Understanding difference and unfairness is a first step in suicide prevention

Globally, the majority of violent deaths are by suicide – nearly 60 per cent of all violent deaths. On average, annually, more people will die by suicide than will die due to war and civil strife. This statement will shock many people, especially because this has rarely been reported in the media. We hear of the violent deaths because of domestic disputes, of the violent deaths in the course of burglaries, of violent deaths as a s result of gun-related offences, and we hear of the huge loss of human life because of wars and civil strife but yet all up suicide claims more lives than all these unnatural deaths combined. The majority of humanity is oblivious to the fact that the majority of violent deaths are by suicide.

According to the World Health Organisation, in 2012, it is estimated that 56 per cent of all reported violent deaths globally were by suicide. Death by suicide occurs at higher rates in middle and high income nations than in poorer nations. Death by suicide occurs at disproportionately horrific higher rates among the descendants of First Peoples in middle and high income nations which have relatively recent colonial oppressor histories. In these nations the descendants of the First Peoples have been transformed into discriminated minorities – with many of these people, especially those who reject assimilative influences, marginalised.

The more recent the dispossession of a people from their historical conditions the higher their resistance to assimilative imposts and expectations. The more recent such contact and confrontation between cultural settings, the more likely those cultures which have been dispossessed for instance of land rights and of true self-determination, that their identities are intertwined with their historical self, and that they openly distrust their oppressor.

Suicide rates among the descendants of First Peoples within middle and high income nations with colonial oppressor histories are the world’s highest. Therefore the suicides are obviously about identity, resistance to assimilation, racialisation, racism, powerlessness, hopelessness, chronic pain and trauma. One of the strongest indicators for an individual or family for future suicide risk is the fact of a prior suicide attempt(s). Equally, this applies to groups of people, many through a racialised lens, such as the descendants of First Peoples. They  can be disaggregated demographically to a region or community. Where for instance the community has a history of reported depressions and self-harms, of suicidal behaviour and suicides, then there is a future risk of self-destructive and suicidal behaviour within that community.

Suicidal behaviour is often the culmination of a set of experiences, events and of an underlay of feelings – how one feels about themselves contextually in light of the experiences and events. Self-destructive and suicidal behaviours can increase in a community that experiences trauma collectively – sharing around the trauma and the sense of hopelessness. Where Governments continue to fail communities, especially those populated by minorities, with disparity and inequalities in social wealth and health that should have been equivalent to the rest of the nation’s social wealth and health, then often it is up to communities to tap into their trusted leaders to look out for one another and educate others to empowerment of the self, to a sense of self and place, and similarly so communally. People need people, especially in these communities that are deprived and discriminated by Governments. Many communities have third rate services, while some communities are effectively starved of some of the most basic services. In these discriminated communities, the residents cannot continue to cry out to Governments, because it is the very Government they cry out to who is their oppressor, who discriminates against them. Often if they cry out loud enough for long enough, the community is meted out punitive measures and controls which are more about blaming the community than helping them. With some communities, Governments have gone as far as shutting them down. Therefore the social and emotional wellbeing of the community is resigned to by its residents.

Hopelessness is a strong indicator of heightened vulnerability to self-destructive behaviour. Hopelessness has to do with the culmination of overwhelming feelings or beliefs that the future is bleak. Hopelessness exhausts motivation. Where hopelessness is engrained as a whole of family or whole of community approach, the despair and self-destruction begins from a younger age. “It’s our lot”. “It’s the burden of our people.” “Things will never get better.”

The sense of hopelessness is chronic and for some becomes unbearable. Losing someone close to you is a devastating experience. Dealing with their distress in the lead up to their loss is a devastating experience. Having to deal with familial distresses, as if recurring, with other family members is destructive – the objects and functions of the family take a toll, a real beating. For some they are psychologically and emotionally battered, and the damage takes an overwhelmingly feeling of the irreparable. Having to deal with ongoing destructive behaviours, with a communal sense of hopelessness, with the overwhelming backdrop of a deprived and discriminated community, is tortuously exhausting and simply heartbreaking. Community distress and breakdowns occur just like a family can breakdown – indeed, a whole community can breakdown. Hopelessness and despair can be effected as if normalised.

