The voice of suicide: a cycle of poverty and government inaction
Megan Krakouer and Gerry Georgatos work extensively in the suicide prevention space. Here they share their experiences and discuss why the government response needs to be better.
“I remember a father who found his son hours after his suicide. The father … cradled his body through the night until responders arrived in the morning.”
“I remember the distraught family of a young man who only a week before … had run into a burning house and rescued a young mother and her baby.”
“I remember attending the funerals of three young people in the one community – three burials in five days, three graves in a row. The youngest was a 15-year-old girl. I wailed on the inside as I stared at the graves. Weeks later the loss of two more young people would make it five graves in a row of youth unlived.”
You ask, how can it be imaginable for a young child to attempt the ending of their life? These were people all of First Nations heritage.
Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander suicides comprise six percent of Australia’s total suicides but, shockingly, 80 percent of child suicides aged 12 and below are of First Nations children.
For the past decade, nearly 30 percent of the child suicides to age 17 were comprised of First Nation children.
We have often said the nation should weep at this harrowing tragedy, which is more than just a national shame – a national disgrace, an abomination, a damning condemnation of who we remain as a nation.
Each year, we support thousands of suicide-affected families, thousands of individuals who have attempted or who are at risk – from migrant-born Australians, to young and older Australians, who lived affluent or homeless.
But the disproportionate suicide toll on First Nations Australians is a humanitarian crisis that cannot be allowed to continue its now uninterrupted three decades-long tragedy.
Discriminatory, crushing poverty is the catastrophic narrative resulting in an arc of pronounced negative issues culminating in diabolical numbers of First Nations youth and older who are incarcerated, self-harming and taking their lives.
Fourteen percent of Australians live below the poverty line, but 40 percent of First Nations Australians live below the poverty line – a 2.5 times differential. The suicide rate of First Nations Peoples is also 2.5 times that of the national population.
Our focus needs to be on lifting people out of poverty and in doing away with the discriminatory, crushing poverty that should have no place in the world’s 12th biggest economy.
We have travelled hundreds of First Nations homelands and communities and a significant proportion are hovels of human misery. They are not of the making of the people living in them but of neglect and deprivations made by one government after another.
In remote communities, eight out of every 10 children will never finish school, with half not completing primary school. These are infrastructure starved communities without hope on the horizon.
Individuated resilience and other psycho-educative strength training, unless coupled with access to opportunities including education and employment, cannot alone score someone to a psychosocial positive self. How far and for how long can someone adjust their behaviour without access to meaningful hope on the horizon?
It is a reprehensible myth that governments have prioritised the catastrophic suicide crises of the nation’s most affected.
The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) must prioritise equality and universal rudimentary rights. The suicide rate will be reduced between First Nations Peoples and the rest of Australia when poverty rates are reduced.
There must be psychosocial support to help people improve their life circumstances, to reduce disordered thinking, to reduce the sense of helplessness.
There must be remunerated community buy-in, whether in the remote or in the cities; workforces of mentors – skilled up – who can be guiding lights, shoulders to rest on, for the vulnerable, for exhausted families reaching out for help for a struggling loved one.
Unless governments heed and focus, more lives than ever before will be lost. They must prioritise those most in need, those whom for too long our governments have been leaving behind to languish impoverished.
First Nations youth that go to university are among the most likely, most driven to succeed. We must do everything that we can to lift sisters and brothers to an improved life circumstance, to various opportunities, and they will do the rest.
The more education someone has completed, the greater their protective factors to steering clear from suicidal ideation. High levels of education are a more significant protective factor than fulltime employment.
More education translates to a dawn of new meanings, to a better understanding of the self, to a more positive psychosocial self, to the pursuit of what happiness and its contexts can and should mean.
A devastating cycle
The majority of First Nations families who have lost a loved one to suicide have lost another loved one and another.
I remember a 10-year-old child lost to suicide. The year before she found her 11-year-old first cousin had taken their life. Two years earlier her 13-year-old sister had taken her life.
They lived in crushing poverty and an arc of distressing issues borne of that inescapable poverty. In the past few years, of the hundreds of First Nations families we have responded to, nearly all were encumbered by abominable levels of poverty.
Without dedicated support it is my very certain belief these rates will not decrease.
Long have we called for and argued for assertive outreach, for intense psychosocial supports, for through-care and aftercare, and we continue to call for these, because through this in-person approach we can reduce the toll.
It breaks our hearts that instead, one government after another funds research, to be seen as doing something, which delivers more of the same ‘recommendations’.
My First Nations Peoples [who are] oppressed below the poverty line, compounded by traumas and intergenerational distrusts, do not need governments funding endless research, but funding, all of it, to be spent on affirmative actions, on transformational social returns, on saving and changing lives.
Australia’s First Nations Peoples endure one of the world’s highest suicide rates. Our hearts were shattered when we learned the Federal Government, instead of funding services that will save lives, approved $35 million for further ‘research’ on First Nations and youth suicides. The study of suicide is not suicide prevention.
This $35 million research spend follows the more than $55 million wasted on the dozen ‘suicide prevention’ trial sites which we had strongly argued against when on one of the Federal Government’s Suicide Prevention Advisory Groups.
Suicide is Australia’s leading cause of unnatural deaths. During the last decade, Australia has had among the world’s highest increases in its suicide toll, by 33 percent – and for First Nations Australians, 60 percent. The majority of this toll is intersected by socioeconomic disadvantage, where the accumulation of life stressors is more pronounced.
We feel that all the work we and others do, all the evidence, all the lived experience highlighted to the nation relentlessly through the media, has been betrayed by our government’s lack of political will to deliver on what the evidence compels.
Those who are let down, betrayed, are those whose very lives depended on what the funding should be invested in.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on suicide prevention during the past decade. The $90 million that we have referenced could have been spent on developing outreach services for First Nations Australians at serious risk. Spent on youth suicide – lives would have been saved.
Our governments must fund the capacity for as many of the affected as possible to improve their life circumstances.
We argue that an investment of $90 million would reduce the suicide toll for First Nations Australians. Each year of this century, the First Nations toll has increased.
We can, for the first time this century, reduce the toll and in so doing inspire the nation. We know the elevated risk groups – population and categorical. We know the ways forward.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental ill-health, call or visit the online resources below:
- Lifeline – 13 11 14, lifeline.org.au
- Beyond Blue – 1300 224 636, beyondblue.org.au/forums
- MensLine – 1300 789 978
- Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
- Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467
- Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet – healthinfonet.ecu.edu.au
By Megan Krakouer and Gerry Georgatos
Megan Krakouer is a Mineng woman from Western Australia’s southwest. Presently, Megan is the Director of the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project and also works for the National Justice Project.
Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher with an experiential focus. Among his academic qualifications he has a Master in Human Rights Education and a Master in Social Justice Advocacy.
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