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 livingisforeveryone.com.au. If you are feeling distressed or in need of help, visit this page for a detailed list of support services. 

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Peter Fray
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