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Feb 14, 2012

Stolen Lives: why are indigenous Australians killing themselves?

Suicide among Aboriginal communities is now three to four times the rate of non-Aboriginal suicide and Aboriginal people commit suicide at a far younger age. Why, asks Kate Horowitz?

Aboriginal suicide first emerged in Australian records in 1960s. In the 1980s, there was a surge of Aboriginal suicide starting with adults, then young adults and now, 30 years later, children.

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.

The rise in suicide in recent decades is not a solitary phenomenon — it is happening around the globe to many colonised races. The Inuit people of Canada, Native Americans and New Zealand Maoris are exhibiting the same behavioural patterns.

Ironically, all groups began committing suicide in huge numbers in recent decades as they were given greater rights and acknowledgement for past and present wrongs. Academics, experts and Aborigines themselves are trying to make sense of the unprecedented spike.

Ten years ago, professor Colin Tatz, who teaches at the Australian National University, wrote a book: Aboriginal suicide is different. His colleagues were outraged by his differentiation between Aboriginal suicide and non-Aboriginal suicide, seeing it as a form of segregation.  Yet professor Tatz insists “the profiles of the two are completely different” due to the different social and historical factors.

The study is the result of visits to 55 Aboriginal communities in NSW over 2½ years to study Aboriginal youth suicides. He focused particularly on youths but his theories extend to all Aboriginal suicide.

Professor Tatz has spent many years trying to understand why Aboriginal people have started committing suicide in recent decades, when comparatively speaking, life is improving.  One of his theories is that colonised people have started to suicide in greater numbers in recent decades due to the process of “de-institutionalisation”.

“It’s the process of decolonisation: the withdrawal of structures,” he said. “And even though they were lousy structures. And they were draconian and they were nasty and they were oppressive and they were anti-human rights, and all of those things. I am not for a moment suggesting we go back to those things.”

His book argues that in the process of the “decolonisation” as Aboriginal people were given back self-determination, they were not trained to cope with their new found autonomy after being under white rule for 200 years.

“There is another theory and another thesis. When you are engaged in a struggle, a struggle to survive, suicide rates are very low,” professor Tatz said, implying that the worst is over for Aboriginal people in terms of racial struggles.

“In the apartheid era in South Africa there is almost no suicide in black South Africa. I contacted a man who is the professor of psychiatry at Cape Town University and asked him if there were any figures on black or coloured suicide and there was almost none. I asked him to measure it from 1944 on, under freedom, and he’s now writing to me saying ‘yes’.

“When people are consumed by a struggle, whether it is Jews facing Arab enemies, whether it is people in Russia facing Tsars or Stalinist dictators, or civil rights in the United States … when people are involved in a struggle there is a reason to exist.”

But a third theory is that suicide perpetuates suicide: dealing with grief and despair over losing family and friends, leads to further desolation.

The endless death and grief within Aboriginal communities is another contributor to suicide. “The cycle of death and knowing what death is. Aboriginal kids know what death is a lot earlier than any of us. There are sustained levels of grief in such high levels. Not cycles of grief but continuous and this affects children profoundly,” professor Tatz said.

When Aborigines are brought up knowing about suicide and death at an early age, when they have become normalised to deaths of “non-natural” causes, suicide at moments of distress becomes a normal response. “Since the 1960s, suicide has now become ritualised, patterned and institutionalised in Aboriginal communities,” said professor Tatz.

Forty-three-year-old Aaron Stuart was the first generation in his family to be born in a hospital. He comes from a family with strong ancestral ties. He was raised with the knowledge of his culture and who he was, which gives him the support and ability to work with suicidal youth and men in Port Augusta.

Stuart believes the emerging suicide epidemic is due to the complete loss of culture for recent generations and that it is the more sensitive Aborigines who are being affected most. These are the Aborigines who unknowingly feel a tremendous displacement and loss in Australia; they feel a rejection towards the way they are forced to live.

“They are grieving from loss of culture and identity,” he said. “And then they also have to deal with oppression, racism, segregation and assimilation.

“It’s lack of identity people don’t understand. They feel isolated and they can’t see anything ahead of them and there’s a point in their life where they think ‘what am I here for, what am I doing, who am I trying to please? I can’t seem to do anything right’.”

As a result Stuart is a firm believer that the Aborigines who yearn for their lost traditional culture and land will die out. The Aborigines who will survive will be the ones who are able to acculturate to white society.

