Suicidal Thoughts

No doubt most caring Australians are appalled by the high rates of indigenous suicide, particularly among the young. It really is a blight on Australian society and surely we must strive to do better.

Those struggling to find answers to this dilemma often point to the disadvantages and indignities to which many of our indigenous population are subjected. They talk about the afflictions of colonisation and racism. They paint a picture of indigenous people as perpetual victims who must be saved from the oppression of Western civilisation. I have written in the past of the futility of this approach.

When it comes to suicide let me suggest we should start with a fresh approach. It is useful to begin with some precepts that are common to all humanity. Whilst indigenous people have come to dominate statistics of suicide, others are also so afflicted. Because suicide is not exclusively an indigenous problem, and it seems to me beneficial to step outside the racial stereotypes. Instead of jumping immediately to indigenous victimhood as the root cause, I would suggest that perhaps we should stand back for a moment and analyse the factors that lead to suicidal tendencies before we rush to prescribe solutions.

To achieve this we should spend a little more time in understanding the fundamental drivers of suicide. It is very easy to recommend that more services are needed to protect those with suicidal tendencies to the detriment of committing resources to reducing the platform of helplessness and despair that was the underlying causal factor. If you like, we need to avoid the trap of spending too much effort in ameliorating the symptoms at the expense of ignoring the underlying malaise.

To begin with, let us revisit what it means to be human, This is an extract from the little book I wrote with my good friend, Dr Phil Harker, Humanity at Work.

In common with all physical life on the planet, we humans have a body. From our body we derive physical needs. If we don’t satisfy our physical needs we die – physically. Fulfilment of our physical needs allows us to survive. We should temper this with the thoughts of the evolutionary psychologists, that our physical needs are not only designed to secure our survival but are designed as well to secure the survival of our genes. Consequently our repertoire of needs is not only aimed at ensuring our own physical survival but at propagation of the species, the nurturing and protection of our offspring, and the well-being of those that share our genetic inheritance.

In common with all animals on the planet, we humans have a brain. Through the cognitive processes of our brains we are able to discern the world and make decisions. From this mental capacity comes our second set of needs, one that we share with all the animals of the world. The second set of needs are our social needs. Like all animals, we have the capacity to be aware of our outer world and to respond to it through the processes of thinking, feeling, and decision making. Like all animals we are intimately connected through strong emotional bonds to our fellow creatures, particularly those of our own species. If we do not find reasonable satisfaction for our social needs we die – emotionally (and sometimes even physically). Fulfilment of our social needs allows us to cope emotionally.

The third set of needs are spiritual needs – needs for meaning, the uniquely human needs. If we don’t supply our spiritual needs and fail to find meaning in our lives we die – spiritually (and sometimes emotionally and physically). Fulfilment of our spiritual needs and gaining a sense of personal worth through finding meaning and purpose in our lives is needed if we are going to experience our full humanity. Meeting these needs provides a transcendent sense of well-being, i.e. a sense of wellbeing that transcends the condition of our immediate circumstances.

Unfortunately, when considering human needs, we have been somewhat misled by American psychologist, Abraham Maslow. As most of you would know, Maslow stipulated that humans were confronted with a hierarchy of needs. In order of priority Maslow posited that human needs were:

  • Physiological,
  • Safety,
  • Love/belonging,
  • Esteem, and
  • Self-actualisation.

His assumption was that until the first needs were reasonably attended to, a person wouldn’t move to pursue the higher level needs. But if we look at human needs in this way with our physiological and safety needs being at the top of the hierarchy, it implies that for human beings our first priority is securing our physical existence. And surely that is true for most of us. But if it were universally true, no one would ever commit suicide. What we have learnt since Maslow is that a significant number of people put their needs for self-esteem in front of their physical needs and they make the decision that rather than endure in a social environment that does not value their self-worth, they would rather die.

So this is why people commit suicide. Largely it is because their spiritual needs (mentioned above) are not being met. When faced with a future devoid of a robust sense of self and without meaning and purpose in their lives, they fall into despair, and then sometimes take their own lives, not perceiving any other escape route.

The German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche understood the power of this spiritual connection for human beings. He wrote:

He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.

In previous essays I have explained that the principal characteristic of human beings that facilitates our humanity is that we are self-aware. Not only do we perceive the outer world, gather data, make decisions and act on them, but we are aware that we are doing these things. We are conscious of our deliberations, we reflect and we project into the future. We possess memory that enables us to relive our perceived past. We have imagination that enables us to anticipate our perceived future. Consequently, we experience some continuity of self from the past to the present and into the future. Because we are able thus to build up a picture of an existence beyond the mere now, an existence that seems to span time past and with prospect of continuing into some indefinite future, we seek to render these activities meaningful. We look for motives and intent. As rational beings we have always sought to understand our external world and its processes. As self-aware humans we also seek such understanding of our internal world and its processes. This is the source of our defining human needs, our spiritual needs, the need for purpose and meaning in our lives.

