The suicides crises ravage urban and regional communities, however certain regions, certain clusters of remote communities have been disproportionately hit. The Kimberley for instance for a period of time reached up to 182 times the rate of suicide and continues at more than 100 times the rate of the general population. In order to move forward and reduce the loss of life each region has to be understood as if different from other regions and urban centres despite common themes and fundamentals. Governments need to listen to the voices crying out and it cannot be argued that Elders and community leaders and grieving families and communities have not been crying out – it is just that they have been dismissed, for far too long.
Co-chair of the National Mental Health Commission, Aboriginal Mental Health and Suicide Advisory Group Commissioner, Professor Pat Dudgeon argues that “mainstream Australia needs to recognise that there are distinct cultural differences between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people, and that these differences must be taken into account in the way help is provided.”
Professor Dudgeon said that “little headway has been made in stemming this dark tide of suicide in our communities.”
Recently, the Culture is Life organisation sponsored The Elders Report, 31 Elders from across northern and central Australia crying out for resources shifting from failed Government programs and services. First Peoples and local community leaders must manage their community services, exclusively. Central Desert Elder David Cole said that despite “polished Government services in mental health support and suicide prevention care, our people will not engage with them.”
“It is a trust issue, it is a culture issue – the people running these services are foreign to us and oblivious of our cultural ways and to who we are, therefore these services stand idle and are just elephants in the room.”
Two years ago, there was WA’s Telethon Kids Hearing Our Voices report, another much lauded report which the usual cohort of organisations scored news grabs with but which went nowhere. The Elders Report scored a similar suite of positive news grabs, applauded by the usual cohort of highly paid well placed supposed social justice professionals. I personally presented The Elders Report to the Federal Minister Nigel Scullion during a meeting between himself and myself recently, I as a researcher and advocate and not as a journalist. After that meeting I do have high hopes that what needs to be done will be done but right now we are in a wait and see mode, waiting for the May 13 Federal Budget, which will sadly slash and burn across far too many vulnerable sectors, but I have been promised that this will not be the case with suicide prevention care and the extensive gamut of mental health funding needs.
“We cannot wait any longer, we are at a critical juncture, where the crisis if it continues to rise in toll will damage remote Aboriginal communities with long term effect, not dissimilar to the oppression suffered by our peoples in the first half of the last century,” said Mr Cole.
The Hearing Our Voices report which both State and Federal Governments did not heed quite rightly targeted the need to identify each affected region as unique.
The Kimberley region is the most suicide affected region in the nation, and I will be travelling again to the Kimberley with a small team of pro bono workers to make a difference while we wait for Government and its many agencies to come good in resourcing local communities in the ways that are already known to work. The Kimberley is twice the size of Victoria and has only a small population but the tragedy within is significant. With a population less than 40,000, but with more than 40 per cent of the population comprising First Peoples, it has more small remote communities than anywhere else in Australia.
The Kimberley has the highest proportion of First Peoples anywhere in Australia. The Kimberley’s First Peoples population is much younger than the non-Aboriginal population, with nearly 44 per cent under the age of 20 years. Children are dying by their own hand at the nation’s highest rates, chased down tragically only by the Northern Territory. Western Australia’s First Peoples suicide rate is 36 per 100,000, the highest in the nation, nearly 50 per cent higher than the next highest, that of the Northern Territory’s First Peoples, 22 per 100,000. In the Kimberley, the statistics reach up over 80 per 100,000.
The communities that need the most support are those with the highest proportion of First Peoples, for instance the Halls Creek shire is 97 per cent Aboriginal, while Derby-West Kimberley is 76 per cent Aboriginal. Recently a Halls Creek 12 year old was lost to suicide – there is a crisis once again in the Kimberley rivalling the crises of several years ago that tore the hearts out of Balgo, Mowanjum and Derby. Already this year nearly a dozen suicides of First Peoples have been identified in the Kimberley. A couple of years ago, the State Coroner, Alastair Hope slammed the inaction of Governments but here we are again, tragically.
These remote communities deal with a suite of stressors such as impoverishment, crowded housing, lack of employment opportunities, high levels of preventable morbidity and mortality rates.
At this time what we have to rest on are the promises made to me by Federal Minister Nigel Scullion, and which I believe will be fulfilled, but each day that passes so too are lives put at risk.
Culture is Life Director, Max Dulumunmun Harrison said that “preventing suicide and self-harm involves supporting Elders to maintain and pass on their cultural knowledge to young people.”
“That the way forward is to adopt a ‘community centred’ approach to healing that is led by local Elders and which involves building community and cultural strength as a foundation for helping Indigenous youth be stronger, more resilient and more positive about their future.”
Derby Elder Lorna Hudson said that “you can empower our people by supporting them and listening to them, by sitting down with them and talking to them face-to-face and that’s not happening.”
The Kimberley’s Wayne Bergmann said, “I haven’t seen any successful engagement in youth intervention happen as a result of outsider programs.”
“Yet the system we operate within relies on bringing in outside people all the time. The statistics show that the suicide rates in the Kimberley are being under reported.”
“I think they are showing more deaths as accidents.”
Kimberley Aboriginal Lore and Cultural Centre (KALACC) CEO, Dean Gooda said that “we have not been funded because Government hasn’t been listening to the people on the ground.”