Suicide prevention must be understood in terms of who it is we are responding to: an individual overwhelmed by expectations, an individual overwhelmed by a sense of failure, an individual overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness, an individual overwhelmed by trauma, an individual overwhelmed by a sense that their identity is a liability, a family overwhelmed by trauma and grief, a community overwhelmed by most of the above: hopelessness, trauma, discrimination, deprivation, racism – the sense the future is ‘bleak’ and ‘unfair’.

A couple of years ago I wrote:

–       Suicides are nearly always the culmination of a sense of hopelessness and eventual loss of resilience in enduring unbearable conditions or from the result of intolerable failure(s) whether these failures are associated to low or high expectations. Suicide takes more lives of Australian teenagers aged 14 to 18 years than does any disease. Suicide has to do with the psychosocial identity – in a nutshell, to do with empowerment verse disempowerment.

–       The journey to suicide is a psychosocial one – the eroding of identity or the stalling of its development; for First Peoples that can mean their historical and contemporary identities are both eroded and manufactured as a liability – and knowing this, living this, can lead directly to suicide. The suicides crisis is rising year by year and the median age getting younger each year.

–       Social and economic development must arise in the dustbowl communities, in the shanty towns, which are the horrible work of Governments rushing people off Country, or which because of the outrageous neglect by Governments lack equivalency of social wealth to the rest of Australia’s communities. But this social and economic development will at best only somewhat reduce the suicides crisis and the whole spectrum of issues that culminate in self-destruction, displaced anger, disassociated behaviours, self-harms and suicides, but it will not abate the crisis. We have two distinct cultures in this nation – Western-based cultures and First Peoples cultures, and they do confront each other, especially in the remote but also in urban centres, and they do clash. To reject this premise will translate in more failed policies or the setting up of more failure and of wasted expenditure. Failure adds up and there reaches a point where it becomes systemic, ruination and despair, genocidal.

–       Far too many commentators, far too many politicians have been pushing the line that the suicides crises afflicting First Peoples communities are extremely complex and that the solutions are not easily identifiable, but ironically they then try to push on us simplistic solutions – they say we need to get people into education and jobs. Indeed it is somewhat the opposite, the causes are obvious and the solutions are a little more complex than ‘education and jobs’.

–       Far too many commentators, far too many politicians have been pushing the line that the suicides crises afflicting First Peoples communities are extremely complex and that the solutions are not easily identifiable, but ironically they then try to push on us simplistic solutions – they say we need to get people into education and jobs. Indeed it is somewhat the opposite, the causes are obvious and the solutions are a little more complex than ‘education and jobs’.

I also suggested:

–       The management of ones place within society is critical, and we must be solid in our thinking so as to do everything possible to allow them to navigate their way through society and to their right to empowerment. The majority of First Peoples have taken generational hits to their identity and therefore into the engine room that is self-esteem. These hits have crippled far too many, and these hits distinguish First Peoples from the rest of the Australian population – First Peoples have experiences that non-First Peoples cannot fathom. For many First Peoples their identity is often a liability, historically, culturally and contemporarily. To compound this layered trauma is the fact that a fifth of all First Peoples live in third-world-akin conditions. And far too many are now broken by the crushed hopes they once pegged everything on. There was a huge investiture of faith in the freedom struggles of the 60s, 70s, 80s, in the land rights struggle, in the Black Power movement, in the striving for Treaty, in native title expectations – but for all the good that has come for many there are also far too many who have had their hopes dashed, their expectations betrayed.