He talked about the inability for Aborigines, particularly young men, to talk about their feelings in today’s society: “If you’ve been one of those Aboriginal people that have been oppressed and disposed, segregated and assimilated, or a victim of the Stolen Generation or passed down to that, and you’ve always been told what to do and government policy has always told you how to live and what to do, called racism — how are you going to come out and tell me what you feel about that straight away?”Dr Norm Sheehan, from Swinburne University of Technology, runs Link-Up, a social and emotional well-being project based on connective art and yarning circles. Dr Sheehan is a fair-skinned Aborigine who was raised in Catholic missions and has completed a doctorate in psychology, and post-doctoral research into psychiatry and social emotional well-being. Like Stuart, he believes bringing culture back to the Aboriginal person will provide a sense of identity and satisfaction, and reduce the risk of suicide ideation.

“There is a strong connection between cultural cohesion, cultural connection and social emotional well-being,” he said.

Dr Sheehan worked alongside professor Graham Martin and Dr Karoline Krysinka to complete the study Identity, voice, place: suicide prevention for Indigenous Australians — A social and emotional well-being approach with the University of Queensland. The study looks at effective suicide prevention programs for Aboriginal people.

“We looked at studies in Canada, New Zealand and Australia that look at the social emotional causation. We have found that studies in other places showed that cultural disconnection was a major cause of suicide especially amongst Aboriginal youth,” Dr Sheehan explained. “So you look at Aboriginal kids who are separated from their culture, who are called Aboriginal, treated as Aboriginals but have no understanding of what being Aboriginal is — it’s an incredible conflict to carry and there is no real cultural education happening.

“The knowledge of Aboriginal culture is very significant for Aboriginal communities as they take away the doubt and they bring a positive cultural perspective to people who have been deprived of that cultural perspective. “Identity and selfhood are important for emotional well-being. Australia has historically denied these basic human needs to Aboriginal people.

“Aboriginal people were deprived of a true understanding of self because their biological make-up was seen as an impediment something that had to be erased. That’s a crime against humanity. But Aboriginal people have had to live with that legacy and develop a concept of self in a zone like that, so understanding what culture is in that context is almost impossible.”

Dr Sheehan sees suicide as the direct result of colonialism: “Colonialism is a set of ideas that still exists today in various forms, definitely as an ideology. Colonialism deprives the colonised of positive self-images and for me, that’s a crucial part of the Aboriginal experience.

“I am a believer in narrative therapies and narrative counselling … with the stuff I do with the images, is it opens up spaces for the narrative and the sharing of stories and everybody who’s a being, who’s an identity, has a got a personal story. What deprives Aboriginal people is that crucial elements to that personal story. Then if you were to feel a little bit alone and a little bit lost and a little bit traumatised, the thing you go to in your life is those personal stories.

“Now if you don’t have one or the one you have is conflicted, then you’re at the end of the rope. Potentially there is no safety net if you don’t have that sort of emotional structuring in your life.”

Dr Sheehan says colonial ideology is still rife in Australian culture today.  But forming and shaping a cultural identity for Aborigines may provide them with support and backing against future damage. “So what we do is we prepare our communities for future devastations so we are not talking about a cure, because perpetration is continuing,” he said.

Dr Sheehan also says suicidal thoughts stem from feelings of isolation in a racist climate and cultural denigration: “If you are discriminated against based on race, that has an incredibly alienating impact on people. It’s a very strong stressor in people’s lives. Some people say suicide is in some way a protest or a political action, and I don’t agree with that. Those sorts of statements come from people who haven’t experienced the personal desolation that comes with being treated differently, that comes with things about yourself you can’t change.

“You’ll find obese kids who are bullied at school have a high rate of self-harm and suicide because they are treated in a particular way because of things about themselves they can’t change, and it’s the same for Aboriginal people and people of colour around the world. They are treated in a particular way because of something that has no bearing on their morality, intelligence or anything else. They can just be used to discriminate against them.

“That sort of power does cause people to harm; experiencing that power is a devastating personal experience. Particularly when there is no power to respond.”

Professor Martin Graham, from the University of Queensland, is a psychiatrist who has studied suicide extensively for more than 20 years and is perhaps the nation’s top expert on suicide. He believes dominant Western medical views are “overly simplistic” and insufficient in explaining suicide, Aboriginal or otherwise. Like professor Tatz, he has many theories around why Aborigines suicide, but no clear answers.

“I suppose you could put forward a number of reasons — the classic sort of white Australian understanding would be that these are depressed individuals that have suffered some kind of loss and can’t get help for that and/or they are abusing medications or drugs. But I think what my understanding is — there is a deep sadness among Aboriginal peoples and that that translates to a sense of anomie perhaps. A kind of deep sense of sadness and boredom and dispiritedness relating to loss of land, loss of culture, loss of languages in some cases and a sense that none of it can be changed.

“So despite all of the government money going in, despite all of assistance that has been offered, despite a whole range of programs like the Life Promotion Program, for instance, this sense of deep despair remains and Norm [Sheehan] would track it back and say it’s probably related to a sense of distress at the genocide that was perpetuated by white Australians from 1788.

