First Nations youth suicide: our nation’s shame

This year, the First Nations suicide crisis has not only continued its dramatic escalation, but the lack of adequate response only worsens as the rates rise and it remains relatively unacknowledged.

Over the first third of the year, 56 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have taken their own lives. Of these, 14 — or 25% — were under the age of 18 and two were girls of just 12 years old.

Indeed, five First Nations girls under the age of 15 took their own lives over the nine day period ending on January 11. In early March, four Indigenous youths ended their lives in Queensland during a 40-hour period.

Before the 1980s, suicides among First Nations communities were almost non-existent. But, today, intentional self-harm is the fifth leading cause of death among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

“This should be the most pressing issue of our times,” said suicide prevention advocate and researcher Gerry Georgatos. Instead, he explained, the government response has been “piecemeal”, though he does recognise that “every drop” of funding that is forthcoming counts.

Georgatos has recently stepped down as coordinator of the National Indigenous Critical Response Service. Over the past couple of years, the Aboriginal controlled organisation supported more than 300 suicide-affected First Nations families.

Poverty and suicide

After working at the coalface for many years, Georgatos stresses the close link between suicide and extreme poverty. Of the 56 suicides this year, 51 lived in public housing, three were homeless, and the two lived close to the poverty line.

The suicide rate among First Nations communities is more than two-and-a-half times that of non-Indigenous people. Self-harm accounted for 5.5% of Indigenous deaths in 2017, compared with 2% of deaths within the rest of the population. And while 40% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live below the poverty line, only 14% of the rest of the population do.

“That’s two and a half times,” Georgatos said. “It’s an absolute explanation as to why we have this disparity.”

Intergenerational trauma resulting from the ravages of colonisation, the racism inherent in the system and the lack of any meaningful attempt by governments to close the gap weigh heavily on the Indigenous suicide rate. However, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of First Nations people who take their own lives are from the 40% of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community living below the poverty line, as well as the 20% who live just above it.

According to Georgatos, the 40% living relatively affluent lives are for the most part safe. “Intergenerational trauma still affects identity above the poverty line and those living in relative affluence, but they’re able to navigate that because of protective factors.”

The lucky country

Key to successfully dealing with some of these disparities is education. Georgatos said education — the “widening of the cognitive self”, as he puts it — enables the individual to “gain the agency that allows them to address a lot of the wrongs that impact negatively upon those living below the poverty line”.

While some First Nations young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are graduating among the highest achievers, those living in remote areas are not afforded the same opportunities and about 70% of children living in public housing don’t complete high school.

Almost 50% of all young people who take their own lives under the age of 17 are First Nations, while these children only make up 5% percent of the overall youth population of this country. And for kids under 14 the figures are even starker: 80% of those children who suicide are Indigenous.

However, for First Nations youths who don’t attempt to take their lives, the future can be very bleak. “The jails are full of four and six time repeat offenders: people who have spent 15 to 18 years in prison and they’re in their thirties,” Georgatos said. “Tragically, adult prison has been their lot.”

More grim figures show that among non-Indigenous inmates, 86% have not completed high school and it is practically 100% among Indigenous prisoners. “One in six First Nations people living today have been to prison,” Georgatos said. “That’s 120,000 people.”

The unfathomable truth is the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being locked up in this country makes them the most incarcerated people on the globe. While they make up 28% of the adult prisoner population, they only account for 2.8% of the general populace.

Grassroots action

In response to the sharp rise in First Nations suicides, R U OK? launched Stronger Together in March. It’s a campaign that encourages conversations within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to proactively address the needs of individuals who are struggling.

Georgatos is now leading the National Critical Response Trauma Recovery Project, which has a focus on prevention. He said over the years he worked at the Indigenous response service, they never lost a member of any of the hundreds of families they had responded to.

“When a First Nations family living below the poverty line loses someone, then they’re at risk of losing a second, third or fourth person within the next couple of years,” he said. “They’re at high risk of losing a loved one, particularly a child.”

There is an online petition calling for a Royal Commission into Australia’s increasing suicide crisis. Crisis support services are available 24 hours a day at Lifeline on 13 11 14, Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800 (up to age 25) or MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander specific services are available at NACCHO member services, the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 or Headspace’s Yarn Safe.

[Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on civil rights, drug law reform, gender and Indigenous issues. He writes for Sydney Criminal Lawyers, VICE and was a former news editor at Sydney’s City Hub. This article was first published on the blogsite of Sydney Criminal Lawyers.]

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