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Sep 10, 2010

Katter's rural suicide focus shows his heart's in the right place

Bob Katter is the kind of guts-n-gusto personality who speaks a little too freely and shoots a little too much from hip. But on the subject of suicide his conviction is unquestionable, and his efforts are -- at the very least -- meritorious.

In a remarkably brief period of time, the independent MPs who decided Australia’s political future have achieved more for rural Australia than many advocates and politicians have in their entire careers. One of them, Bob “your force from the North” Katter — the man with the big mouth and the silver hair and the shiny white Akubra — very quickly and very loudly began an awareness campaign that would have pleased previous colleagues and associates of mine no end.

Some of these former associates have dedicated their professional lives to “getting the word out there”. Then here came Bob, with his trademark straight-shooting style, thundering from the mountain, the Australian press eating out of his weather-beaten hands.

Katter talked about the high rate of suicide that affects farmers living in rural and remote Australian communities. He spoke with passion and emotion and reiterated his views repeatedly of those who have taken their own lives, ensuring they got traction in the fickle and fast-moving 24-hour news cycle.

“I had two telephone calls this morning, both of them were suicide calls,” Katter said after fronting the press on August 25. “Doesn’t anyone understand what’s happening to us in the bush?”

According to the ABS, every year on average 65,000 Australians attempt suicide and of that number 2200 successfully take their own lives. Those who are bereaved by suicide are at significantly higher risk of suicide than others, and statistically men are about four times as likely to take their own lives as women. Risk factors increase significantly in rural and remote communities, where access to health services is limited and the simple benefits of social interactions can be difficult to obtain. To quote from German-American writer Max Ehrmann’s poem Deserada, written in 1927: “many fears are borne of fatigue and loneliness”.

Ian Hickie, executive director of the Brain and Mind Research Institute, confirmed to The Australian what everybody in the sector already knew — that the rate of suicide is high in rural areas — but especially, according to Hickie, for the constituents in Katter’s electorate in Northern Queensland.

On the same day Katter attacked both sides of politics for doing “nothing” to tackle the suicide rate among farmers, and he reiterated those views on the ABC’s Q&A.

Most Australians don’t realise that more people die by suicide each year than those who perish on our roads, and today, World Suicide Prevention Day, may be an appropriate time to reflect on suicide prevention in Australia.

In a previous vocation, I worked in a managerial, journalistic and editorial role for a major suicide prevention initiative funded by the Department of Health and Ageing’s National Suicide Prevention Strategy (NSPS).

I learnt much about suicide prevention and the valuable work undertaken by projects of varying size and reach across Australia. I spoke regularly with people who toil in local communities — many of them rural and remote — to enhance protective values such as social inclusion and do so in ways city people often take for granted: home visits, social outings, community meetings, places simply to sit down and talk.

I learnt about the idiosyncrasies associated with “kosher” suicide prevention approaches, such as scrutinised use of vocabulary and the sector’s tough balance between encouraging people to “open up” and discuss suicide while discouraging the press to report about it, at least in certain ways.

For example, one is not supposed to write that anybody “committed” suicide. That suggestion, endorsed by the valuable work undertaken by the MindFrame National Media Initiative, is an example of misdirected albeit good intentions. They argue this word draws negative connotations. I remain unconvinced that that is a bad thing.

More importantly, writers should not go into detail about suicidal methods. This is fundamentally because of research that suggests copycat suicides are a very real phenomenon.

Bob Katter is wrong about governments doing nothing. There are a diverse array of programs at state and federal levels — such as the Living is for Everyone (LIFE) project, which disseminates the national framework for suicide prevention, and Rural Alive and Well, an on-the-ground program that reaches out to farming communalities in rural Tasmania. There are many more, and a good compilation of some of them can be found here.

However, as a man who speaks raw and from the gut, you can forgive Bob Katter for overstating the issue given the sorts of emotions a subject such as suicide conjures.

On this, I have my own experiences, along with the tens of thousands of bereaved friends and families each year who are forced to grapple with Australia’s self-inflicted death toll.

