for ex-Baryulgil miners who were suffering from asbestos-related diseases or whose affected family members had already passed away”. He recalls being regularly covered in asbestos, and after four years working in the mine said to the mine manager “Surely this can’t be good for you?” Revealing a deep racial bias his boss replied “it won’t affect you people”. Uncle Charles’ son Charles died of lung-related conditions linked to asbestos exposure when he was 52. Revealing his deep inner resources, wisdom and resilience, Uncle Charles says: “If people are racist, that’s just ignorance – it’s about what they don’t know.”
Suicide is representative of an overwhelming sense of disconnection and hopelessness. Remembering that we are not separate can bring a shift in perception and open immense possibilities for healing.
“Young people need to go to the river to fish”, reckons Uncle Charles. The time together is important to sit in stillness and connect back to a wider sense of ‘inter-connectedness’. Glennys also agrees, saying she learned much from Charles about the way humans are connected to everything, and how “we learn important things from our animal relatives: if we listen, we will hear and know”.
Uncle Charles and the rich stories that reflect a past of connection are immensely relevant as we struggle with what has been referred to as ‘nature-disconnection-disorder’. The environmentalist, author and activist Paul Hawken says, “The way we harm the earth affects all people, and how we treat one another is reflected in how we treat the earth.” While the turning of the world means change is constant, a return to stillness through acknowledging stories, listening deeply and cultivating respect for all of life are the things that can provide hope and possibility amidst overwhelming despair for the world.
Uncle Charles learned to trust a sense of “knowing” developed from childhood, meaning how to feel and sense oneness with all things that stemmed from listening and learning from the ‘old people’. Communicating through conscious awareness reminds us of the interconnectedness to all things. A wise Wiradjuri Elder told me once that the most important thing is “to know your child’s favourite colour, to be curious, interested and truly listening with your heart”. Through natural intelligence and an unbroken connection to culture, similarly, Uncle Charles’ perspectives and wisdom are elegant in their simplicity, yet powerful and deeply complex.
In Australia we have an opportunity to bring about a seismic shift in our approach to health and wellbeing. There is disunity between policies and the translation into action that supports young people. Through a shameful colonial and violent history, for too long decisions have been made that fail to acknowledge the immense wisdom and bedrock of Indigenous healing traditions. The importance of remembering and knowing the spiritual part of ourselves through connection forms the core of cultural practices that parallel many of the wisdom traditions that find a way to the intelligence of the heart. Awareness of the breath developed through sound and music, deep listening as a path to cultivate compassion and humour offer connection, and provide essential medicine for young people.
In 2016 the Australian Psychological Society publicly apologised for not acknowledging the importance of Aboriginal Australian cultural practices in therapeutic interventions. It recognised that dominant ‘white’ perspectives have the potential to cause harm, and do cause harm. Aunty Bea Ballangarry – a healer and much-respected Gumbaynggirr Elder who has had a profound impact on my own psychology practice – acknowledged that “sometimes the clinical doesn’t work”. Speaking as a psychologist, the suffering we see in human beings is immense as is the sense that collectively we need to have a voice to stand up for what is not working and bring about change – change that ironically may end up saving public money and the lives of young people.
Change needs to come from within systems to facilitate honest conversations – those that acknowledge our immensely painful Australian history that lies like a festering sore beneath the surface of our hearts. When we can turn towards our shame and collective pain with compassion, we have the potential to deconstruct colonial mind-states that influence policies and rewrite the next part of the story.
“Today we do not have wooyun or murroogahn (doctors or lawmen) trained in the old ways to guide us. There are no longer corroborees or initiation ceremonies, and much of the knowledge these men held could not be passed on, and so is now lost”, Uncle Charles says.
Colonisation meant language was forbidden by the State. Missionaries removed children from their families and the education system viewed Aboriginal “culture as worthless and our history of no consequence”, says Uncle Charles. He adds the effects of colonisation meant that there was no one to educate the boys about culture or teach respect: “It is the breaking down of respect – for Elders, for the law and for their culture – that has caused many young people today to lose respect for themselves.”
Uncle Charles wants young people to know the importance of connection. “The wagia (spirit) of the ancestors is up there looking after me. The old people, I believe they’re still around in spirit”. He remembers once, when he was young, following a wallaby he was hunting that led him deeper into the bush until he became lost. He said when he began to speak in language to the old people, he found his way out of the bush, and that remembering and “knowing” guided him safely back home.
He says, “everything begins at home: learning respect, compassion, empathy. Respect yourself, respect others, respect the country you live in, be proud of who you are. If children grow up with healthy boundaries this can help create resilience and self-esteem, and makes it [life] so much easier.”
In recognising the importance of young people asking questions, Uncle Charles believes, “there is no such thing as a silly question”, adding “shame and embarrassment” get in the way of young people asking a question.
The “development of informing government policy through a framework of cultural values may well pave the way for significant change in institutional responses to our young people”, according to the Human Resources manager of AIATSIS, Jude Barlow. Cultural values of respect, trust, deep listening, compassion, connection and concentration skills form the heart of practice, together with a delicate balance of male and female energy.
Under the watchful presence of Elders, Uncle Charles developed self-reliance, independence, resilience and respect through learning language. With the guidance of Elders he came to perceive and understand the world through culture, language and a connection to country.
The humanist and writer Charles Einstein suggests that we are currently “between stories”, that is, stories emerging from a past driven by economic rationalism and colonial doctrines towards a future creating a new story for an emerging humanity – one that embraces earth-based wisdom traditions and values of collective hope.
In Australia, we need to be serious about addressing suicide, the ever-escalating leading cause of death in young people. Simply put, we need to work towards preventing it. The words of Uncle Charles can contribute to a dialogue about how government policy in health and education needs to shift away from its ongoing white colonial bias – one that not only informs institutional responses but serves to perpetuate the devastating consequences of our past, current and future collective historical trauma.
In his book Talk Softy, Listen Well, Uncle Charles states, “I believe our young people need to turn back to their culture. It is only there that they will find their identity and a sense of purpose in life. …Survival of the group depended on the contributions of all its members. Everyone had a place, everyone had responsibilities. Our people lived in harmony with the land and with their neighbours”.
Glennys adds, “When we are where we are meant to be, things fall into place, but when you are on the wrong path everything goes wrong”.
With this in mind, can we as Australians wake up to being “on the wrong path” with some of our policies, and get back on to an emergent track to save and support young people?
Collectively, we carry immense potential to bring about change. Many of the Elders suggest we have been born at this time for a reason. The personal fragmentation and separation that has been bought about through our collective trauma associated with colonisation requires a new ‘vision’: a vision broad enough to approach systemic issues underpinning youth suicide with open and courageous hearts, so as to effect social change from a place of compassion through a deeper understanding of ourselves, and the communities we serve.
If you or anyone you know needs help:
Lifeline on 13 11 14
Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
Mens Line Australia on 1300 789 978
Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36
Headspace on 1800 650 890
* This article came about through friendship and conversations shared with Bundjalung Elder Uncle Charles Moran, author Glennys Moran and Veronica Moore.
* Lisa Brown is a psychologist, yoga and mindfulness teacher living on the Mid-North Coast of New South Wales.
Ballangary, B. (2017). Gumbaynggirr Elder. Personal communication.
Barlow, J. (2017). Personal communication.
Hawken, P. (2007). Blessed Unrest. Penguin Books. London, England.
Moran, C and G. (2004). Talk Softly. Listen Well. Profile of Bundjalung Elder
Charles Moran. Southern Cross University, Lismore. (reprints of Talk Softly.
Listen Well available through private sale at firstname.lastname@example.org)