“That kind of makes sense to me but it kind of doesn’t make sense to me because if you believe another group is trying to kill you off surely what you do is fight that and try to stay alive and live longer than the bastards?”

Like his co-researcher Dr Sheehan, professor Martin, too, stresses the importance of culture. He also believes in the improvement of relationships within Aboriginal communities: “What actually works is helping the community to revive itself and improve connectedness between family clan groupings.”

Professor Martin disagrees with Stuart’s view that traditional Aborigines, and in turn the culture, will necessarily die out. He looks at other colonised cultures for evidence. “If you go to people in Canada to talk about Inuit suicide, they believe they have some very profound ways of turning cultures around, turning communities around and reducing the suicide rate,” he said.

Professor Martin refers to the research by Canadians Dr Michael Chandler and Dr Chris Lalonde on Inuit people: “Essentially Michael Chandler believes that there are a range of aspects of community that need to be corrected to ensure that a community runs itself drawing on its own strength and culture. He said if you put all of those things into place then that reduces suicide and he has very strong evidence for that.

“There were a number of changes in the Inuit community but it was about taking over community life and running it. You know dealing with issues around the status of women, ensuring that children were brought up in a culturally appropriate way. That’s nothing to do with clinical depression or anti-depressants. It’s about recovering if you like or regaining cultural knowledge or experience and direction and I think that is actually what it is about.

“In Australia I don’t think we are yet doing it.”

*Tomorrow in this four-part series on Aboriginal suicide rates: the case study of Port August in South Australia. Kate Horowitz presented this work as part of masters assessment.

**For help or information visit beyondblue.org.au, call Lifeline on 131 114 or visit this page for a detailed list of support services

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27 comments

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27 thoughts on “Stolen Lives: why are indigenous Australians killing themselves?

  1. mikeb

    If you have nothing to live for then suicide is seen as a more attactive option. Too many Aboriginal people have no reason to get out of bed, have no jobs, have not had a wage earner in their family – ever, and are bored bored bored. You see a similar syndrome in poor white suburban neighbourhoods where the suicide rate is also higher than average. Welfare by itself does not make the recipient fell better about themselves, and probably makes the situation worse.

  2. persona generic

    You whities trot around the globe in the name of civilisation and conquest; your racist attitude has never changed. You export war and violence in the name of civilisation and progress. Your organisations and TNCs occupy the most valuable sections of the value chain all over the world and when a people or a nation rise in independence you crush them mercilessly and brand them as terrorists. And you wonder why…

    And now, Indigenous peoples, the rightful custodians of these lands are “given” rights by you! Given rights within a paradigm of your imagination and your values, co-opted into a sense of nation and people that is anathema to sentient and rational human beings! And you wonder why…

    White man you remain janus-faced and jackbooted barbiarians: looking anxiously to the past and commiting evermore grevious crimes against other human beings in the name of fear. You cast the genocidal shadows of the past as of the past and there to remain but you indigantly clutch to your sense of entitlement: privileges and advantages forged in its spectre… And you bear the torch aloft and carry it forth.

    And you wonder why!

    You sell the lie: freedom, civilisation and peace but all you know is subjection and subordination. For you there can only ever be One. In your Image.

    picayune little white man.

  3. paddy

    Even though the subject matter is deeply depressing, this is an impressive piece of work Kate. Well done.

  4. mikeb

    @persona generic
    “picayune” – nice word. Must try to worm that into future general conversation.

  5. Clytie

    I remember speaking to a junior primary class about culture. My daughter had started school there. She was half-Vietnamese, and experiencing some unpleasant behaviour from others. So I had a session with her class.

    We spoke about culture and family. At that stage (16 years ago), there were at least 63 different ethnic groups representing 50% of the population of the Riverland, so the class had a good variety of cultural backgrounds: Anglo, Celt, Greek, Italian, Turkish, Sikh etc.

    Each kid talked about his or her family background and culture. Their parents had taught them about their culture, and they were keen to learn more, and to learn about others. Even my daughter spoke up a little.

    However, there was one little boy, who had sat all the time, slumped and with his head down. I worked around to him, then asked his name, and said, “You’re Ngarrindjeri, aren’t you?”

    The slumped little figure tensed suddenly, then mumbled “Yes”.

    I told the class about our Ngarrindjeri people, guardians of the River, protectors of this land for thousands of years. The other kids asked questions, intrigued. If the little boy had had antennae, they would have been straight up and quivering.

    In the end, I looked at him and said with emphasis and conviction, for all to hear, “You must be very proud.”

    He lifted his head for the first time, looking out the window. There was a pause. “Yes…” he said tentatively. Then he seemed to come to a decision, and looked straight at me. “Yes,” he said firmly, “I am.”

