Using Employment to Provide a Sense of Meaning and Purpose as a way of Reducing Aboriginal Suicide
People need love, a sense of purpose, and something to look forward to. Unfortunately for many remote Indigenous people, their relationships are frequently fraught with violence, they don’t have jobs, and life has taught them not to hope for much or dream of a better future. (Sara Hudson, 2016)
Aboriginal suicide impacts not only Aboriginal Australians, but all Australians. It is a topic I have written on before, but upon seeing this video, I have been motivated to write again. While suicide rates are elevated for all ages for Aboriginal Australians(around twice the rate for non-Aboriginal Australians), the problem is particularly pronounced for 15–24 year olds who are nearly four times as likely to suicide as their non-Aboriginal peers.These statistics have precipitated one of the largest inquests in Australia in recent years, with a focus on the suicides of 13 young Aboriginal people in the Kimberley region.
Despite much talking and effort, there appears to be little evidence of any real progress towards reducing Aboriginal suicides. Here I provide a fresh and practical approach to the seemingly intractable problem of Aboriginal suicide. What I offer is not the only solution, but it is a solution often overlooked. In sum, given that suicide is preceded by emotional pain associated with a deep sense that one’s life is meaningless, then engagement in meaningful activities that allows one to make positive contributions to others is an effective way of preventing the emotional pain. Employment is one activity that can meet this need – a solution that has been noted in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project Report.
Underlying Causes of Suicide
At one level, there are many different catalysts that raise the likelihood of suicide: broken relationships, major financial crises, humiliating experiences, social isolation, and low feelings of belongingness. These catalysts are closely related with the tortured internal belief that life is too painful and that there is little hope of improvement. This results in an increasingly returning internal question of, “How can I end the pain?”
The pain preceding suicide, usually, but not always, refers to psychological or emotional pain. However, pain alone is not sufficient for suicidal ideation. If a person is in pain, but believes their situation can improve, then they are less likely to develop suicidal ideation. Therefore, a sense of hopelessness is needed in addition for suicidal ideation to occur. Any preventative strategy must therefore promote a sense of hope. Just having someone believe in you and express positive views regarding how to deal with day-to-day life can sometimes be enough to provide hope. The sad fact is that many Aboriginal people simply do not have ready access to such help or positive role models.
Stop Playing the Blame Game
Sadly, Aboriginal people are constantly bombarded with doom and gloom messages. Consider this comment by Gerry Georgatos:
It is an abomination when Australia, one of the world’s elite high income nations, stands idly by while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 14 years of age and less are eight times more likely to suicide than non-Aboriginal children.
Such vague messages only drive the victim brigade into a state of excited frenzy and do very little to help Aboriginal people feel inspired. Instead of naming names, we read that ‘Australia’ is idly standing by. Who exactly is Australia? To respond in a meaningful way to such a vague statement, is like trying to nail a vapour to the wall.
Certainly, the message of “You are not responsible but someone else (e.g., government) is primarily responsible for solving your problems and making you feel good” has obvious and seductive appeal, which is why it is so popular. Upon hearing this poisonous message individuals are temporarily relieved of any responsibility and have a convenient diversion from playing an active part in addressing their own problems. It is so much easier to direct responsibility for one’s personal happiness outwards (e.g., the government, the economy, etc.) than inwards. “It’s not my fault” has had a soothing appeal since the Garden of Eden and has been no more effective in solving our problems today than it was back then. The short-term gain of evading responsibility for what I can change by focusing on what I can’t change (such as government policy) is inseparable from the long-term pain of dependency, powerlessness, and heartache.
When a person suicides, surviving friends and family are left wondering “Why?” Not knowing why can be nearly as painful as the preventable loss of their loved one. Some may state: “If I only I had done more.” Guilt creeps in. However, identifying an assumed external reason for suicide, such as government, can give the impression that a cause has been identified. Identifying the assumed guilty culprit (the government) can alleviate one’s own guilt. Thoughts of “If I only I had done more” can be replaced with “I did all I could, but the lousy (white) government let us down.” But such misplaced blame only worsens problems – people begin to believe that government has far more control over their lives than they do themselves. Believing that one’s fate is in the hands of another, such as the government, or the ‘system’, breeds a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. When government are blamed, everyone is happy it would seem. Blaming government:
enables the messenger of this news to play the part of hero, saint, and saviour;
allows those reading the news that government are to blame to sit back and also play the blame game and feel a sense of moral righteousness;
reduces guilt among surviving friends and family; and
creates a common enemy (the government) which can then become the dumping ground and target for blame for other problems.
However, such happiness is short lived and it comes at a cost – more suicides.
I agree with Tom Calma when he states:
And for those organisations and social media sources that love promoting the message that government are evil and the cause of all the problems that face Aboriginal people, consider what harm your message is doing.
Towards a Solution
In offering an effective solution to the problem of Aboriginal suicide, it is necessary to frame the issue differently from how it is usually presented. First, suicidal behaviour (along with other associated behaviours such as self-harm and antisocial behaviour) needs to be seen as a symptom of a deeper psychological problem and not the problem itself. The pre-conditions for suicide are feelings of meaninglessness, helplessness, and hopelessness. Second, more lives will be saved by preventing Aboriginal people from thinking about suicide (i.e., suicidal ideation) in the first place. That is, it is better to work towards preventing people from reaching the sometimes unrecoverable stage of chronic emotional pain that follows from feelings of meaninglessness, helplessness, and hopelessness, than it is to attempt interventions at the later stage of suicide contemplation when these three feelings have gripped the individual. Adopting this approach will assist in reducing other problems such as self-harm, substance abuse, and foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, all of which affect Aboriginal people in elevated rates.