According to Mowanjum Elder Eddie Bear local people need to be supported to help others.
“If you talk to a (troubled) young boy just once, that won’t be enough. They don’t talk, they keep it inside.”
“The main issue is to have our people trained so they can keep checking in with the young ones.”
In the late 1990s the Kimberley had a horrific spate of suicides, and despite its unenviable status with the worst statistics in the nation, projects such as KALACC’s Yiriman project has had much to do with saving many young lives in the Kimberley.
Yiriman’s John Watson Djalmadanga takes hundreds of youth on to Country each year. “We take the young people out to the place called Yiriman. Kids that are missing school, going off the rails, drinking and smoking drugs, getting in trouble with the police, stealing, that kind of thing. We take them out there and talk to them, we don’t just take people out and walk the legs off them – we talk to them.”
“We try to make them talk their own language, to understand where their Grandfathers came from and where their Mothers came from. We teach them culture.”
Melville Islander Bernard Tipiloura said, “Suicide occurs when young people find themselves in no man’s land. I strongly believe that if our young people today join culture with western style, they will be okay.”
In 1998 the WA Suicide Prevention Steering Committee was established but each year the suicides crisis has got worse.
In 2002, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) announced ten trial sites for a ‘whole of Government’ approach, something bandied around once again by the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and the Chair of the Indigenous Advisory Council, Warren Mundine. The deal was the Government would oversee shared responsibilities and partnerships with First Peoples communities and Government agencies, but as The Elders Report and The Hearing Our Voices report cry out the panacea is for Aboriginal control of Aboriginal advancement, not the untenable hand holding. There must be acquittal and success as with Yarrabah, but it cannot be any further of this hand holding racism (and distrust).
The 2002 COAG plan, as per usual, failed, and abysmally so, with a crisis in the Kimberley the likes never-before-seen. The trial sites were in the Kimberley and included Balgo, Billiluna, Mulan and Yagga. $1.3 million was allocated to the COAG trial in the east Kimberley but only $327,000 was spent on First Peoples and the programs over nearly three years. Nearly one million was spent on salaries, travel, administrative expenses and bureaucracy.
The Kimberley, the Western and Central Deserts need urgent attention, sustained attention, trust building, Aboriginal advancement by Aboriginal peoples. During the 2008 coronial inquiry into the spate of suicides that reached 182 times the national average, Coroner Hope reported there had been an average of one Aboriginal suicide per month in the Kimberley in a nine-year period, and became known as 100 suicides in 100 months. But in the last four months the Kimberley is once again enduring the average of the 100 months tragedy and when the final data comes in it could turn out worse.
In 2007, former State Labor MP, Tom Stephens expressed it in a nutshell when he said Government “rewarded ineffective Perth-based agencies with funds at the expense of successful Aboriginal-led organisations.” But despite the successes of Aboriginal-led health and cultural organisations in dealing with healing, identity and the suicides crises they have been to this day neglected by Governments.
In 2002, the Commonwealth Government developed the ‘Communities in Crisis” policy, identifying communities in need and then with the presumption it could help them with a ‘whole of Government’ approach rather than the development of economic and social health and opportunities for the community. In 2003, Balgo was identified as a community in crisis, and then Kalumburu in 2004 and Beagle Bay in 2005 were declared communities in crisis, but the ‘whole of Government approach’ policy failed as evidenced by the prevalence of spates of suicides to come in the years ahead. Governments just have not listened to what is being said on the ground, about who should be leading the way and what communities need.
The Hearing Our Voices report stated, “The small and close knit nature of Indigenous communities means every suicide has a widespread impact with ripples of loss, grief and mourning throughout the community and beyond – particularly where communities are highly interconnected. This can create layers of increased risk within affected communities during the grieving period, and in some situations a ‘suicide cluster’ can form.”
What communities have told me over a long period of time, is ‘take our stories out to the world, because no one else is, we need to be listened to. Tell them we need help; we need those who can help us within our communities to be supported to lead the way, to mentor us, to empower one another.’ Where this has been supported it has worked, for instance the Yarrabah program, Red Dust Healing and Maramili Journey of Healing and in urban centres such as Perth with such healing programs as those of the Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation.
On October 23 last year, Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council responded to my research and sustained coverage in the National Indigenous Times, the National Indigenous Radio Service and in The Stringer, and included the suicide crisis in their mandate. We are heading to the May 13 Budget, I have met with Federal Minister Nigel Scullion and we must now start saving and bettering lives.
To the National Indigenous Times and the National Indigenous Radio Service, I am forever indebted for once again allowing me to chase down an injustice that afflicts so many. They have not only supported but encouraged the sustained coverage that not one other news medium in this nation has permitted – so voices are heard and lives are saved and this disgraceful crisis is significantly reduced if not altogether ended.
– On October 23, Gerry Georgatos successfully lobbied Warren Mundine into including the suicide crisis into the Indigenous Advisory Council’s mandate.
– On April 16, Gerry took several hours out from a 21 day bedside vigil of his father, at his father’s urging to meet Federal Minister Nigel Scullion on the urgent need for the suicides crisis to be addressed and lives saved. Two days later Gerry’s father would pass.
– In the last year, Gerry has written more than 80 articles on the suicide crisis. The Stringer, The National Indigenous Times and The National Indigenous Radio Service, along with the nation-at-large now wait, impatiently.