Saturday, 24 March 2012

Aspects and Categories of Aboriginal Suicide

The novelist and suicide, Cesare Pavese, once said that ‘no one ever lacks a good reason for suicide’. While there are factors, or ‘reasons’, in Aboriginal suicide which are seemingly universal, there are important aspects which make it different. These differences need to be stressed, recognised, absorbed, appreciated and acted
upon if any prevention or alleviation strategies are to be attempted. There are also regional differences—not only between states and territories, but within states—requiring specific attention. Continuing a philosophy and policy of locating Aboriginal suicide in ‘mainstream’ suicide, or of footnoting or sidelining ‘indigenous origin’ suicide as an interesting but marginally different genre, is unacceptable and unproductive. There is a separate Aboriginal suicidology—perhaps even separate Aboriginal suicidologies.

(a) ‘Yaandi’
There is much evidence from witnesses that youth suicide is commonly associated with cannabis, or yaandi, an Aboriginal term for the substance. The association can be categorised not so much as an addiction but as an obsession with the substance. In at least six instances in our study, young men, between 16 and 20, insisted on being physically near a constant supply. A few left solid family circles to live out bush,where they could be close to their own small cultivation. Several were found hanged at those sites. Many autopsy reports reveal the presence of cannabis.

Police across the State were adamant that the worst case scenarios for them are dealing with youth in pubs at closing time, where the drinkers are also cannabis users. They rate, in degrees of difficulty, a plain drinker as a 3 out of 10 problem, a cannabis user as a 6, and a mix of the two as an 8 or 9. They assert that there is an apparent calm and laid-back quality to the marijuana men, but that they are prone to unexpected outbursts of violence. There can be no doubt that, in the past twenty years, Aboriginal youth has taken strongly to this substance: it is omnipresent, is used regularly, and is cultivated and sold in several communities. There is circumstantial evidence that hydroponically grown cannabis magnifies behavioural change. It is also said to be more addictive. It is chemically more potent, and produces more explosive behavior in situations of violence, arrest, and detention in cells. It is also probable that a form of psychosis results from cannabis obsession and overuse.

(b) Suicide Notes
Notes are extremely rare in Aboriginal suicide. We have seen evidence of notes in possibly no more than four or five cases for the periods 1995 to 1998. Coroners vary in their estimates of note-leaving in non-Aboriginal suicide, but commonly suggest 50per cent. (The inquests officer in Dunedin informed us that possibly 60 per cent of Maori youth suicides in the South Island leave notes.) The context here is confirmed suicide verdicts, not those who overdose deliberately, or crash into the only tree on either side of the road.

There are many evidentiary signs of suicide apart from the note. I believe the note is an exaggerated facet of suicide deriving from nineteenth century fiction and twentieth century films. At best, it is indicative of literacy skills, which few young Aborigines have, and of a premeditative, reflective and contemplative disposition or action (as shown in the not uncommon case of German Jews).

(c) Illiteracy as a contributing factor
Illiteracy is a key to much of this. The majority of Aboriginal youth showing suicidal behaviour cannot read or write, or cannot read sufficiently well to absorb other than the most elementary popular materials, like picture magazines. In a group, the one or two who can read cover for the others, as interpreter or spokesperson. Disguise of illiteracy is commonplace. The illiterate can become surprisingly well-informed through omnipresent television and radio, even without tuning into the ‘serious’ wavelengths of electronic communications.

Illiteracy creates its own frustrations and anger. Incomprehension alienates, as does being inarticulate. Violence is often the only means of expressing feelings: physicality, of whatever kind, is a substitute for a lack of verbal skills. Most Aborigines speak Aboriginal English. It is a lingua franca, perhaps a language of its own, with a different grammar, syntax, vocabulary, terminology, idiom, sign language and body language. This should not come as a startling discovery: several educators and linguists have for long advocated Aboriginal English as a medium of school instruction. Those providing services ought to be informed of, and educated about, this language. Resorting to pidgin and child-talk is not appropriate. In short, there is no intellectual intercourse between youth and the people they deal with in their external lives. The ensuing frustration is relevant to the violence, slashing up, self-mutilation, and self-destruction.

