I’m honoured to be here in Cairns today at to deliver this address at the Suicide and Self Harm Prevention Conference. I’d like to thank the organisers for inviting me to speak.
Firstly I want to acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of the land and waters of the country we are on today.
This first peoples of this region of North Queensland are known as Bama or Rainforest People. The traditional owners of the land on which we are standing here in Cairns are the Yirrgandydji People and the Gumay Walubara clan of the Yidinji People. I pay my respects to the Yirrgandydji and Yidinji elders, past and present and to the elders of my own Bundjalung, Gumbaynggirr and Yuin first nations.
Humans are hard wired to survive. We have an innate instinct to fight for life over death that many of us couldn’t even explain and most would not question. This is true for humans both as individuals and for groups with common identities like nations.
I deliver speeches all over Australia and, in preparing the acknowledgement of country, I always spend time reading a bit about the traditional owners and custodians of the places where I speak their country and languages, the progress of native title claims and their unique cultures. There is no better illustration to me of the human survival instinct than seeing Australia’s first nations living and evolving. For nearly 230 years, first peoples of Australia have feared that our achievements and histories would be destroyed; our culture and languages forgotten; that it would be like we never even existed. Yet here we are. And here we have been since time immemorial. Australia’s first nations are the oldest continuing nations in the world.
Suicide is a scourge on humanity. Because it is in utter conflict with the most basic human desire, to survive. In that moment when a person ends their life they have come to believe that death is more desirable than living
For Indigenous Australians suicide has reached epidemic proportions, particularly in the last 20 years. After centuries of survival, suicide is now one of the greatest threats to the health of our people and our nations.
According to the Commonwealth Department of Health:
Suicide rates for Indigenous Australians is more than twice that for non-Indigenous Australians.
In 2010, suicide accounted for 4.2% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander registered deaths.
It’s estimated that an average of 100 Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people committed suicide each year between 2001-2010.
The data is not uniform across age and geographical factors. There are peaks and clusters that are far more alarming still:
For males aged between 25 and 29 years the suicide rate is four times the rate for non-Indigenous males in that age group.
For females aged between 20-24 years the suicide rate is five times the rate for non-Indigenous female in that age group.
The highest suicide rates for Indigenous people are in the Northern Territory followed by South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland.
In the Kimberley region of Western Australia is more than 6 times the national rate.
There are also clusters and spikes for other demographic groups like Indigenous people who are homosexual or who are or have been incarcerated.
The rates of hospitalisation for intentional self-harm are higher than the suicide rates for all people but, again, higher for Indigenous people compared to non-Indigenous people. Rates of hospitalisation for self-harm are also higher in remote areas. It’s been estimated that the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who self-harm is more than twice that for non-Indigenous Australians.
About 1 in 24 Indigenous Australians will die from suicide. At least. Experts and researchers in this area generally believe it is higher as some suicides go unreported.
Imagine how many people you know, you work with, in your family, in your street. Imagine if 1 in every 24 of them died by suicide in the prime of their life.
Suicide occurs at younger ages for Indigenous Australians than non-Indigenous. This is even harder to fathom. At the time when people should have the most to look forward to they see death as a more desirable option than life.
The most shocking part of the suicide epidemic in Indigenous Australia is the number of little children who have died at their own hands. Last year an 11 year old boy from Geraldton was found by another child hanging from a tree. He had ended his own life at the age of 11. The Australian newspaper at the time reported that children as young as 8 years old are ending their own life. It is heartbreaking.
It’s not surprising many people angrily and urgently demand solutions and more funding from governments and their departments. In my capacity as Chair of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council many people have looked to me and to the Council and demanded to know what we are doing about it. I will talk about my and the Council’s role today and how we are advising the Federal Government in this area today.
Before I do that I want to talk – not about what I am telling the government but about what I have learned in listening to others - mental health professionals, social researchers and other experts in relevant fields - since taking on the role as Chair of the Council.
When thinking on suicide and self-harm in the general population the focus is usually mental health. What I have learned is that the suicide epidemic in Indigenous Australia cannot be explained by mental health illness alone nor understood purely through a mental health lens. We can only understand this problem through a broader lens – that, in essence, many Indigenous Australians have experienced a loss of purpose and meaning and that this is getting worse.
