Aboriginal suicides around the nation have spiralled out-of-control, few regions have been spared. Twenty years ago, Aboriginal suicide rates were the equivalent of the national rate but now they are three fold, and in some regions spates of suicide have reached 100 times the national average. Many Australians are asking what are the ways forward? There are those who are working on this but are our governments listening? Most say, our governments are not listening.
Last week, The Stringer attended a national conference on ‘Empowerment’ chaired by Australia’s first Aboriginal psychologist, Professor Pat Dudgeon, who along with Dr Tom Calma heads the Ministerial Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health Suicide Prevention Advisory Group. The national conference drove home the message that the spiralling rates of suicide will come only to an end through ‘Empowerment.’ Peter McConchie of Cultural Lives said the same, so did the Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation directors Robert and Selina Eggington who grief counsel hundreds, so did high profile humanitarian Jeff McMullen and world renowned documentary maker John Pilger.
So what is standing in the way of “Empowerment”? Governments, the Northern Territory Intervention, the bent for assimilation, third-world conditions for more than 100,000 Aboriginal peoples in the world’s second wealthiest nation per capita. Claims by governments that the Northern Territory Intervention is succeeding are tragically laughable when the rate of Aboriginal youth suicide during this period has risen by 160 per cent.
Dr McMullen has been speaking around the clock all over this nation to the critical need for something to be done about the spiralling suicide rates. “The dangerous spiral has emerged over the past three decades, accelerating because of the individual’s loss of control over their life, compounded by the intersection of an epidemic of physical and mental illness. This affects some but not all communities and we should be studying why some places like Yarrabah have a fifteen year success with preventing youth suicide.”
“The key is strong Cultural authority restoring the life out of kilter, expert level medical staff to counsel and respond when kids are in trouble, and follow up care from well supported local community organisations. These children are our responsibility, all of us must,” said Dr McMullen.
Mr Pilger’s much anticipated documentary, ‘Utopia’, will soon be released and it will ram home some powerful messages tantamount to criminal neglect, not just the deaf ears, of governments.
“I have spent two years making my fourth film on Indigenous Australia. ‘Utopia’ is set in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and New South Wales. I’ve used footage I shot 28 years ago, and what has struck me is that there’s virtually no change in remote areas’ – the same poverty, the same lack of services. But what is ‘new’ is the epidemic of suicides.”
“I didn’t think I’d be shocked all over again, but I was. Robert and Selina Eggington at Dumbartung said the suicides and cases of self-harm seemed to be happening almost daily. When I first filmed in Indigenous Australia, suicide was so rare as to be almost unknown. The cause? Non-Indigenous Australia might well ask that question while staring straight in the mirror,” said Mr Pilger.
Next week The Stringer will publish a powerful story of insights from the Eggingtons who describe the origins of the horrific spates of suicide as long established, and that spates of self-harm, premature deaths and suicides decades old of Stolen Generations victims should be taken into account. Mr Eggington said there has been a cultural genocide by previous governments which is still to redressed “that destroys the lives of our people.” Mr Eggington said that historical and cultural identity have been made a liability for Aboriginal peoples, and that the way forward is to for Aboriginal people to take up once again their cultural authority.
Cultural Lives project manager, Mr McConchie has spoken with hundreds of Elders, as have I, and we come to the same conclusions. “Almost non-existent 30 years ago, the rate of suicide and self-harm among the First Australians has reached crisis levels, particularly in remote communities and particularly among youth.”
He said the following factors have been identified by Elders and community leaders, “Unresolved historical and inter-generational trauma.” These include dispossession from traditional lands, assimilation policies, Stolen Generations trauma and racism. “Loss of cultural identity and spiritual connection to land, cross-cultural confusion and erosion of cultural resilience.”
“Unemployment and lack of opportunities.”
“Lack of self-respect and self-confidence, in particular among Indigenous men.”
“One of the initial actions of the Culture Is Life campaign is the development of the Elders Report on Indigenous Youth Suicide. We are travelling across the country, gathering vital messages from senior Elders about the solutions needed to solve the youth suicide crisis. Once completed, the report will be sent – in video and written form – to relevant government agencies, service providers and the philanthropic sector, to push for more appropriate community driven solutions to improving well-being in Indigenous communities in Australia.”
He said that the solutions coming from Elders who have been chosen by their communities to speak to the report, “is to get young people on Country, strengthening them culturally and not letting them get absorbed into white culture from where there is no way back.”