There may even be an important correlation between illiteracy and deafness. The Maori Health Research Unit at the Dunedin medical school funds a program to install grommets in children’s ears to help with chronic ‘glue ear’ infection, a common cause of deafness. At least 20 per cent of Maori prison inmates who are considered to be at risk for suicide are seriously deaf. We know that there is widespread hearing deficiency in Aboriginal youth, and the relationship between ‘glue ear’, illiteracy and suicidal behaviour may be worth pursuing.

(d) A different typology of suicide
It may be possible to construct a profile or paradigm of Aboriginal suicide, partly from existing theories, classifications and categories, and partly from some innovative classification arising from this study. The following might prove worthy of consideration, as a way towards achieving an understanding of that which Hillman calls the ‘soul’ of the suicide.

(i) The ‘political’ suicides
‘Political’ may seem a bizarre word to use in this context. It is also difficult to define when used in the phrase ‘making a political statement’. Konrad Kwiet has given has given us insight into ‘political’ suicides by German Jews as early as1933. In a farewell letter, Fritz Rosenfelder said he was ‘unable to go on living with the knowledge that the movement to which national Germany is looking for salvation considers him a traitor to the fatherland ... I leave without hate or anger ... and so I have chosen a voluntary death in order to shock my Christian friends into awareness.’ At best, this type of suicide is a public declaration of anger or grievance designed to gain a hearing, possibly even a response. It is an attempt at power, in Robert Dahl’s classic sense that power is involved where A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do. In my context, it is an effort to move someone, or something, to a response. Some of Aboriginal suicide is of this kind: an ‘I’ll show you’, ‘I’ll get even with you’, a ‘you’ll be sorry’, ‘you’ll lose your job’, ‘you’ll pay for this ...’ statement. A 14-year-old in central New South Wales shot himself in front of his assembled family in 1997. There had been a row about his staying out late at night, and then brandishing (what turned out to be) an unusable rifle, which was taken from him. He found another, usable weapon and announced his ‘equation’: his life in exchange for their loss and sorrow. Several weeks earlier, his 18-year-old cousin, at another central NSW town, shot himself in front of the family, again after a row about his late night hours. These cases appear to be the beginning of a new pattern, namely, shooting in front of an audience, with assertions, or ‘political statements’, about independence, status, or lack of care.

(ii) The ‘respect’ suicides
An even more disturbing variant is the demand for a respect which was seen not be accorded, or was not accorded, in life. Interviews with immediate relatives have confirmed that X or Y, from aged 12 upward, had been ‘nobodies’, seemingly unwanted, often neglected (even though not socially or physically isolated), disrespected or ‘dissed’. That black American expression has not yet reached our shores, but the idea has. These young men are often ‘disempowered’ by the stronger wills or personalities of younger siblings and see themselves as displaced family members. They will take on their older siblings or older boys in general although they are trounced in basketball games, lose the fist fights, the snooker or pool games, the video games. They are given no respect by anyone. Their response has been articulated and overheard in more than a handful of cases: ‘you’ll all have to come to my funeral’. And, of course, everybody does.

The 14-year-old mentioned above was a ‘nobody’ all his life. Constantly moved by his young mother between and within states, he lived with a succession of his mother’s de facto partners. His funeral was something to behold. Four hundred people, including two busloads of Aboriginal prisoners from Broken Hill and another cohort of prisoners from Long Bay in Sydney, came to a town of a thousand residents. (The RCIADIC recommended that funds be available for prisoners to attend funerals of kit hand kin.) At least 30 additional police came to the town to supervise the well-attended wake. The church was overflowing. The lad had his ‘respect’.

Although his case was more ‘political’ in my sense, it illustrates a dictum posited by Sigmund Freud: that ‘our unconscious does not believe in its own death; it behaves as if it were immortal’. Alvarez comments: ‘thus suicide enhances a personality which magically survives’. In other words, young suicide is an act of physical destruction, but the psyche, or soul, or the unconscious, is conceived as continuing to live. Listening to many of the threats, it appears to me that many of these young people believe that they will be there to witness the sorrow, regret, remorse, revenge or respect that their acts will, or did, create. It is suggested in the verb: ‘I’ll see you in trouble’. The Christchurch suicide researcher, Annette Beautrais, tells me that suicide notes from 14to 18-year-old New Zealanders contain messages to the effect that ‘we we will be around watching out for you as we know what you’re doing’.

