AN award-winning mental health expert has denounced the recent politicisation of Queensland farmer George Bender’s suicide to try and “bully or blackmail” policy changes over coal seam gas (CSG) mining.
WA Regional Men’s Heath Initiative founder and Community Educator Julian Krieg has worked successfully on preventing and reducing suicide in rural communities over the past 15 years, especially around drought related pressures.
In 2011, he was awarded the 2011 LIFE Award for Healthy Communities by Suicide Prevention Australia in recognition of his grassroots action supporting and counselling farmers to help resolve social and financial pressures.
This week, Mr Krieg told Fairfax Agricultural Media the politicisation of Mr Bender’s suicide - by blaming it on CSG mining companies seeking access to his farm-land over an extended period of time - was wrong.
He said politicising any suicide to strengthen an argument was “wrong” and that Mr Bender’s “life and death should be respected”.
“When someone takes their own life everyone asks the question, why?” he said.
“But the answer is always complex and in my opinion never because of a single issue.
“While this CSG issue was a contributing factor in this man’s decision, the community should pursue policy change without trying to bully or blackmail change based on this tragedy and remain respectful of the life lost.”
Following Mr Bender’s suicide, Sydney radio broadcaster Alan Jones and Independent Queensland Senator Glenn Lazarus used the tragedy to call for law changes to give farmers powers to stop mining occurring on their land.
Senator Lazarus also demanded the Queensland government pay for the Chinchilla farmers’ funeral and for the matter to be referred to the police.
“I think criminal charges should be laid - we’re talking about manslaughter here - he was bullied to death, this well-respected man,” he said in a statement.
“The government has blood on their hands and it was a senseless death.”
But Mr Krieg said he had serious concerns about media or politicians using any suicide as a way to create emotional responses over a particular issue.
He said it showed a lack of understanding about what’s likely to actually be occurring in the minds of other people, also struggling with the same issues.
“We must remember that when confronted with very difficult and confronting problems most people will have thoughts of suicide,” he said.
“People tend to take action on these thoughts when they feel it has reached a point of hopelessness.
“We need to always remain focused on resolving the situation and providing hope.
“If the mining companies are operating within the current law, what are they guilty of doing?
“If this matter is to be properly resolved the laws must change but that’s a role for the politicians.”
Mr Krieg said some politicians, media commentators and others involved in the debate may need expert guidance or tuition on issues relating to suicide - especially for farmers.
He said suicide was more often the result of a build-up of difficult, unresolved situations or what he called “situational distress” rather than “so called mental health issues”.
“When these situations go on too long they affect our minds and then a suicide can be a consequence,” he said.
“While this issue had been worrying this man for years, I think there would also be other factors involved.”
Mr Krieg said unresolved issues were often the beginning of serious mental health disorders but someone could still be at risk of suicide, despite being undiagnosed professionally.
He said the fact the land access issue had been Mr Bender’s “focus” for so many years meant it was possible he had undiagnosed mental health problems.
Mr Krieg said it was also wrong to push the issue and subsequent claims of blame against CSG companies, ahead of a coroner's report being finalised and potentially made public.
But he said it was also likely the coroner won’t find clear evidence one way or the other.
Mr Krieg said the level of distress faced by Mr Bender and his family, and many others, over land access arrangements, must be resolved.
He said responsibility for these changes rested with State and federal governments because CSG mining companies currently operated the way they do, because of loopholes in the law.
Mr Krieg said the lasting legacy and lesson of Mr Bender’s passing should be an insistence on clarity around the policies and laws governing land access while highlighting the importance of sustainable agricultural production.
He said people should continue to pressure politicians to rectify laws they’re dissatisfied with and always remain hopeful of achieving their desired outcomes, even if feeling suicidal.
“There is always hope, even if the immediate outcome is not what we wanted or expected,” he said.
Mr Krieg is also a member of Suicide Prevention Australia Board and chairman of the WA Rural Financial Counselling Service.
He was a State finalist in 2011 for the Senior Australian of the Year for his work advancing rural men’s health and increasing suicide prevention by changing the traditional culture in rural communities around accepting professional help.
According to data on suicide released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in March this year, 1885 males (16.4 per 100,000) and 637 females (5.5 per 100,000) died by suicide in 2013, equating to an average of 6.9 deaths by suicide in Australia each day.
About three-quarters (74.7 per cent) of people who died by suicide were male, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death for males, the ABS said.
For 24/7 crisis support and suicide prevention services call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit www.lifeline.org.au
Other services include Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467 and Beyondblue: 1300 22 4636