Aboriginal suicides rise amid worsening conditions

Issue 
Members of th Kimberley's Aboriginal population, which experiences the highest rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sui

"They took my boy’s body away," said mother, Gwen Sturt. "I wanted to go with my son. They left us behind. They didn’t care to listen."

Through the night, with torrential rain pelting the roof of the remote community home, a family grieved for the loss of a son, a grandson, a brother, a boyfriend, an uncle, after 24-year-old Troy Carter dragged his 20-year-old brother’s body from a creek. For 18 hours his body was cared for by his family — by his mother and grandmother. Though the young man had passed away long before any chance of saving him, his family shone lights on him all night long.

An uncle, Cameron Sturt, said: “They wanted to keep him warm."

INCREASES IN SUICIDES

Last year, suicides and unnatural deaths rose in the Kimberley, after an assumed decline in the past few years following a horrific spate of suicides from 2005 to 2008.

The Kimberley has the nation’s highest Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide rate. It has one of the world’s highest suicide rates.

Coupled with the horrific premature and unnatural death rates, the Kimberley is a catastrophic nightmare for too many of its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The Kimberley has a total population of close to 45,000, of which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples comprise nearly half.

The Kimberley is a tale of two peoples — of black and white. The affluent tourist mecca of the Kimberley divides its social wealth. If you are non-Aboriginal you are more than likely to be doing quite well. But if you are an Aboriginal person you are probably doing it tough.

Partly because of the disparities and social inequalities, racial tensions fester close to the surface. Symptomatic of the tensions are the racist stereotypes used to justify privilege on one hand and deplorable neglect on the other.

Some say researchers and journalists should not publish how someone may have taken their life, as it may lead to a contagion effect — "copycat" suicides. But Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities may not know why their loved one took their life, but they always know how — whether it is published or not.

In fact, nearly 100% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides are by some form of hanging. People should not be concerned as much about reducing the means for one to take their life as about reducing the will to do so.
In one Arnhem community, out of a sense of having to do something, all the rope was confiscated. In most prisons, obvious hanging points have been removed. But if someone wants to take their life, they will find a way.

YOUNG MAN'S SUICIDE

At about 4.30pm on the first Monday of the new year, the 20-year-old young man apparently committed suicide by hanging himself from a tree near a creek. His girlfriend found him and rushed back to the house screaming.

According to the uncle — Cameron — the family phoned the police.

“The police told them because of the rains they could not get there till the next morning," he said. "This was unbelievable. I don’t understand how the chopper couldn’t fly in immediately. The police told them they would be there by about 9am in the morning.

“The police gave them advice, but what good is advice? They needed help immediately. They needed a response."

A devastated brother and girlfriend went back to retrieve him. They found the tree, but the branch had broken. His body must have slid into the creek even though the tree was still some distance from the creek and there was sand between the creek and the tree.

Troy waded into the creek looking for his brother. In the dark, in pouring Monsoonal rain, he found him.

“Troy tried to carry his brother’s body back to the house but he was sinking knee deep in mud," said Cameron. "He went back to the house and got a wheelbarrow."

“He tried to bring his brother back in the wheelbarrow. But no matter how he manoeuvred the barrow, he got bogged. Distraught, grieving, he ran back to the house. This time a couple of them returned with a mattress.

“They placed his body on the mattress. In the mud, the slush, the rains, they dragged him back. It breaks me to know what they went through. It took them more than six hours after finding his body in the water to get him to the house.”

Cameron, choking back tears, continued: “The police landed the chopper, a 10-minute flight from Halls Creek, at the property. But the girlfriend had gone wandering. The police spent half a day flying around looking for her. Gwen and everyone were at the house with my nephew’s body. When they found her, they took her to Halls Creek and then came back.

MOTHER LEFT BEHIND

“It was about 5pm when they took my nephew’s body. But they wouldn’t take Gwen with him. She wanted to go with her son, but they left everyone behind, distraught, grieving, at a total loss. They didn’t understand why they weren’t airlifted.”

Gwen begged the police to take her with them.

“I begged them, crying, that they take us with them," said Gwen. "I should have gone with my boy. They just took him. They said that they were under instructions to take out only my boy and his girlfriend.

“They flew off right in my face. I was crying and screaming. It was like they were slapping us in the face."

Cameron said: “Can you imagine what it would have been like in that house for all them? And they were left there in that despair? Would this happen if they were white? How can we not ask this question?

“The health services should have come out with us to meet them and tend to them immediately, but they didn’t.”

I called the personal mobile of Senator Nigel Scullion, Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, and asked him to help. Senator Scullion immediately organised for health and “standby” services to attend.

Cameron said: “We brought them back to Halls Creek where the health people took care of their wounds, helped them and others fed them."

I cannot but ask how all this could be allowed to occur. This is not the 1920s, when this tale could be contextually imaginable. It is 2015.

APPALLED

Halls Creek Healing Taskforce stalwart and chair of the local Aboriginal Medical Services Donna Smith was appalled. Smith spent the whole day by the family’s side once they arrived in Halls Creek.

"I and the health mob here would like minister Scullion to find out, formally, why the police and the DFES [Department of Fire and Emergency Services] did not bring the family into Halls Creek," Smith said. "The police are giving us conflicting information. I spoke to the Acting Police Superintendent who said to me the family never asked to escort the boy's body.

“I am devastated for them. You know, if there is a flood, a bushfire, a natural disaster with white communities, rightly so there are huge public, media and government responses. The army gets called in. All the services respond immediately and there is even sometimes international support because of the blanket media coverage. People get rescued from whatever conditions. Donation appeals go out and donations flood in. But when it’s Black families in trouble where is the response?

“Things have to change or more of our people will suffer needlessly, continue to die prematurely. It should not have taken a phone call from you, Gerry, to the minister to get a response. Response and resources should occur without delay. What are we? Do we not count?

“We have begged for support for our people in this part of the country. Our people need real hope. Right now they have not got it, so how then can there be healing when there is no hope?

“We have begged for the Healing Taskforce to be properly funded and now you see for yourself the deaf ears it falls on."

The family was staunchly supported by Kija State parliamentarian Josie Farrer, who has lost a grandchild to suicide and who hails from Halls Creek.

“What this family went through in one way or another many of our families go through," Farrer said. "They are treated differently, forgotten. It is still a black and white divide. You and I both know this. How much pain must our people endure?”

The suicide crisis hurting this nation has its fundamentals but nevertheless, for Aboriginal people, it is demographically, geopolitically, psychosocially and “racially” different. Governments must respond, just as the national media are beginning to respond. Suicides are born of a sense of failure, a sense of hopelessness, or from a sense of oppression. Most suicides have poverty as a factor. Many are the by-product of racism — and the hostile denials and selfish justifications are killing people.

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