Almost five years ago, a great friend of mine — an outdoors man with a ponderous outside-the-square mind and a gargantuan-sized heart — drove quietly and deliberately off the road somewhere in the outskirts of Brisbane, and was found dead the next day of carbon monoxide poisoning.

I will not adorn this story with descriptions of the loss felt by the people who knew him. They understand there are certain feelings for which we don’t have words.

Few things in life are sadder than a young person’s funeral. I expect I will always struggle to listen to that beautiful, sad song Throw Your Arms Around Me, as my mind will invariably evoke memories of a wake where grief-stricken family members intoned those melancholic words “and we may never meet again,” with tears streaming down their faces. Looking back, I might clumsily describe my feelings as marked by a contradictory combination of fiction and fact: the fiction that if I could rewind the clock, I could have been strong enough to change something well out of my reach; the fact that with the right combination of words and actions, maybe, just maybe, I might have had a chance.

I remember a letter that was never written nor posted and the deep regret that comes with that.

Such conflicted feelings are not unusual, or uncommon.

Bob Katter is the kind of guts-n-gusto personality who speaks a little too freely and shoots a little too much from hip. But on the subject of suicide, his conviction is unquestionable, and his efforts are — at the very least — meritorious.

For a list of World Suicide Prevention Day activities, click here. To learn more about suicide prevention in Australia, visit If you are feeling distressed or in need of help, visit this page for a detailed list of support services. 

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10 thoughts on “Katter’s rural suicide focus shows his heart’s in the right place

  1. Margo

    I wonder about the extent to which the silo-isation of health issues contributes to the continuing frustration in relation to this issue. Suicide prevention, like other preventive health initiatives, needs intelligently-developed and appropriately-targeted approaches that actually connect with those who are at risk and those around them. It won’t help if responsibility for suicide prevention sits within ‘mental health’, and bureaucrats and others who focus on rural health and on men’s health (the literature of which is particularly useful) sit somewhere else entirely. Many areas of public health would benefit from cross-disciplinary approaches, perhaps in the form of ‘task forces’, and this is likely to be one of them.

  2. Frank Campbell

    His heart’s in the right place, but his brain isn’t.

  3. JamesH

    Like Bush’s Anti-AIDS programs, Katter’s good intentions are undercut by his regressive and homophobic attitudes towards s-xuality. I have read that young rural homosexual men and women are some of the leading candidates for suicide, but Katter denies their very existence (a blindness he appears to share with Kennett and beyond blue), which is hardly going to help.

  4. Jenny Haines

    One farmer suiciding every four days. That’s a figure that should disturb us all. Give Bob Katter a break. He admits he is not a health professional but no doubt he is seen as a leader in his community. That is why he is getting these suicide calls. I think he is probably trying to do his best and he is doing it as a politician, not a psychologist or a psychiatrist. At least he cares. There are lots of hard bitten politicians who would not touch the issue of suicide in their communities with a ten foot pole.

  5. carol93

    The matter of completed suicides, of different groups and of accurate numbers, is immensely complicated by the fact that suicide statistics are more fiction than reality. Until there is a death rate benchmark, as there is for all health services except mental health, no numbers should be seen as reliable.

    The Australian Bureau of Statistics, at the end of the 1995-2005 ten year death rate, added a proviso that the figures should not be seen as accurate since all states “underenumerate” their suicide numbers. Mr Ian Freckleton SC wrote in 2006 that suicide numbers published yearly in Victoria by the Chief Pschiatrist’s office have “serious flaws”. Professor John Mendoza wrote in 2009 that suicide is Australia’s “hidden epidemic” and that 3000 suicides are more likely than the anecdotally accepted figure of 2000/year. Until a few weeks ago $1yearly per person was spent for suicide prevention in Australia.

    The World Health Organization has stated that, globally, about 90% of suicides are completed by the seriously mentally ill. We have 600,000 such persons, suffering schizophrenia, bipolar 1 disorder and/or severe clinical depression; in developed countries the WHO estimates a suicide rate of 10-13% by the seriously mentally ill, giving a yearly suicide rate of 2,oo0-2,600/year here. But this does not allow for the fact that in 2009 the Mental Health Council of Australia wrote that only 35% of our seriously mentally ill receive specialist care or hospital admission when crises occur. Such neglect must ensure the suicide rate is inestimably higher than we are told.