I have also learned that that the suicide epidemic is not just about individuals and their health; it’s also about the health of our peoples, our communities, our nations. I’m not talking here about social dysfunction in communities – such as violence, or drug and alcohol abuse or crime. I’m talking about our first nations losing their way, losing grip of their essence as a people. This concept is hard to explain but was best illustrated to me in a book that one expert and friend brought to my attention. The book is called On Suicide and it was written in 1897 by Emile Durkheim.
Durkheim was a French sociologist. He believed that suicide had a social dimension and was not purely about individual despair. He researched and analysed mountains of data on suicide rates in Europe at the time and tried to understand why some societies and communities had higher suicide rates than others. He considered a range of different possible explanations – alcohol abuse, poverty, economic downturns and so on - and analysed the data to see if those explanations held true.
He came to the view that suicide could be understood in three forms. The third he called anomic suicide which essentially relates suicide to the health of a society as a whole. A state of “anomie” occurs when there is a breakdown in social norms and social guidance; where individuals feel disconnected from the collective state; where people and societies have lost their purpose and ideals leading to uncertainty and alienation.
Durkheim’s book reviews case studies of societies which had seen unusual rises in suicide rates after change. These changes include industrial and financial crises and also rapid increases in prosperity or power. He found economic hardship alone did not correlate with suicide – and there were case studies of societies that suffered extreme poverty and hardship with low or no suicide. The relevant factor was the collective order being disturbed. He reasoned that when a society is suddenly disturbed, and peoples’ means move out of harmony with their needs, society becomes for a time incapable of exercising any moderating influence on those needs. As a result, “noone then knows what is possible and what is impossible, what is just and what unjust, what constitutes legitimate demands and hope, and which are those that exceed the boundaries.”
A society in a state of anomie is one where the old values have lost their meaning and new values have not yet been adopted to take their place. People living in this state lack a sense of purpose and meaning to life.
Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are suffering from a loss of purpose and meaning and a belief that they do not have control over their lives. It is though a state of anomie is permeating through our first nations. They need to heal.
Many people have linked the high suicide rates amongst Indigenous Australians to societal breakdown arising from the Indigenous historical experience - invasion, colonisation, frontier wars, massacres, rapes and forced labour, loss of language and culture, forced removal from lands, stolen generation, racism and segregation.
I believe this analysis is too simple. Not because it happened a long time ago. But because it doesn’t reflect the pattern of what we are seeing. Suicide rates amongst Indigenous people were not always orders of magnitude higher than for the rest of the population. The rapid rise leading to the current crisis began in the late 1980s - after the main civil rights battles were won; after the 1967 referendum; after the Mabo decision; and during a period which there has been a complete transformation in the way Indigenous Australians are thought of and treated in this country.
Perhaps the fight of the frontier wars and the civil rights campaigns provided a sense of purpose to stave off anomie. I don’t know. What I do know – without even needing to consult French sociologists – is that the past 40 years have heralded a social decline for Indigenous people, a period where social dysfunction and chronic welfare dependence have taken hold. The old values have lost their meaning and new values have not yet been adopted to take their place.
Our first nations revolved around two things – family and work. Our first nations were structured around kinship systems where family relationships defined who you were, whom you could marry, where you lived and your responsibilities to the community and the environment. And it was the kinship system that operated as a built-in welfare system for those who were orphaned, widowed or dependent.
In our first nations everybody worked. They hunted and gathered food; they cared for children and elders; they constructed weapons, implements, instruments, traps, shelter, boats; they educated their children through ceremony, songlines and stories; they managed the land around them. Ceremony was an integral part of those societies and it co-existed with work.
This work ethic remained integral to our people after British invasion. Indigenous Australians worked - both in their traditional ways and for the whiteman. They worked on cattle stations and farms, in mines, as domestics, as trackers and serving their country in war. In many jobs they worked for a pittance or were "paid" with tea and damper. Or they worked in return for being able to live on the land that was theirs to begin with.
