When suicide becomes normal

“We’ve lived with death. Death is normal to us. We see death on a daily basis within our Aboriginal communities.”

Mervyn Eades is the founder of Ngalla Maya, an organisation helping Indigenous prisoners find employment after release. The shy smile and light blue eyes that light up his face do not reveal the deep agony he has felt from losing his younger brother, Donald Keene, to suicide.

“[He] came out of juvenile detention, into adult prisons … [and] 156 days into his sentence he committed suicide. We lost him at only 18 years old,” Eades says. He stumbles over his words as the memories come back to him.

“He said goodbye through a letter, left a letter in the cell for us to read. [he said] that he’s sorry, and he just doesn’t want to be here anymore. I’ve still got his pillow case at home, and his thongs and his toothbrush and his toothpaste, his soap, soap holder … I can still smell him on his pillow case.

“I went into the cell there, at Hakea Prison. I seen it written on the window sill: DLK RIP.”

As an ex-prisoner, Eades says there isn’t enough support given to people leaving prison. “Once they get out of the prison system, they still don’t have anything so there’s no form of rehabilitation in there,” he says.

But it is not only inmates and ex-prisoners committing suicide. In March this year, the country was shocked by the news a 10-year-old girl had taken her own life. The sad tale of domestic violence and a broken home was splashed across the media, and people listened in horror to her story.

Eades with a photo of his brother, Donald Keene.

What they didn’t know was that she was just one of 19 Indigenous suicides in Western Australia in the past six months.

The national suicide rate has been rising since at least 2012, when consistent suicide statistics became available. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports 117 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide deaths that year. In 2013 that number rose to 138 and, in 2014, the toll was 143 suicides.

Less than 20 years ago the suicide rate was below 100, with 84 Indigenous suicides recorded in 1998.

Mental Health First Aid International says Aboriginal children aged 14 years and younger are eight times more likely to die by suicide than their non-Aboriginal peers. And, according to a 2013 ABS report, the suicide rate was twice as high for both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people than for non-Indigenous people.

Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights suicide prevention researcher Gerry Georgatos is a coordinator for the Indigenous Suicide Critical Response Unit. He provides crisis support to affected families, including that of the 10-year-old girl.

He says if “you’re 15 to 35 years of age and Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander on this continent”, one in three deaths will be suicide.

Aboriginal cultural website Creative Spirits says Western Australia leads the country in Aboriginal suicide rates: 35.8 per 100,000 Indigenous people commit suicide. The Northern Territory follows closely with 35.2 per 100,000.

This is more than three times the national rate of 10.6 suicides per 100,000, and New South Wales which has the lowest rate of Indigenous suicide with less than 15 per 100,000.

Male suicides in Australia per 100,000 (2009)

Age bracket Aboriginal non-Aboriginal Factor
15 – 19 44 19 2.3
20 – 24 75 22 3.4
25 – 29 91 18 5.1
30 – 34 60 15 4.0

Source: Creative Spirits

The statistics paint a horrible picture, but what is really being done?

Whose responsibility is it to address the deep-rooted causes? The Federal Government set up a $1 million ‘critical response’ project this year, which will try to tackle Indigenous suicide in WA. But on a state level, overall responsibility for addressing the causes seems less clear.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Peter Collier’s spokesperson says this crisis does not fall into Minister Collier’s area of responsibility, but is an issue for the Mental Health minister. He says Collier can only discuss “Aboriginal Affairs, policies in area of heritage, sacred sites, and overarching regional reform”.

A Mental Health spokesperson says suicide is a broad issue covering “quite a few portfolios on both a state and federal government” level, including health, community services and local government. While the mental health portfolio has set up the One Life website, which provides mental illness and suicide related information and resources, including links to telephone crisis and counselling services, responsibility for tackling the deep factors leading to the despair that results in suicide remains less clear.

Georgatos says there is not enough support available for Indigenous communities and points to other factors. He says the further west you travel across Australia “the higher the arrest rates, the jail rates … the higher the self-harm, the suicide rates. “We are being flooded by a tsunami of poverty related issues.”

He says for every person who gets help, scores of others don’t, but are instead “filling the prisons, becoming mentally unwell and getting up to self-destructive behaviour”.

