Content warning: This article contains reference to suicide. Please refer to the services at the bottom of this article for support.
Gerry Georgatos has worked extensively in suicide prevention and with people living below the poverty line. In departing from decades of suicide prevention work, Georgatos presents an unlikely argument: that COVID-19 will lead to a decrease in suicides.
At the postvention level, the youngest suicide I have responded to has been of a nine-year-old child. At the prevention level, the youngest suicide attempt I have responded to was of a six-year-old child. Through assertive outreach and intense psychosocial support, I fought to save the life of this young child, to make sure she never attempted suicide again.
It should be unimaginable children so young contemplate suicide. Tragically, the suicide of children is an increasing crisis and a leading cause of death.
I work nearly exclusively with people living below the poverty line, this has been my lot for forty years—the homeless, the marginalised, people in prison, people leaving prison, vulnerable public housing rental families.
The nation’s prisons—more than 100 of them—are filled with the poor. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), nearly 90 per cent of the total prison population has not completed Year 12. For First Nations people in prison, nearly 100 per cent have not completed secondary schooling.
Working with tens and thousands of our poor has brought me to the intersection of their worst despair. The majority of suicidality leads to disordered thinking and cognitive narrowing. However, there is an increasing sliver of suicidality culminating in suicide.
Suicide takes twice as many Australian lives as all other forms of violence combined, including homicides, military deaths and the road toll. The factors that can culminate in suicide are preventable, let us always understand this first and not argue the reductionist idea that suicides are a complex issue. For those of us who work on the front lines of suicidality, we know all too well which factors take lives.
The last decade, the predominant focus of my work has been responding to suicidality. Sadly, I have worked with over 4,000 people, some who without in-person support would not be here with us today. I have been at the forefront of elevating the argument of suicidality as an increasing crisis, and the need to disaggregate to categorical risk groups and risk factors.
So, what you are about to read may come as a surprise. Earlier this year, the intersection with the COVID-19 pandemic led researchers to claim a potential spike in the national suicide toll as high as a 50 percent increase. At the time, I argued we may actually see a decrease.
The lowest quintile of income has always accounted for the most significant proportion of the national suicide toll. People do buckle under socioeconomic stressors which can lead to pronounced multifactor stressors, such as displaced anger, lateral violence, emotional and psychological self-abuse and abuse of others, intrafamilial disputes, and fallout that can bring people into confrontation with ‘community’.
Let us never forget this: the poorer you are, the higher the likelihood of suicidality.
Before COVID-19, the majority of people lived their socioeconomic stressors relatively isolated. For many, bankruptcy carried shameful stigma. The inability to afford essentials for family or for oneself impacted in self-destructive ways.
COVID-19 brought the majority of Australians to a shared understanding. Socioeconomic stressors impacted the many and were not effectively isolated to the fewer. The failure of small or large businesses, the failure of family businesses, the loss of a job, the prospect of bankruptcy, standing in a Centrelink queue, were no longer shameful and stigmatised but rather a communal reckoning.
While others argued a potential spike in suicides, it was my argument that, at worst, we would see much the same or less suicides—but with the exception of one population risk group, which I will refer to later.
Last year, Victoria recorded 709 suicides, its second highest toll ever. In 2018 it recorded its highest toll, 715. In 2017 it recorded 678, in 2016, 634, in 2015, 628, and in 2014, 620.
This year, the Victorian Coroner’s Office, to June 30, recorded 244 suicides—less by over 100 suicides than this time last year and similarly by mid-2018. My experientialism reflects similarly of the suicide toll of most of Australia’s State and Territory jurisdictions.
If what I have described continues, 2020 may record nationally the lowest suicide toll in several years.
The exception has been the categorical population group of First Peoples, who may continue to record a high suicide toll.
One in 17 deaths of First Peoples is a suicide. One in 50 deaths of all Australians is a suicide. Last year, the Victorian Coroner’s Office recorded the highest suicide toll this century of its First Peoples—the loss of 20 lives in 2019. The average suicide toll of Victorian First Peoples, from 2009 to 2019 on an annual basis, was ten suicides per year, but in 2019 this doubled. All lived below the poverty line.
I have long argued that nearly 100 per cent of the suicide toll of Australia’s First Peoples is of people living below the poverty line.
Suicides of First Peoples living above the poverty line is much less than the rate of suicides of Australians living above the poverty line.
I have spent a decade supporting individuals and families affected by suicidality mostly through assertive outreach and intense psychosocial support, and where possible working to improve their life circumstances.
As I leave the suicide prevention space and return to international aid, I leave you with the arguments and imputations of the above. I will continue a dedication over the next year to young people leaving prison and projects to improve their life circumstances. Living with Parkinson’s disease, it was time for me to reassess where I can best serve my fellow sisters and brothers.
Australia’s high suicide rate is underwritten by acute poverty, disadvantage, and marginalisation that should make no sense in one of the world’s wealthiest nations.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental ill-health, call or visit the online resources below:
- Lifeline – 13 11 14, lifeline.org.au
- Beyond Blue – 1300 224 636, beyondblue.org.au/forums
- MensLine – 1300 789 978
- Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
- Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467
- Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet – healthinfonet.ecu.edu.au
By Gerry Georgatos
Gerry Georgatos, the son of CALD migrants, is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher with an experiential focus. He has a Masters in Human Rights Education and a Masters in Social Justice Advocacy & Civil Rights Arbitration. He is the National Coordinator of the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project.