My parents and my grandparents all had real jobs. My grandfather taught himself to read and write and took a job as a farm labourer. It was hard, dirty work, but he had independence and he earned money to support his own family. My father learnt to drive heavy machinery and got a job that was a bit better paid than his father’s. He was able to buy a small house. My uncles worked in the mines. My mother worked as a domestic. That was my family’s culture and it was a continuation of the culture of their ancestors before them.
Today some people attach the label “cultural” to things that are the opposite of traditional community values, thing like incarceration and welfare, which are barriers to work and destroyers of family.
There are culturally specific programs and facilities in prisons. There are Koori & Murri courts for Indigenous offenders. These may be good initiatives. But they aren’t cultural. Traditional Indigenous punishment was swift and brutal. Failing to perform obligations or disobeying law was dealt with by a spearing or a beating or expulsion or death. You were punished and, if you lived, were expected to get back to work.
Cultural programs in prison are examples of progressive Western attitudes to prisoner rehabilitation. A diversionary program that put offenders into work would be more closely aligned with traditional cultural values.
Today we have welfare models that incorporate culture, that get elders to play a role in welfare distribution and compliance. Yet receiving something for nothing was simply not a part of our first nations’ way of life. Everyone was expected to bring something to the campfire. Inter-generational welfare dependence enabled by government isn’t traditional Indigenous culture – it’s a modern-day Western phenomenon. We see it in Britain, in Europe and in Australia’s cities too.
Humbugging - when family or community members beg, borrow, steal or extort money from others - is rife in Indigenous communities today and it stops people from working. Humbugging is not cultural. The practice of sharing resources in traditional Indigenous communities worked because everyone had something to share; people were obliged to give because everyone had something to contribute. These aspects of culture weren’t about taking from others. They were about taking responsibility for others.
These were the values in which I was raised and the values of my family and community. When I go out into communities, the elders and senior community members speak to me being raised with the same values and expectations. But these values have been being slowly weeded out of Indigenous communities over past decades.
In Indigenous affairs these days, people talk a lot about “empowerment” and “self-determination”. Self-determination and empowerment mean taking responsibility for yourself, your family and your community, ensuring your kids get an education and that you get a job. There can be no self-determination or empowered communities if there is total dependence on government and if there is no real economy. Commercial and economic development are also the only way people move out of poverty.
The Indigenous Advisory Council are a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people with backgrounds and expertise across business, education, community, the professions and industry. We provide advice to the government on formulating policy. Our prime focus above all others is commercial and economic development and on Indigenous Australians participating in the real economy. And the suicide epidemic will not be curtailed without this.
Our advice to the government is straightforward – that the policy and actions of government must enable Indigenous Australians to gain purpose and meaning in their lives.
This means implementing policies that move people from welfare to work.
It means delivering and maintaining decent housing and creating an environment where people can own their own homes on their country.
It means land reform so that first nations and individuals can use land as an economic asset and build real economies on their country.
It means policies that drive school attendance and ensuring every Indigenous Australian gets a proper education.
It means Indigenous children learning traditional languages and culture.
It means diversionary programs that put offenders into work and education and sets them on a future path where they work and contribute to society, rather than spending their lives in and out of prison.
It also means helping people to know that they do – already - have control over their lives. No one else does.
No nation can survive without an economy to support it and our first nations are no different. Of all the damage done to Australia’s first nations by British colonisation, possibly the greatest threat to the continuation of our first nations is chronic dependence on government without needing to meaningfully contribute in return. To use the words of Durkheim, this has left our people not knowing what is possible and what is impossible, what is just and what is unjust, what constitutes legitimate demands and hope, and which are those that exceed the boundaries.
Our elders knew this. It was they who came up with the expression “sit down money” to describe the mass transition of Indigenous people from work to welfare in the early 1970s. Sit down money, helplessness, subjugation, removal of responsibilities and accountability, chronic dependence on others – all of these are the opposite of what our first nations were about. And all of these factors are taking our first nations away from their essence from the values that defined them for tens of thousands of years.
I believe the suicide epidemic can only be cured by our people and our nations regaining their sense of purpose and the knowledge that they do have control over their lives. By healing our nations.
Speech by Nyunggai Warren Mundine
Suicide and Self Harm Prevention Conference