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Issue #1717      February 3, 2016

We were not put on this earth to bury our children

Three young people took their lives within a fortnight. They knew each other. There are no words for their loss, no words that can calm the grief of their families. Their community despairs. Three funerals in five days, days shy of Christmas. A 15-year-old girl, a 17-year-old youth, a 25-year-old father leaving behind two young children, they should not have been lost. Suicide takes more lives than road fatalities. It is a leading cause of death.

I stood amid the mourning, a community at perennial loss and amid those whom work in suicide prevention and postvention and suffer their own pernicious sense of loss. Three graves in a row, of young people, this image will never leave me. We were not put on this earth to bury our children. But we do.

However we must remain solid, we must respond, we must make a difference, we must never degenerate to the belief that it’s all too hard and that there is little we can do.

For Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people the extensiveness of suicide is an abomination – moral, political and otherwise. If you are an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander aged 15 to 35 years of age, nearly one in three deaths in this age group is a suicide. Why are so many taking their lives?

Suicide takes more life years than other leading causes of death. Suicide takes more life years on average than cancer and heart disease.

In the last couple of years, suicide and suicide prevention have been highlighted and discussed in the media much more so than ever before. The ways forward are the imperative discussion but to understand the ways forward we must acknowledge the underlying factors.

Nearly 90 percent of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander suicides are of people aged 40 years and less. We need to restore hope.

The deplorable disparity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal suicides cannot be radically reduced without addressing the abominable racialised inequalities. At two of the three funerals I attended it saddened me to witness that the large funeral attendances barely had a non-Aboriginal presence in an otherwise predominant non-Aboriginal population. The racial divides were self-evident. With the racial divide intersect disadvantage, economic inequalities.

On the edge of this regional town, like so many other towns, is a shanty precinct. About 100 Aboriginal people, mostly children, live in the most trying conditions, with no electricity or water. However the non-Aboriginal population lives relatively affluent. The juxtaposition of grinding poverty alongside affluence tells the tale of two peoples; two separated peoples. This played out at two of the funerals I attended where less than two percent of those present were non-Aboriginal.

How is it that the local, state and federal governments can turn a blind eye to this impoverishment, to this third-world-akin living in the world’s 12th largest economy, in one of the world’s wealthiest nations per capita? Western Australia boasts a place in the world’s top three regions for highest median wage. Of all the world’s poor, middle and high income nations with relatively recent colonial oppressor histories, Australia has the widest divide between the descendants of its First Peoples and the rest of the population of all the measurable indicators; of poverty indicators, of homelessness, of health quotients, of employment and education levels, of arrest and jail rates, of self-harm and suicide rates. Australia is a high income nation, not one of the world’s poor nations.

What I saw in this regional town, as I have seen in so many other communities across this continent is very little effort expended by local, state and federal governments to address the generational poverty. If non-Aboriginal families lived in a shanty precinct, well that would not be allowed. There would be water and electricity.

In the Kimberley, one in eight of the region’s Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders live in some form of homelessness.

The Kimberley and far north Queensland’s Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander populations according to my comparative data research (of what is available) have the world’s highest suicide rates. The toll is decimating communities. The Kimberley will report for 2014 and 2015 higher suicide tolls than in previous years.

I have visited hundreds of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander communities across the continent and many are corrals of impoverishment. They have been degraded by one government after another, many of them stripped of what little social infrastructure they once had. Many of these communities have to beg for water tanks let alone clean water, for power lines, for essential services that Australians in general take for granted. The majority of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander communities are denied an equivalency of services as enjoyed by non-Aboriginal communities.

Unless these disparities are addressed we will be attending many more funerals. The crippling poverty, the hopelessness, anger and displaced anger will continue the narrative. Many of us do change lives, save lives. I can count hundreds that I have assisted out of poverty but in the end the tsunami of poverty-related issues are flooding us. For every person we help, there are ten we cannot find the time or resources to help. Change has to be underwritten governmentally.

Far too many dish out the self-responsibility mantra, that everyone can take control of their lives, that they are to blame if they do not. My colleague and partner, Jennifer Kaeshagen, who also coordinates the First Nations Homelessness Project, stated wisely, “They’re re-traumatised by those kind of messages. It makes it very difficult to heal and to cope with their situation when on top of the reality for them they’re being blamed for that reality.”

The record is not being changed, if only, the gap is not being closed, if only. The record is getting worse, the divide widening.

Our parliamentarians should hang their heads in shame, preferably they should resign en masse. Their indictors are a quarter of a million of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples who have been denied equality and who have been dished out chronic disadvantage, with the majority of them in third-world-akin disadvantage.

Aboriginal and/or Torres Islander youth are at least 26 times more likely to be in juvenile detention than non-Aboriginal youth. By 2025 this national rate will pass 40 times. From a racialised lens the juvenile detention rate is the highest in the world.

There are more than 10,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander adults in prisons. That is one in 35 of all Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander adults jailed. Once again, highest in the world.

At least one in ten and up to one in six Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders living have been to jail. This means between 85,000 to 100,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders. Once again the rate is the highest in the world.

In regards to that mother of all jailers, Western Australia, one in 13 of the State’s Aboriginal adult males is in prison. Despite the structural and institutional racism, the veils and layers of racism, this is racism – clear as the light of day.

Western Australia jails its juvenile detention Aboriginal youth at 53 times the rate of non-Aboriginal youth. Western Australia, the nation’s backwater, just refuses to spend on improving the lives of Aboriginal youth.

Fix the third-world-akin poverty because for as long as this does not happen then quite rightly it translates toxically as racism. It hurts deeply and divides people as it hurt me to see only a few non-Aboriginal people turn out at the funerals.

Adelaide based Narrunga Elder, Tauto Sansbury stated, “Too many of our people are extremely poor. Native Title has failed us, governments have failed us and on top of this we cop blame.

“If we want a fair and equal society we can have it tomorrow if today we fix the poverty without delay. Our youth are entitled to genuine hope.”

As I stood amid the cries, wailing, tears of so many looking down at the ground, as I stood on the cemetery grounds watching a child buried I remembered my good friend Tauto Sansbury who in the first 13 days of 2012 attended eight funerals of young people. I was upset with myself that I failed to be elected to the Australian Senate in 2013 by thereabouts 2,000 votes, where if I had been I could have made a significant difference. I do my best, having pushed onto the Australian landscape national projects to craft systemic changes, to help as many people improve their lot, to save as many lives as possible. But though lives will be saved it is not enough, the real difference can only be served up by governments. We can never give up. In several hours I travel home to spend Christmas Day with my family.

We were not put on this earth to bury our children.

Suicide should not be a leading cause of death.

It is plain as the day what we must do and if we do not then the night will make us pay.

Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention researcher with the Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights and is also a member of the Aboriginal and Torres Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project (UWA). He is part of several national suicide prevention projects.

Lifeline’s 24-hour hotline, 13 11 14

Crisis Support and Suicide Prevention Beyond Blue – 1300 22 4636

Next article – Dingo

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