There Is No Reconciliation Until Australia Acts On Indigenous Suicide

Vanessa Turnbull-Roberts

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Content warning: this article discusses suicide. 

To heal the nation, we must heal our First Nations, and this process is overdue. Australia should be hanging its head in shame, but I will continue to raise my fist. Because the future is black, the future is strong. And it is not a privilege to live; it is a right.

I lost one of my best friends — a proud Torres Strait Islander and Cornish man from Thursday Island — and my sacred mother to suicide. Just recently, I almost lost myself.

To some, I am a writer, an advocate, a law student, a social work student, a friend, a stranger. But to many, I see kin, and I see family. I have seen the love from non-Indigenous brothers and sisters, and I have felt the fire and strength prevails with my proud Indigenous brothers and sisters.

My friend and dear sister convinced me to stay the night instead of leaving, and I woke up the next day, doing my best to access support. Still to this day, she does not know that it was the convincing of staying, love, and action, that allowed me to be here to write this. For many, as we know, this support is not always available. For that, I am so sorry.

Suicide does not discriminate, but there is a disproportionate impact that Indigenous Australia is facing. In three weeks in January, eight Indigenous children — some as young as 12 — took their own lives. About 5 per cent of Australian children under 17 are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, but 40 per cent of the children who took their lives last year were Indigenous. Of the 77 Indigenous people who committed suicide this year, 74 were living below the poverty line, 71 lived in social housing, and three were homeless.

I am not afraid to talk about it, and neither should you be.

Who is speaking about it? And why is this not a national calling for help?

Suicide is not a new topic to me, nor is it new to those around me. As I still to this day mourn the suicide of my mother, and one of my closest friends, I sit alongside my brothers and sisters, near and far, listening to the pain in their voices as they mourn those they have loved and lost through the process of suicide.

First Nations people have felt the impacts since the very first moments of colonisation. The alarming rate of suicide and institutionalisation must be addressed. I am not afraid to talk about it, and neither should you be.

This past week many workplaces, schools, and organisations celebrated Reconciliation Week, but we are more important than just those seven days a year. My people are the first sunrise, the last sunset, and the longest, living still existing culture in the world, we are every day, every night, every minute.

Many hold different stances on Reconciliation Week; however, when I woke up last weekend reading that the number of individuals who have died from mental illness throughout these past five months alone has climbed to 77, it was hard to remain silent.

This is not reconciliation, this is permanent destruction to families, communities, and individuals across the nation. And they are not to blame. While many celebrate, most of our communities will be mourning the pain.

Some will say this is a humanitarian issue, but this is a political issue. Our broken governance and the systems that follow have failed. In our communities where the rates of suicide are high, we too often see quick-emerging pilot programs implemented for short periods of time. This risks the trauma re-occurring. Limited community-led and supported initiatives and programs are available for long term solutions.

We don’t see accountability from the systems that exist, owning the role that they have played, which ultimately stems from neo-imperialism and the colonial pain that divides our people. We are the healers of the nations throughout this country, yet everyday Indigenous Australia is struggling to heal due to the colonial harm that exists.

We are in some of the heaviest times. Our land is dying, which means our people are dying. Australia is not blinking at the pain that exists in our backyard, and this should be a national concern in itself. Our children are born carrying inter-generational trauma, then raised in a country that still does not see justice prevail. Indigenous children are more than likely to be targeted than supported, just like our kids are more than likely to end up incarcerated than graduate high school. And just like we have seen in recent months, our kids are more likely to commit suicide.

Indigenous protest

Wiradjuri warrior Joe Williams said, “we would have had over five to ten psychologists around a campfire having the conversation” and releasing the pain that builds up within. Today, we are lucky to see someone within the first few months of needed professional and personal intervention support. There is an urgent need for more service provisions and resources in communities, being run, led and supported by and for community.

I don’t want to see another child take their life. Almost every fortnight Indigenous Australia is protesting for the rights of those we have lost. Whether it’s a death in custody, a child stripped away from family and community being placed into Out of Home Care, not having access to our basic water rights and survival resources due to eco-genocides, or taking our lives due to the pain that prevails from colonialism.

We are protesting for our basic right to live. Suicide is no way to die, and it’s time we do more than talk about it, it’s time we listen to what our children need. We must come together and build safe spaces that allow for our children to know home, know safety, and be provided with state of the art professional and personal support. Poverty is not a crime, and Australia has a responsibility to show up. When we heal our women and children, we heal us — which ultimately heals our future.

There is no real reconciliation until we are provided with every opportunity to reconcile with ourselves.

There is no real reconciliation until we are provided with every opportunity to reconcile with ourselves.

We must walk with our children, listen deeper, and hold closer. It’s our children’s right to live free from oppressive practices and pain. I see the staunchness in our children, I see the resilience in their strength. Yet every year as they grow older, they are growing closer to the harm of society.

We have a responsibility to protect our children, from the state, from the demons and from the pain that prevails. When we heal our children, we heal us, which ultimately heals our future. Continue to raise your fist.

It is not a privilege to live; it is a right.

Vanessa Turnbull-Roberts is a proud Bundjalung woman who wants to shed light on the lives we have lost through an unjust process. Vanessa has requested her fee for this article be donated to The First Nations Homelessness Project

If you are struggling, please reach out. Your pain does not need to echo through your body, mind and spirit.

If you need support, both Lifeline on 13 11 14 and the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 offer 24-hour assistance. For further information about youth mental health, both Headspace and Reach Out can provide guidance. You can also talk to a medical professional or someone you trust.