It’s about Jobs
Given the association between suicide risk and unemployment, and that Aboriginal people experience elevated unemployment rates, improving employment opportunities for Aboriginal people must form part of any strategy to address the problem of Aboriginal suicide. Engagement in meaningful employment allows a person—whether they be Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal—the opportunity to make meaningful contributions within social settings that can offer positive rewards of both a material and psychosocial nature. A person’s life is largely defined by their actions, and employment has always been a potentially effective way of preventing the emotional pain that comes from a sense of meaninglessness. However, while improving employment opportunities for unemployed Aboriginal Australians is already a national priority because of its economic benefits, it is typically overlooked as a strategy for reducing elevated suicide rates and other maladies.
In addition to the obvious economic benefits employment brings (which in itself can be a buffer against suicide) it can also be a highly significant means for achieving a sense of personal meaning in one’s life. Ensuring Aboriginal people have ready access to employment opportunities contributes to building self-esteem. These benefits are the natural consequence of participating in learning new skills, taking responsibility, and engaging in activities that contribute to the good of others with whom they then feel a greater affinity and sense of connection. Being employed is therefore responsive to the psychological, social, spiritual, and material needs of individuals.
However, for some parts of Australia where Aboriginal people reside, such as remote communities, the potential for meaningful employment is very limited, and in many cases, totally absent. Given the lack of employment opportunities, there is still a need to help those who are experiencing suicidal ideation. Reducing the high rate of suicide among Aboriginal people therefore requires short-term and long-term responses—and maybe some very tough decisions regarding those residential locations that are devoid of any real potential for either gainful employment or respected occupation.
Finally, the problem of high suicide rates among Aboriginal youth has another serious twist. Many of these young people who are contemplating suicide are not old enough to work. However, it can reasonably be expected that when the adults in these youths’ lives are leading meaningful lives resulting from being employed, this will have a flow on effect as positive role models of hope for these children.
Certainly there is a role for government in preventing suicide. In remote communities where there is potential for economic development and prosperity, then there should be long-term investment. However, in those locations (the type where blacktivists would never dream of living in), then a sensible and sensitive exit strategy is needed, so that the people can relocate to where there is opportunity. The sorts of places I’m thinking about are those places where the Black Lives Matter army live.
Wayne Dyer has stated “When you are at peace with yourself, it is virtually impossible to do things to yourself that are destructive.” Peace comes from having meaning in one’s life and connection with others. Far too many Aboriginal people live in areas where their chances of finding meaning are limited. And finding peace can be difficult when they constantly hear that racism is rampant and that they should be suffering from colonisation, government, Australia Day, that a treaty is their saviour, and that their lives should revolve around their Aboriginal ancestry. Fortunately, there are many who don’t buy the poisonous nonsense.
Gerry Georgatos is a researcher in Indigenous suicide prevention. As I mentioned him earlier in this article, I thought it appropriate to have a Q&A exchange with him. I have asked Gerry 2 questions and he has asked me 2 questions.
Questions for Gerry
Q 1. What effect do you think the constant message of “Government are to blame” has on Aboriginal people?
Where Governments are responsible for the degradation and deprivations of remote and regional living conditions, the perpetuation of the stalwart truth that Governments are culprit hence validates marginalised peoples, that they are being heard, that that they are not at fault, that there are shared understandings of the challenges that they have to overwhelm. Censoring the truth internalises the grief and this has a toxic effect.
Q 2. Sexual abuse plays a major role in Aboriginal suicide, but until recently we would hear very little about it. Why is that?
Tragically, human beings while capable of great good are also capable of diabolical cruelties. Wherever in our world there is ongoing marginalisation and people drowning in poverty there are more pronounced aberrant behaviours by many more people than otherwise. Sexual abuses are tragically evident among the marginalised and for some lead to ruined lives and for others to suicide. However, we do hear about it, some are hostile to it as evident and others subsume it as matter of fact where there is chronic and extensive poverty. There should never be any censorship of any truth. It is my view that the ability to discover the truth is outstripped by the capacity to manifest deceit.
Questions for Anthony
Q 1. Why are there regions and communities throughout Australia where no child completes school, where most children do not attend school, where most residents do not have any employment?
Simply because often these areas are not sustainable. They require a critical mass of people who are skilled or willing to be mentored and trained. If the children don’t see the parents working, they will lack aspirations. Further, teaching in these places is challenging and it is hard to attract quality teachers who will stay there for at least five years. We need to look at those schools where the children are excelling and ask “why?” then replicate the success. Gerry you have stated: "We have to restore hope. And to restore hope, we have to actually create opportunity for people in these communities." before, and that is good. However, the truth is, sometimes the opportunities lie outside the communities. We need to face the truth about some of these locations: "There should never be any censorship of any truth."
Q 2. Why are there deplorable levels of poverty for more than a third of the population of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders?
This question is partly answered by my answer to the first question – location, location, location. Now for those Indigenous people living in urban settings, there are many successes, but we do need more. A focus on education, training, and jobs should be priority and not nonsense like treaties, sovereignty, Australia Day protests, etc. Nor should the people be subjected to the constant doomsday messages of “racism is holding you back” or “government are to blame” or “you are a victim of transgenerational trauma.” I have spoken about solutions here and here previously.