As legal proceedings against the processing centre on Manus Island begin, and Sarah Hanson-Young prepares to visit to the detention centre, we’re asking a lot of questions about the terrible conditions people seeking asylum in Australia are now forced to face. As the evidence of repeated suicide attempts mounts, we keep hoping for lessons to be learnt. Is it possible that we have learned the lessons from past human rights abuses? Can we face the possibility that what we are seeing in action is not ignorance but well-rehearsed cruelty?
There is a recipe for suicide. The most recent research on the conditions that encourage people to kill themselves names a number of key factors that together create such despair and hopelessness that death becomes preferable to living. These conditions are created socially and interpersonally. In other words, we build them together.
The formula goes something like this. I need to see myself as a burden to my family and my community. I need to believe that people would be better off without me. If I then also suffer from alienation or isolation, if I feel apart and as if I don’t belong, life becomes harder to bear. If I then find myself in situations where terrible things happen so often that they become commonplace, then hurting myself becomes more imaginable.
The detention facility on Manus Island and the current changes to asylum seeker support create an environment that encourages the despair, isolation and habitual violence that lead to suicide. Like turning back the boats with the nonsensical explanation that they are unsafe, the current campaign of deterrence encourages deaths for which we can avoid direct responsibility. The message is clear. You may die trying to come here. When you get here you will be unwelcome, unwanted and uncared for. If you stay here, you will be isolated, destitute and of no value.
The message of "no advantage" really translates as a message that there’s no point. No point in asking, no point in trying, no point in living. Whenever your intention is to "send a message", you can be sure you’re not communicating. Not in the two-way street version of shared conversation anyway. Sending a message is usually about not sending a clear message at all, but hoping that by your disinterest, avoidance, stonewalling or grandstanding the other person will somehow do what you want them to do. That they’ll do you the favour of taking responsibility for your actions.
As some writers have astutely pointed out, the media outcry about the terrible conditions on Manus Island is simply facilitating the government’s goal of deterring people from seeking asylum in Australia by spreading the word. Even our crying out has become part of a system of well-targeted punishment.
But of course like the doomed heroes in a horror movie they have to knock on the door anyway. They’ve got no choice. That’s the point.
One of the difficult tasks of therapy is to work with someone’s conflicting choices. Usually one value is present and acknowledged — I want to spend more time with my kids, for example — and another is not acknowledged — for instance, working long hours is the only way I know how to feel good about myself.
Helping someone face that they are making decisions, some of which are based on hidden desires, is a delicate task. It’s hard to face that you’ve had a hand in creating the very painful circumstances you now find yourself in. But if we don’t help each other to face that we are not always acting in line with our stated values, then we just keep the cycle of irresponsible destruction going.
Our current asylum seeker policy is leading to a significant number of deaths. This is not primarily about ignorance or lack of concern. On some level we have to admit that some of us would prefer that people die rather than reach our shores and become part of our communities. We also have to admit that some of us have not bothered to take the plight of asylum seekers into account when we cast our votes. We had other priorities. We have to admit this because it is true. Anything else, any pretending that we are not a part of creating the ideal conditions for accidental death and suicide is farcical.
Our interest in the discussion about Manus Island continues to wax and wane — and we wrestle with facing the truth that waving our arms in outrage has been largely useless. We get stuck in a cycle of repetition when we imagine, like children, that if the powers that be could only see the hurt they’re causing that they would surely just stop it.
How can this be happening? is never the right question. It is happening. Our asylum seeker policy is not the product of ignorance, lack of guidance or foolishness. It is the conscious creation of tiny-hearted people who have taken the lessons of other tiny-hearted people before them, honed them and put them into practice.
ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.