There is no doubt that much of this kind of suicide occurs in clusters, in families, or in small communities. Five in one Nowra family is an extreme case, perhaps, but the two gunshot suicides discussed above occurred in reasonably proximate towns by boys who were first cousins. This form of ‘respect’ will, I believe, increase and so will the clusters. The universally used term by informants throughout this study is that youth lack ‘self-esteem’. It is a mantra that hopes and seeks to explain and to solve: self-esteem, once achieved, will bring an end to assaults, drug and alcohol-taking, even suicide. However, what constitutes self-esteem is the gamut of factors and forces described thus far in this report. In the final chapter, I describe one or two potentially positive programs which may help illiterate, angry, frustrated, helpless youth to articulate their goals and the obstacles which have to be overcome to achieve them.

(iii) The grieving suicides
Much of Aboriginal life in New South Wales, as elsewhere, is consumed bygrieving for relatives who die in infancy, or die young, or from disease, accidents orvarious kinds of violence. ‘Old’ death, as in a granny or aunty of 80, is less common. Much time is spent at funerals and mourning rituals of a more Western kind. Thewakes that follow cost large amounts of money, especially for quantities of alcoholand food (that the children look forward to consuming). There is almost none of theexpiation, purgation and catharsis which stem from the organised ritual mourningceremonies still practised in Aboriginal northern Australia. One North American study, mentions ‘prolonged unresolved grief’ among Indian youth suicides.

There is, then, a perpetual cycle of grief. The suicide of a popular 33- year-old sportsman in Coffs Harbour, a role model for all, resulted in grief all the way from Sydney to Tweed Heads, and then west, lasting almost a year and a half. He was mourned even by those who were not blood kin. A commonly used term in the suicide literature is ‘copy-cat’. It has a pejorative ring. But what it is, when seen in context, is communing, emulating, joining and not merely imitation. The Menindee grievers are the starkest example we encountered, but there is much evidence from relatives of young male suicides that their lives centred on grief of this kind. There are no mechanisms in place, certainly no appropriate mechanisms or avenues, in any of the communities we visited, for grief counselling.

(iv) The ‘ambivalently rational’ suicides
My sense of ‘rational’ is quite different from Wekstein’s notion of the irremediably ill person who plans an auto-euthanasia. A psychiatrist colleague, Michael Diamond, suggests to me that there is sometimes an ambivalent suicide, in the following sense. A youth feels socially integrated, alive, comradely in his gang or group membership. He feels a ‘high’ in a venture, such as a break-and-enter, especially if there is no detection. He may still feel on a ‘high’ when the group faces arrest, then remand, then court with lawyers representing him. He may retain that ‘high’ when placed in custody. However, when, for example, he falls foul of a warder and is placed on various penalties, or in isolation, he suddenly runs into a brick wall: there is no camaraderie available, no social integration to assist him. He sees, in a rational moment, an answer to his seemingly insoluble dilemma: suicide.

(v) The ‘appealing’ suicides
Emanuel Marx’s study of the social context of violent behaviour (in Israel)contends that appealing violence occurs when a person ‘has reached the end of his tether, and feels unable to achieve a social aim unaided by others. It is a “cry for help”’. It is partly a cry addressed to a public, ‘and partly an attempt to shift some of their obligations towards their dependents onto others’. The person who cannot make that public appeal for help, nor persuade his family to share his (personal and social)responsibilities, engages in violence towards others and finally towards self, as a desperate means to regain the support of his family or kin. An Aboriginal elder and leader in Fingal, South Tweed Heads, believes that suicides occur ‘because life at home is too awful! There are very few normal family relationships.’ In an earlier fieldwork study, I reported the case at Raukkun in South Australia, where an Aboriginal man attacked his brother with an axe early in 1989. Admonished later by the local policeman’s wife, he replied: ‘Sorry, I’ll never do that again: I’ll only hurt myself’. The Director of Booroongen Djugun, near Kempsey, tells me that ‘sometimes kids hang themselves, and in the process you can see that they’re not sure, you can see it on their dead faces.’ He is not the only informant to talk of finding youngsters hanging, but with fingers desperately trying to reverse or stop the process.

