After a six-year-old attempted suicide, I thought it wouldn’t happen again. I was wrong
The government has spent too much on suicide prevention research and not enough on actual prevention
Outback Australia has some of the highest suicide rates in the country. Photograph: Ingo Oeland/Alamy
A couple of years ago, I fought to save the life of a six-year-old child, to make sure she never attempted suicide again.
This child is doing well but that was because I was able travel to her, in the heart of our continent, to one of our remotest regions. I was shocked that one so young would contemplate suicide. At the time I believed, or hoped, that I would never come across again a child so young and suicidal. Recently, I dedicated long-haul support to another suicidal six-year-old child, this time in one of our large cities.
Most recently, I have supported suicidal children, six, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 years of age. Without dedicated support it is my very certain belief that some of them would not be with us today.
There was one island community where a 13-year-old girl took her life. Her 11-year-old brother found her. The island has mainstream services, albeit small, but none visited the family, citing the need to give the grieving family “space”. More than three weeks later I travelled to the island and drove from the main community to an outstation near a smaller community and met the family. I was the first to do so.
That was three years ago. I helped relocate the family to Darwin, where the children attend school. I visit them every time I am in Darwin.
Long have I called for and argued for assertive outreach, for intense psychosocial supports, for through-care and aftercare, and I continue to call for these, because through this people supporting people in-person approach we can reduce the suicide toll. It breaks my heart that one government after another instead, to be seen to be doing something, funds research, which delivers more of the same “recommendations”.
One in 50 Australian deaths is a suicide. One in 17 First Nations deaths is a suicide. Australia, with more than 3,000 suicides a year, has a higher suicide rate than the United Kingdom. Australia’s First Nations peoples endure one of the world’s highest suicide rates. My heart broke when I learned that the federal government, instead of funding services that will save people from suicide, they approved $35m for further “research” on Indigenous and youth suicides. The study of suicide is not suicide prevention.
This $35m research spend follows the more than $40m wasted on the dozen “suicide prevention” trial sites which I had strongly argued against when I was on one of the government’s suicide prevention advisory groups. Australia has been deluged with 30 years of relentless research in respect to suicide prevention. As a nation we have endured 30 years of the suicide crises unabated and uninterrupted.
Suicide is Australia’s leading cause of unnatural deaths. During the last decade, Australia has had among the world’s highest increases in its suicide toll, by 33% – and for First Nations Australians by 60%. Australia’s suicide toll is more than two and three-quarters times the road deaths toll and more than 30 times the domestic violence homicides toll. The majority of the suicide toll is intersected by socioeconomic disadvantage, where the accumulation of life stressors are more pronounced.
I feel that all the work my colleagues and I put into crafting and achieving lifesaving outcomes have been betrayed by the failure by the commonwealth – and state and territory governments – to invest. Those who are let down, betrayed, are those whose very lives depended on what the funding should have been invested in.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on suicide prevention during the past decade. The near $80m that I have referenced could have been spent on developing outreach services for First Nations Australians at serious risk – spent on youth suicide, lives would have been saved. I argue that an investment of $80m would reduce the suicide toll for First Nations Australians. Each year of this century, the First Nations suicide toll has increased. We can, for the first time this century, reduce the toll and in so doing inspire the nation. We can reduce the Australian youth suicide toll. We know the elevated risk groups; population and categorical. We know the ways forward.
The youngest suicide I have responded to, where I have worked long haul to support the family, is of a nine-year-old child. The youngest attempted suicide I have responded to is of a six-year-old. Our governments must fund the capacity for as many of the affected as possible to improve their life circumstances.
There are many who we have kept alive by someone being there for them, by improving their lives, by validating their trauma and subsequently disabling their trauma. We were and are there for them. There is no legacy more important than the one that improves the lot of others to the point of saving lives.
I remember everyone lost to suicide but foremost I remember those lost to suicide that we could have helped if we had been resourced to do so.
• Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher. He is also the national coordinator of the suicide prevention focused National Critical Response Trauma Recovery Project and the former coordinator of the suicide postvention National Indigenous Critical Response Service.
• Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636.
Originally published in The Guardian Friday 12 July 2019