    The suicides in rural areas is known to be higher, the suicides of some groups of indigenous Australians is said to be four times higher than whatever is “average”, as is the suicide rate of the seriously mentally ill.

    The author has a personal connection with a person who committed suicide; I have lost a daughter to the disintegration of schizophrenia and subsequent suicide…these deaths are almost always violent and, of necessity, always alone. No moment of death could be worse. Suicide deaths of Australians must be given the prime place of consideration in the governance of Australia.

  6. John Bennetts

    I am reminded of the imbalance of resources every time I see a stationary speed camera or a highway patrol vehicle. In the interests of safety, these things are everywhere, yet nationally the problem they are addressing is less than half that faced by workers for suicide prevention and those affected by suicide and self harm.

    There is a real need in this society to improve public awareness of this issue, so that equivalent resources will be found.

  7. Stephen Masters

    Bob Katter may look like a cowboy but much of what he actually has to say, except his outrageous and unacceptable comments relating to sexual orientation, is refreshing and correct. The ideology of the federal governments for the past two decades has been about open markets, free trade and demolishing tariffs except that Australia is the only country doing this. So Australian producers of just about anything are disadvantaged to the point where they go out of business.
    This applies to the deregulation of the dairy industry where farmers are paid 30% less but the price in the shops is not less. They are then left to go bankrupt. And we don’t understand why they have such a high suicide rate?
    The markets are not “open.’ The trade is not “free.” This is the abuse of language in the service of idealology.
    Bob Katter is quite right. The duty of every government is to care for citizens. In terms of protecting local industry, manufacturing etc. they are now sacrificed. The reliance for the future is on mining. How dumb is that? Digging holes in the ground, selling the mines to overseas interests so that they get the profits, and, not having a resources tax to invest the income in a national fund where only the interest is spent.

    Bob Ketter is making valid points not heard of anywhere else. And, he speaks from the heart and cares. The head stuff gave us rational economics and globalization. It is all in the head because in the real world where real people live and work it is complete rubbish as we are now finding out.

    Bob Katter for PM! (After he acknowledges how unchristian and stupid his other comments were).

  8. Robert Garnett

    The economic rationalist policies that have been pushed by both the major political parties, but raised to an art form by Katters’s fellow travelers in the Coalition are a key factor in bush suicides. To a male farmer, success in the business of farming is what defines the man. Success requires the accumulation of wealth however this is often a second order issue. What really matters is being in control of your destiny, not being pushed around and being able to feel successful and powerful.

    The marginalisation of the small farmer, by big ag and big business, and the drought have rendered many of them completely powerless. Chronic stress is the result, which quickly leads to depression and often suicide. High Effort – Low reward, High demands -low autonomy. Thats what kills.

    Katter needs to think about the causes of the stress not just mitigation of it.

    It’s greedy city CEO’s, lawyers and their court jesters, cheered on by their paid for governments, who set the farmers up for failure, stress and then death. Katter hasn’t got the brains to see that, or to see that his rusted on mates in the coalition couldn’t care less about anyone, but themselves.

    He’s an independent MP in name only.

  9. Melissa Sweet

    A relevant tweet from Reach Out, reporting from today’s suicide prevention forum:
    We have to be better at providing inclusive environment for those who are same-sex attracted #spaforum #wspd
    (It may be more relevant if you saw qanda on Monday night, where Katter struggled to represent or acknowledge the issues facing gays and lesbians)

  10. Scott Grant

    I am sure someone could invent a way for random road-side checks of one’s emotional state. Maybe even sniffer dogs at railway stations to detect hormonal imbalance. But governments might find it politically and logistically difficult to fine people for feeling sad. Perhaps they should bring back their only other solution to social problems and incarcerate people instead. Imagine the possibilities for election messages: “We’re tough on suicide!”.