How many more suicides before we open our eyes and ears?
How many more suicides before we open our eyes and ears?
By Gerry Georgatos
“Across my desk came a study that reported ‘the number of completed Indigenous suicides (in the Kimberley) last year exceeded the Australian Defence Force fatalities in Afghanistan’. I cannot comprehend this statement. It is too much,” said Mrs Yavu-Kamu-Harathunian.
Mrs Yavu-Kamu-Harathunian has Bachelors in Applied Sciences, Indigenous and Community Health, with a major in mental health and counselling, and a Masters in Criminal Justice.
She asks what motivates our young to disconnect from themselves, and what motivates “our brothers and sisters to disconnect from themselves and then move into that helpless hope of perhaps finding themselves in their sleep of death.”
Western Australian Aboriginal communities, challenged only by communities in the Northern Territory and Queensland, have the highest suicide rates not only in the nation however in the world. Mowanjum and Derby have the highest Aboriginal youth suicide rates in Australia.
Mowanjum Council chairman, Gary Umbagai despairs at the rising death toll. “There is something dreadfully wrong in our community but what can we do?”
In Mowanjum alone, in January a 20 year old took his life while inebriated, and in March a 44 year old retrenched Aboriginal mine worker hung himself. Weeks later a young girl was found in the bush having taken her life.
The Age newspaper revealed last year that in a four-month period from July, 18 Aboriginal females and 22 Aboriginal males were admitted to Derby hospital for self-harm, attempted hanging, overdosing, and suicidal thoughts.
In the Kimberley during the past 12 months there have been 25 suicides, 21 in and around Derby and Mowanjum. More than the Australian Defence Forces fatalities in Afghanistan during the same period.
Mrs Yavu-Kamu-Harathunian said, “All around this community (Mowanjum) there is so much progress, production, affluence. What is this progress, this production, this affluence stealing from our people?”
“To read about this painful crisis, to recognise the layers of disconnection, the internal anguish, community sorrow, pain, trauma, suffering is like a microcosm of the inherent legacy of pain, torment, and suffering that our people are immersed in.”
“This is a culturally collective crisis, and it impacts upon all of us who say we are First Nations peoples. To think that his tiny little community possibly has the highest rates of suicide not just in Australia but in the world is insanity,” she said.
“I remember a beautiful strong Aboriginal woman from up Bardi Country way, Wendy, I respectfully do not use her surname here, mid 1990s, who developed for the first time in my lifetime, a great understanding of alcohol and its use and abuse amongst our people.”
“I remember her words of warning then, that because of the use of alcohol amongst our people, alcohol users would begin using at a younger and younger age. Her gravest concern way back then was about the rise in suicide,” said Mrs Yavu-Kama-Harathunian.
“We are now picking up the pieces of our loved ones.”
“How many suicides, how many more deaths will it take to open our eyes, and open our ears to the silent screaming that is coming from the hearts, and souls of those who are gone, and of those who grieve and keep screaming ‘Help…'”
In NSW, with Australia’s largest Indigenous population, the youth suicide rate is one in 100,000. In the Northern Territory, the rate is 30 deaths in 100,000. In the Kimberley, with an Indigenous population at 15,000, the rate is at incredible 1 death in 1,200, over 80 per 100,000.
Despite the deaths there is no effective suicide prevention strategy being funded and administered in the Kimberley. Mowanjum chief executive officer, Steve Austin said that the West Australian government is spending $150 million on the Derby prison while applications by the organisation for a Youth Coordinator to work with Aboriginal youth have been rejected.
“We get no help,” said Mr Austin.
“It is as if the bureaucrats do not have any idea what we are up against. I wrote to Jenny Macklin when we lost the CDEP and we did not even get an acknowledgment letter,” he said.
According to Mr Austin the CDEP cuts were followed by a spike in suicides. Aboriginal folk employed fell from 140 to 30. A direct appeal to Mrs Macklin to have the funds restored “fell on deaf ears.”
The National Indigenous Times contacted Mrs Macklin’s office however at the time of going to press had not received a response.
Coordinator of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre (KALACC), Wes Morris, said there had been two key Coronial investigations into suicide, with one in 2008 after 22 deaths at Balgo.
Balgo, has a youth suicide rate 89 times the state average.
State Coroner Alastair Hope ripped into government agencies and the lack of provisions to disadvantaged communities.
In a final submission to an inquest into five Aboriginal deaths in the town of Oombulgurri, KALACC said suicide rates among young Aborigines had reached a crisis point and the viability of towns must be considered.
Why are young Indigenous people taking their own lives and what can be done to prevent these tragedies?
The Gone Too Soon report, released by a select committee of NT politicians, found specialist police, youth workers and mental health staff were needed in at-risk areas to help stem the high rate of young people killing themselves.
The Northern Territory’s Children’s Commissioner suggests they have the highest rate of youth suicide in the developed world reflecting a situation that is causing much concern.
Suicide among Aboriginal communities is now three to four times the rate of non-Aboriginal suicide. Aboriginal people commit suicide, on average, at a far younger age than non-Aboriginal Australians, with reports of prepubescent children, some as young as eight committing suicide.
My research which is seeking to provide evidence based recommendations in reducing Australia’s horrific deaths in custody record – police, prison and immigration custodial – is unravelling arguments I would not necessarily have expected that I would be including in my work in that one should not expect an ability or capacity from a former detainee or prisoner who has endured chronic and acute trauma, especially where their thresholds have been ‘broken’, to be able to recover from it – no matter the intervention and counselling many may never be able to recover from the trauma(s).
LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY OF THE NORTHERN TERRITORY – 11th Assembly Select Committee on Youth Suicides in the NT