Trish Hill-Wall is the office coordinator of the new Indigenous Clinical Mental Health Practitioner degree at Curtin University.

The degree, which will be offered to Indigenous students, with 10 positions open to non-Indigenous students, will teach the best ways to work with Indigenous people suffering from mental illness.

Hill-Wall says the services currently in place, including Beyond Blue and Headspace, do “a fantastic job” but are understaffed. “Through the Northern Territory and up they’re very limited, so they’re dealing with hundreds of people every day,” she says.

Ngalla Maya premises in Belmont. Photo: Eleri Teesalu

Ngalla Maya premises in Belmont.

Eades says he believes the lack of resources and money in Indigenous communities is a contributing factor to high suicide rates.

His organisation Ngalla Maya is not supported by the government but funded by the community. “I’ve been here for 14 months. We struggle to run. We’re not government funded, we’re doing it from a community level,” he says. “Lotterywest and the airport help us a bit.”

He says the government needs to work with the Indigenous community to solve this crisis.

“The people of government have to come down and have a look, walk with us at a grass-roots level and see, and talk with us, and we’ll let them know where the problems lie, and they can walk with us to fix it.”

Eades says there should be more systems in place to help Indigenous people struggling. He had no counselling when his brother passed away and without support a vicious cycle will continue, one generation repeating the actions of the one before.

“It took about five years to get over it. It just played on my mind,” he says.

“The kids see mums and dads in and out of the prison systems and the kids think that’s normal. I’ve heard some little ones say, ‘I want to be like dad and go to prison’.”

Eades describes a sad scene of a young mother taking her life after her children were taken away from her.

“Department of Child Protection came in and took a young lady’s three children [from] her in Fremantle,” he says. “They left, and no one was there to give her support, no family or anyone. She was just home alone. They walked out the front door with her children, the police and the DCP people.”

Ten minutes later she was dead.

Eades says suicide is sometimes an easier alternative to the lives people are living.

“When [they]’re pushed back so far into a corner, our people are just resorting to a way out,” he says. “A better way may be to begin another life in the dreaming or whatever they believe in.

He says Aboriginal people are still living in poor conditions. “How could our people better ourselves when the government is doing this to our people, and not giving our people anything to help us?

“Sadness comes to my eyes when I see the brothers and sisters out in the community, living it hard and rough. And you can see the sorrow in the kids’ faces.”

Georgatos says he is horrified by some of the living conditions he has seen in regional areas. He calls it “racialised economic inequality” which is causing hopelessness to permeate through communities, sometimes culminating in suicide.

“It’s not their fault they’re lost or living in the throes of hopelessness from the beginning of life,” he says.

Photo: Eleri Teesalu

Eades working at Ngalla Maya.

Georgatos is calling for a Royal Commission and says we need to start talking about this on a national level, but Eades is wary of what a Royal Commission could actually achieve.

Eades says while he agrees that a royal commission could “bring the awareness up [about suicide], bring it out at a government level” , he says it would be counter-productive if the commission found that Aboriginal people don’t have the solutions to their own problems. “[We don’t] want to hand it to the government and for them to implement this or that on our people.”

“We need to have [control], where our people are part of the fixing as well”.

Hill-Wall says we need to get the communities talking about suicide and discussing the problems they’re facing. It’s about “unpacking what it is that’s making them feel desperately sad”.

Eades keeps asking himself why his brother never spoke about his problems.

“My brother was a good kid. I always ask, ‘Why did he do that? Why didn’t he tell us?’.”

But the statistics show the problem goes beyond one person. It is widespread and growing, as Eades knows only too well.

“For a 10-year-old baby not to be able to speak about issues, there must have been some serious problems.”

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can call Lifeline on 13 11 14, Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 and the Suicide Callback Service on 1300 659 467.

Update since publication: This story was updated June 19, 2016, to make clearer that the reference to lack of overall, cross-portfolio State Government responsibility for tackling Indigenous suicide was about responsibility for addressing the deep-rooted and across-government causes of Indigenous suicide. The Aboriginal Affairs Minister’s media spokesperson’s name was also removed from the story on June 15.

Photography: Eleri Teesalu