There was no one who put this position more forcibly and more convincingly than Viktor Frankl. Frankl was an Austrian and also a doctor of medicine and a psychiatrist. Because he was a Jew he was incarcerated by the Germans in concentration camps during the Second World War and because of his training was given the role of taking care of many unfortunates who had also been imprisoned. After the War he recalled his experiences and noted that the defining characteristic of those who survived these dreadful privations (compared with those who perished) was that the survivors mostly had a purpose, a sense of meaning in their lives. He established a branch of psychology, called logotherapy, which was predicated on the notion that people’s lives were more fulfilling when they could see a sense of purpose and meaning in them. (Fittingly, Frankl’s most famous book was titled Man’s Search for Meaning.)

This is the essential nature of what it means to be human. Uniquely among living organisms we have self-awareness. Our self-awareness leads us to ask of ourselves, “Why are we here. What is the purpose of our lives?” Human beings, then, are meaning makers and purpose seekers. This is the basis of our spirituality. Satisfying our physical needs enables us to physically exist. Satisfying our social needs enable us to prosper emotionally and have a sense of community. Satisfying our spiritual needs provide us with a sense of purpose and fulfilment.

So it might be said that those who have a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives are more likely to be resilient in the face of life’s adversities. And increasing our resilience in the face of such adversity should, perhaps, be our top priority in protecting the well-being of human beings. (There are other ways too, of course, to build our resilience. I have touched on these in previous essays and in order not to allow this essay become too long and complex I would recommend, if you have the interest, that you scroll through my archives to access them.)

It is interesting how many of the programs aimed at suicide prevention focus more on removing the stressors from those effected. That becomes a never ending process because more and more stressors become obvious. But increasing resilience is much more effective because it makes people able to resist the stressors no matter where they come from. Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson in his book, 12 Rules for Life, alluded to this when he wrote:

It is far better to render Beings in your care competent than to protect them.

As a corollary to this we must all concede that no one can avoid facing life’s difficulties. Consequently it is more useful to help people cope with difficulty rather than seeking to always shield them from difficulty.

In this regard I have often quoted M Scott Peck who began his great little book The Road Less Travelled in this way:

Life is difficult.

This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

Buddhism has come to a similar conclusion. This is embedded in The Four Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth states that:

Life entails suffering.

To live means to suffer, because human nature is not perfect and neither is the world we live in. During our lifetime, we inevitably have to endure physical suffering such as pain, sickness, injury, tiredness, old age, and eventually death; and we have to endure psychological suffering like sadness, fear, frustration, disappointment, and depression. Although there are different degrees of suffering and there are also positive experiences in life that we perceive as the opposite of suffering, such as ease, comfort and happiness, life in its totality is imperfect and incomplete, because our world is subject to impermanence. This means we are never able to keep permanently what we strive for, and just as happy moments pass by, we ourselves and our loved ones will pass away one day, too.

Consequently, as per Jordan Peterson’s quote above, knowing that suffering is inevitable our best defence will always be to try to improve a person’s resilience rather than shelter them from the real world.

Now, whilst it is likely that a person’s physical circumstances might exacerbate an individual’s propensity to suicide, suicide is basically an outcome of a dysfunction of the mind. We know, for example, that many of the world’s poorest people have higher levels of mental well-being than those of us in more prosperous circumstances. This is indeed the nature of spirituality – it seeks to transcend our physical circumstances. So what is this dysfunction of the mind that might propel people towards suicide?

The famous psychologist, William Glasser said,

All psychological problems, from the slightest neurosis to the deepest psychoses are symptomatic of the frustration of the fundamental human need for a sense of personal worth. The depth and duration of the symptomatic problem (phobias, guilt, complexes, paranoia, etc) are only indicative of the depth and duration of the deprivation of self-esteem.

And of course the manifestation of this problem, at its extreme, is suicide.

Then, from listening to the findings of eminent psychologists we come to the conclusion that human well-being is enhanced by a sense of self-worth. And drawing on our knowledge of the impact of human needs, we come to the conclusion that self-worth is underpinned by some reasonable satisfying of our spiritual needs.

Now, we need to view all of this in the current historical context. In the past many of us derived meaning from our lives through involvement and association with the institutions of church, state and family. Unfortunately the influence of these institutions is on the decline. Consequently more and more people are seeking elsewhere for purpose in their lives. Although there are still many that gain a sense of meaning through their families and their religious beliefs a growing number are looking to find that meaning through what they do at work.

