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Recently, I travelled to two island communities that had recorded their first suicides. These First Nations islander communities had been sheltered from the internet and social media platforms where bullying and mobbing play out in pronounced ways. In the middle of last year both islands were connected to the internet. Before this they had never had a recorded suicide attempt.
We must demand that bullying is tackled, and all other factors that culminate in suicide are radically challenged but with a salt-of-the-earth approach, with the spreading of love. This does not mean we dish out more expectation to families. They are already doing everything they can. It is a slap in the face to suggest that they need to talk openly. They do talk but they need support, outreach services, pathways that improve their lot and that resource them and tool them up to assist their loved ones.
The death of a child is always heartbreaking but when it is by suicide it is as devastating as it gets, with long-term negative psychosocial effects for those left behind. There is a whole different level of anguish and grief. Grimly, deaths of children by suicide are increasing, but they can be dramatically reduced. Each year, I support hundreds of suicide-affected families. I have supported families who have lost a child as young as nine to suicide and with attempted suicides of children as young as six. I often reflect that there should be no words for what should be unimaginable.
Only in a third of child suicides did the child tell someone that they were contemplating suicide. However, in at least one in four child suicides we have been able to identify bullying as an underlying narrative or as the abominable tipping point.
The tragedy of 14-year-old Dolly Everett should have galvanised the nation to respond not only to suicides that culminated from bullying but also to child suicides, period. In the weeks before and after Dolly’s death there were other children lost to suicide. We must come together to tell their stories too, and talk about the ways forward.
Tragically, the child suicide toll discriminates. Proportionally, suicide takes more Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children than it does non-Aboriginal children. Suicide also takes more migrant children from non-English cultural backgrounds. I work in trauma recovery with suicide-affected families; Aboriginal, migrant, everyone. At least one quarter of these children would still be with us had it not been for bullying and relentless psychological and emotional abuse.
Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander suicides comprise 6% of Australia’s total suicides, but shockingly, 80% of child suicides aged 12 and below are of Aboriginal children. Thirty per cent of the child suicides to age 17 are comprised of Aboriginal children. I have often said “the nation should weep” at this harrowing tragedy, which is more than just a national shame – a national disgrace, an abomination, a damning condemnation of who we remain as a nation.
In general, the socioeconomically poorer someone is the more vulnerable they are to bullying, aberrant behaviour and to suicidal ideation. Forty per cent of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders live below the poverty line and my research has found that nearly 100% of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander suicides are of people who lived below the poverty line. The suicides of Aboriginal people living above the poverty line are negligible and less than non-Aboriginal Australians living above the poverty line.
Newly arrived migrants from language-diverse backgrounds are also at significant risk. The majority are impoverished and face economic stressors and a divide borne of incidental isolation and inequalities. I remember a young mother, newly arrived, living in public housing with two children, the youngest not yet two, ending her life. Her family devastated. Her eldest child, seven, was subsequently at risk. To reduce the threat of the “unimaginable” we supported relentlessly. People need people.
There are no words possible to any family after the loss of their child. I remember each child’s funeral that I have attended. I remember the funeral of a 10-year-old, an 11-year-old, 12-year-olds. I remember one community, three children buried in five days, three graves in a row, the youngest a 15-year-old girl. In two of the tragic losses bullying was the tipping point, although neither confided in anyone about suicidal ideation.
Child suicides are no longer rare. Child suicide rates are the highest they have ever been. More than 40,000 children aged 12 to 17 years are known to make a suicide attempt. One quarter of 16-year-old females self-harm.
Bullying has to be taken on. The stories have to be told so as to galvanise tailor-made education, to stop bullying, to educate protective factors into victims, to educate perpetrators.
Education campaigns must be national and reach every layer of society. They cannot be predominantly within the school because the majority of Aboriginal child suicides have been of children who did not attend school.
As a nation, our governments and institutions should be doing everything possible for a civil and courteous society, for loving narratives, for outreach support, for technology primed to the betterment of its users and unable to be misused to the detriment.
By Gerry Georgatos
7 October 2018