  6. Whistleblower

    @persona generic
    You appear to be a very confused individual. Apart from being appallingly racist, you are attributing generic characteristics to so-called “whities” which have been a characteristic of history for thousands of years across all racial groupings, including so-called “darkies” especially in Africa where it is one group of African suppressing another in the post-colonial era. Theconcept of a “rightful custodian” is nonsense. Before European colonisation of the Australian continent, the environment was exploited for tens of thousands of years, with systemic change in flora and fauna as a consequence of human habitation. When this culture was confronted with a stronger and more dynamic alternative it collapsed in the face of better social and economic organisation. That is the harsh reality of colonisation which has happened around the world for thousands of years, and the so-called “whities are the descendants of those who made a successful defence of their own rights against opponents.

    In case you hadn’t noticed your expressing yourself in English even though the statement “”within a paradigm of your imagination and your values, co-opted into a sense of nation and people that is anathema to sentient and rational human beings” is a string of words which makes very little sense and is indicative of a reasonable education at least in terms of vocabulary if not logic. If you want a real example of “janus-faced and jackbooted barbiarians: looking anxiously to the past and commiting evermore grevious crimes against other human beings””I would suggest that the activities of the Germans under Adolf Hitler, the Russians under Stalin and Lenin, the Japanese under Tojo, China under Mao Zedong, the killing fields of Cambodia and the appalling regimes in North Korea should be attracting much more of your attention. Had the so-called “whities” on the receiving end of your scorn and derision applied any of the techniques of these regimes there would be no so-called indigenous Australians left to speak of.

    You would do much better to consider that social dysfunction and lack of economic opportunity would be highly correlated with suicide, and the answer is almost certainly full integration of the indigenous population into the mainstream Australian community in terms of education, training and employment. This integration into the Australian economy is impossible if indigenous children are carrying the burden of two cultures, one of which has social values incompatible with mainstream Australian economic survival.

    Economic survival is not possible if you are not living in an area where work is available. Similarly indigenous children should be being educated in mainstream schools, and if people choose to a high value on their cultural identity and disintegration, then social welfare dependency, low self-esteem, and high suicide rates will be inevitable. This has nothing to do with ethnicity, and everything to do with cultural values.

  7. gerard

    If we keep looking at the past and blame colonialism, it will not change. When I see old footage of indigenous kids, dressed in school uniforms, saluting the flag and marching into school to learn reading and writing, one can’t just keep on saying that all efforts in the past were so dreadful.
    Take a look how the aboriginals ( samis) in Scandinavian countries have fared.
    The conditions are not all that dissimilar, huge distances and isolation and a severe climate. The kids all go to school and alcoholism is now almost non existent. Their indigenous languages have been preserved and depending on which country, all documentation is bi-lingual.
    Children that live too isolated from school would be living at school during the week and be home at week-ends. The thing that was first undertaken was ‘educating’ the children.
    Here many indigenous children still miss out on going to school. Why on earth is that still happening? What is that fear that prevent stepping in and have children going to school. I would dearly like to know.

  8. persona generic

    Many children were forcefully removed and sent to what you call “schools”. The Australian government actively promoted a policy of indigenocide: the product of deep-rooted racism that remains to this day and these institutions were a cornerstone of this genocidal policy. Indigenous Australians were thought to be elementally tainted and had to be purged.

    White man you will only ever understand one kind of sovereignty: your own. And it is on this basis that you look to the past; subjugating and subordinating policies suborn not by imperialism and avarice but rather benign humanity. You say the times should be understood in their own terms and at once you undermine the pursuit of justice and justify the atrocities that continue to be committed in your name.

  9. gerard

    Well, if children were forcefully removed and sent to schools it wasn’t so different when I went to school in Holland. It was unlawful not to go to school and I would also have been removed if my parents did not send me to school..
    What do you want? If education of children is not tackled, than all is lost.

  10. Dagney_Taggert

    @Persona Generic

    The rate of child abuse among aboriginal children has more than doubled over the last 10 years, and is now almost 10 times higher than that amongst non-Aboriginal children.

    Maybe taking children out of abusive home situations was not a bad thing?

    You rant and you rail against “whitie” and the whole honkie-colonialist complex, yet you can’t tell us what the solution should be. What should we do? How can we make it all better for you? We can’t. You have to. You have to clean your own house. You have to say “enough! No longer will we abuse ourselves our wives and our children”. Until you do that, nothing will change.

    Was the intervention a bad thing? Yes it was – it was terrible that the Government had to say “since you cannot look after yourselves, we will do it for you”. I would be appalled if the Government did that to me. I would change, to get them out. Until you do that, what is your future?

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