Hence one strategy for increasing a person’s sense of self-worth, is gaining employment in meaningful work. Many people (unfortunately in some respects) base a large part of their sense of identity on their employment. When you meet someone new, often the first question you will be asked is, “What do you do?” This makes unemployment a double tragedy for the individual because not only does it deprive the unemployed of their financial independence, it also diminishes them by eliminating one important source of a sense of identity.

So having built a case for investing in a sense of self-worth as an antidote to suicide, what does that mean in practical terms? And whilst the case I have made is universal with no particular concession to race (or indeed other identifiers) let us ponder on what it might mean from the viewpoint of indigenous suicide.

To begin with we know that those indigenous communities that demonstrate the highest rates of suicide are characterised by low employment, poor school attendance and high dependence on welfare. These are pretty strong indicators of a lack of a sense of meaning and purpose in the lives of the inhabitants of those communities. So this I believe is where we should concentrate our efforts.

With respect to indigenous welfare I am reminded of a quote from the great American philosopher Henry David Thoreau. He wrote:

For every thousand hacking at the leaves of a problem, there is one getting at the roots.

And that seems to me to characterise well our efforts to improve indigenous welfare. There has been far too much effort on hacking away at the leaves and not enough attention paid to getting to the roots. It is the continual “hacking at the leaves” that keeps the Aboriginal industry alive and thriving.

Dr Jeremy Sammut, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, in his insightful book The Madness of Australian Child Protection writes:

The welfare of Indigenous Australians, particularly of women and children, has been and continues to be sacrificed in the service of a political ideology that, to the nation’s shame, has ill-served the most disadvantaged members of Australian society.

So then my thesis is that keeping indigenous children in school and subsequently getting them into gainful employment is probably the best long-term strategy for reducing suicide numbers, particularly amongst the young. Now this is particularly difficult for those residing in remote communities where there is no real economy. And we should give serious consideration to getting those children into more healthy environments where attending school and gaining employment is the norm and not the exception.

And of course giving indigenous children a proper education and subsequently gaining employment for them is the precursor for resolving most of the other areas of indigenous disadvantage.


Many of those I correspond with have a far more intimate knowledge of indigenous issues than I do, particularly with respect to the appalling conditions of the remote indigenous communities. They often relate stories about how, with the failing family structures in many of those communities, it is the grandmothers who step in to try to provide care for those children their own children have largely abandoned. These elderly women make heroic attempts tp provide sustenance for their grandchildren and shelter them from the abuse and neglect of their biological parents.

Now, I have never seen statistics to this effect, but I am willing to bet the incidence of suicide in this coterie of grandmothers is very low. And why might this be so? In support of my thesis, this group of indigenous people has a real sense of purpose. They go to extraordinary lengths to sustain their grandchildren. That would seem to me to make their lives meaningful. They have stepped in to fill the void that their own children’s self-indulgence and lack of purpose has created. They no doubt live difficult lives but at least they have goals and aspirations that their own progeny seem to be blind to. More power to them!

5 Replies to “Suicidal Thoughts”

  1. A well thought out, logical step by step explanation to both the problem and the solution to indigenous youth suicide. Congratulations and thank you Ted.

  2. “The welfare of Indigenous Australians, particularly of women and children, has been and continues to be sacrificed in the service of a political ideology that, to the nation’s shame, has ill-served the most disadvantaged members of Australian society.
    So then my thesis is that keeping indigenous children in school and subsequently getting them into gainful employment is probably the best long-term strategy for reducing suicide numbers, particularly amongst the young. Now this is particularly difficult for those residing in remote communities where there is no real economy. And we should give serious consideration to getting those children into more healthy environments where attending school and gaining employment is the norm and not the exception.”

    Totally agree, unfortunately though it seems the majority of Australians have been led to believe, erroneously in my opinion, that taking children of Aboriginal descent out of dysfunctional families is little more than kidnapping them and that being removed from their culture is life threatening, and not the other way around, which is how I see it, know it.

  3. Great essay Ted. Since retiring two years ago I struggle to find real purpose in life. I spent 37 years in emergency services with around 30 in either training or a senior role in operational planning. It all seemed to be purposeful with a real sense of making a difference. Fast forward to retirement and I struggle to find a sense of higher purpose. Your essay resonates with where I am at the moment and motivates me to stop wallowing and go and find that purpose. Retirement doesn’t mean amnesia so all I need is to find a meaningful outlet for all those years of acquired knowledge.

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