“It is about Indigenous led grass roots solutions,” said Mr McConchie.
The Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Centre’s (KALACC) coordinates the Yirriman Project, which takes 400 young people onto Country each year. But KALACC coordinator Wes Morris said governments have to start funding such projects.
Bardi woman, Professor Dudgeon is leading a powerful team of people from across the nation in putting together ‘The National Empowerment Program’. Professor Dudgeon is looking at securing government funding to establish the program at 12 sites across Australia, from Kuranda and Cherbourg, Queensland, to NSW’s Toomelah, to WA’s Northam and Narrogin.
“Community participation is at the heart of the National Empowerment Program.”
“Solutions have to come from the community, knowledge has to be driven by each local community. End of the day despite some of the fundamentals of the program it is the communities who have to drive their services.”
Bunaba and Gija woman Adele Cox, a member of both the WA Ministerial Council for Suicide Prevention and Australian Suicide Prevention Advisory Council is the national senior consultant for the project. “The project is one of a suite of programs that can be successful.” She pointed out that more apply for funding than funds have been made available. There is a huge unmet need and this unmet need translates to lost lives, situational and multiple traumas, continuing stresses on communities. In a recent funding round for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide prevention programs, of the $13 million made available there were 180 applications, but only less than ten were successful The Yirriman project missed out.
The meet the unmet need it may take hundreds of millions of dollars but so be it, this is about human lives and a suicide crisis never-before-known. Next week, The Stringer and The National Indigenous Times will bring you the disturbing story of how little from the $26 billion spend on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders has actually reached them. Much less than half, most of it consumed not just by misguided policies but on the voracious financial asks of consultants, contractors, bureaucrats – by all the layers of carpetbaggers.
“Our people need to lead the way, there has to be choice not assimilation, each community has different needs,” said Ms Cox.
Last week, Dr McMullen delivered the 42nd William Arnold Oration to the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners in Darwin. He asked, “Has Australia succeeded in offering (Aboriginal) children today a fair and equal chance?”
“No, you must surely wonder are Australians and our governments indifferent or insensitive, or just plain incompetent and unaccountable? The well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children is the single most important test of whether or not Australia becomes a great society.”
“We have so far failed this well-being test as a nation.”
“In Australia, dispossession, disempowerment and disrespect remain the major themes of a Government approach that has taken control of so much Indigenous family life.”
“Just 20 years ago, Indigenous suicide rates were at the same rate for all Australians. Today, Indigenous youth suicide and self-harm are in crisis proportions in some but not all communities.”
Dr McMullen asked why in some communities there is hope and “in other almost total despair.”
“In the Northern Territory, the percentage of all-age Indigenous suicide has increased from 5 per cent of total suicides in 1991 to 50 per cent of the total in 2010. The most alarming increase, however, is among young Indigenous people aged 10 to 24.” The rate went up from 10 per cent of the total in 1991 to 80 per cent in 2010.
“Aboriginal parents who call me when they have to bury a son or a daughter are beyond consolation. As I travelled to Darwin I received a message on my phone. A father’s son had taken his life and the parents were frightened that another of their boys was going to follow. Just recently another Aboriginal family I know and love had a young girl go to her bedroom, close the door quietly, scribble a final note to the world that had ignored her and then hang herself on the back of that bedroom door.”
“If there is to be a new, healthier tomorrow for Indigenous Australians we must end the controlling, disempowering approach, invest in the social determinants at a community level and shift our trust to Aboriginal people to manage their own destiny.”
In my own research and investigations, in finding that Australia’s suicide rates are racialised, in that they are the world’s worst rates, I have come across far too many tragedies. In one family which has felt the trauma of suicide and of multiple suicide attempts, the youngest child said to her father, “I go to bed Daddy, hoping in the morning that I wake up ‘white’.” If there was ever a time for Australia to spend a billion dollars on something, it is in funding the end of this racial nightmare that has now culminated in this abomination of suicides – according to just about everyone on the ground it can be done by funding all the communities and programs such as the National Empowerment Program, Cultural Lives, the Yirriman Project to free up the right for cultural pride, empowerment, respect, dignity, human worth, the sense of hope and the lived experience of equality. Money should not stand in the way of life. But the funds must reach these programs. There is nothing more important for the Abbott-led Government to achieve – Empowerment.