(vi) ‘Empowerment’ suicides
Aboriginal youth rarely experience autonomy, self-fulfillment, or personal sovereignty over their physical, material or internal lives. The vague modern term, ‘disempowerment’, does, however, convey this condition. There is an overlap between this phenomenon and the lack of respect.

Elsewhere I have discussed the motives of a number of Aboriginal sportsmen and women: they see sport as the only arena in which, even without education, income and opportunity, they can compete on equal terms. It is their only chance to pit their bodies, minds, energies and skills against an opposition. Henry Collins’s view of boxing expressed this outlook: ‘I felt good when I knocked white blokes out. I knew I was boss in the boxing ring. I showed my superiority ... they showed it outside.’ This embodies what the German sociologist Max Weber meant by power: ‘the chance of a man or of a number of men to realise their own will in a communal action even against the resistance of others who are participating in the action’.

Several parasuicides have indicated that they perceive suicide as their only avenue to ‘realise their own will’. It is their moment of autonomy and empowerment, suggesting that the only ‘thing’ they own is their physical life. For once, fleetingly, they can manage it, dispose of it, even against the opposition of those close to them, or those they see as antagonistic. Hillman has a poignant phrase for this: that within this ‘negative selfishness’, there is ‘a small seed of selfhood’—the suicide’s ‘ultimateempowerment’.

(vii) The ‘lost’ suicides
Many Aboriginal youth feel the direct effects of racism and alienation. Some articulate a sense of emptiness, a loss of culture, especially ritual and spirituality. Others know there is a ‘hole’ in their lives, but don’t know what it is. They suffer the label ‘Aborigine’, yet cannot comprehend what it is in ‘Aborigine’ that causes such antagonism or contempt.

Dr Erahana Ryan, New Zealand’s only female Maori psychiatrist, talks of Maori youth who suffer ‘stress of loss of who they are’. She talks about ‘the emptiness of blighted, warped, eviscerated urban Maori life’. There is a likely parallel in contemporary Aboriginal life.

(e) Who to turn to?
Hopelessness is a universal among youth in such contexts. Phrases like ‘no light at the end of the tunnel’, ‘hopelessness’, ‘no horizons’, ‘no skills’, come off most people’s lips. An important difference, or variation, in the Aboriginal world, is that there is no one in their universe to act as guide, mentor, sign poster in a transition to betterment. They really do have to make decisions unaided. The home is filled with family in like circumstances. There is no classical ministering priest. The school counsellor, even if seen as a guide, is overworked. The usual welfare agencies, even if considered, are there only by appointment, usually on their own premises, nine to five on weekdays. The only constantly available resources are police officers and ACLOs. The police are neither trained for this, nor, clearly, trusted by youth. The ACLOs do yeoman service, but their overload is staggering.

As discussed earlier, there are no ‘guru’ figures, respect figures, trust figures in their young lives. More importantly, they do not have an ‘enlightened witness’ in their lives, the kind of person who psychoanalyst Alice Miller says are not cruel to them and who enable them to become aware of the cruelty done to them by parents or family members. Miller sees the role of a witness as ‘supporting’ and ‘corrective’. Such witnesses have knowledge of the truth of what is being done to the young person, thus allowing them to believe in something while retaining a sense of belonging to humanity. Once they lose that thread of connection to parent, immediate family, or enlightened witness, all is lost.

Asked what they’d like to do in life, several Aboriginal youngsters have told me that they would like to change their present circumstances. But none has any comprehension of how to commence the move from point A to point B. A great many cannot even read about techniques to alter their situation. By contrast, in much of middle-class Australia there is a plethora of help: from teachers, counsellors, careers advisers, tutors, ambitious parents, computer programs, website information, good doctor-patient relationships, access to all manner of advice bureaux: places of help to which they can be directed.

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