–       In remote communities, where there is a disproportionate spike in the spates of suicides, particularly youth suicides, impoverishment quantifiably makes difficult the satisfactory navigation of ones identity through society. Children and youth in communities such as Beagle Bay, One Mile Community, Kennedy Hill, Mowanjum, Balgo for example watch their parents and the majority of their community languish in impoverishment. It gets worse for them – salt poured into the wounds – when they watch their families patronised by the sporadic visits of outsiders, by non-Aboriginal bureaucrats, by the affluent locals who come into the communities for a limited exchange of food, song, dance and ‘reconciliation’ events. Then they go, but their parents and community continue on in impoverishment and in hopelessness. These confrontational experiences wrought negative psychosocial effects on the children, driving in messages of inescapable inequality.

–       I have met a great many community leaders in my travels, and interviewed many of these leaders. The themes are the same, and the impacts are the same – suffering. Assimilation is only well and good for those who want it but wholesale assimilation is indeed a crime against humanity. Assimilation is no longer a silent killer – we see day in day out the tragedy and extensiveness of the suicides crises. Humanity works best by carrying all people, and by unfolding through an engagement of one another, and certainly never by a majority trying to outmuscle a minority. Humanity must unfold ways forward, and exert endless patience, and never bully others. Assimilation demands the extinguishment of a cultural normative. The humiliation that those children feel in the communities I named offends the psyche and permits anger to arise; this anger can run amok.

–       Anger is displaced to the parent, back on to the self, displaced to extended family, back on to the self, displaced on to community, this can lead to violence, the anger always comes back to the self, displaced on to authority, often leading to confrontation and arrest, to incarceration where self-destruction is at a premium, and for those who do degenerate into confrontations with community and authority, and who do not have solid support to turn to, the anger accumulates, becomes unbearable and to find relief it culminates in self-harm, in substance abuses, and tragically for some, in suicide.

In being honest about suicide prevention we must understand the person, family or community we are responding to. We must respond to who they are and therefore to how they should be treated. It is not an equitably fair world. To act as if it is or that it should be is to dangerously dismiss the stresses unique to some but not to others. To act as if life should be fair to people living in deprivation and discrimination when life will not be fair to people living in deprivation and discrimination is to pass the buck to an argument that redress is the solution, when in fact this will be the least likely outcome. To quote Professor Taiaiakei Alfred, the ‘chattering classes’ can carry on all they like about ‘reconciliation’, and I’ll add in, ‘closing the gap’ on inequalities, but life/society, the products of dominant cultures, of the ruling classes and of their Governments, are unfair. In order to deal with the narrative of those in the now, rather than deal with a body politic, we have to accept that life is shit for far too many and acknowledge their anguish, pain, discrimination and suffering as real and longstanding. Our immediate aim must be to help them to develop and understand resilience and help them with a context of a meaningful life from which they can beat a path away from or around the effects of of the unfairness. We cannot dictate to everyone who is discriminated while they are suffering that we must strive for a ‘fair’ or ‘fairer’ world. This will come at the cost of their own wellbeing and that of those to follow them. Let us work with people first, and worry about changing the world second. To understand people in terms of their discrimination, whether this discrimination is dished out inadvertently or intentionally by Governments, and by some of the ‘chattering classes’, is a step in the right direction. When I say or write that “People need people”, I mean this in that we must focus on each other, not pass the buck to blaming someone for their lot. We can see the poor and marginalised are victims, blaming others will still not help anyone. We must understand, that racism, and other imposts, are the landscape for many. To pass the buck here by blaming racists for racism, is a waste of time. The end to racism has quite a journey to go. In understanding this rather than denying this by getting angry at the unfairness of the racism, of the discrimination, by saying merely it should not be this way, is a step in the right direction. We should not posit the crap that the answer to someone’s suffering is to change the landscape, because in doing so we leave behind the victims for longer journey. Each person, each family, each community in distress needs our undivided attention – this constitutes the biggest first step in helping those who are victim day in day out to discrimination, unfairness and so on.


Lifeline’s 24-hour hotline, 13 11 14 Crisis Support and Suicide Prevention

Beyond Blue – 1300 22 46360