Wes Morris, KALACC coordinator
The spates of Aboriginal youth suicides have reached horrific levels of prevalence, the world’s highest when compared racially. Aboriginal youth is suiciding at the world’s highest rates but the spike in suicides has not been matched by Government funding and responses in order to reduce it or prevent these spates recurring. Since my investigations into the spates of suicides more and more front line Aboriginal rights advocates are condemning the lack of Government responses but also attacking the inappropriateness of what responses arise from Government.
The Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre (KALACC) coordinator Wes Morris has slammed State and Federal Government responses. He said that far too little has been invested in prevention programs and that the current strategies disregard Aboriginal peoples, further disempowering them, compounding problems.
“Have you read the State Suicide Prevention Strategy (2007)?” asked Mr Morris. “It is underwritten by only $13 million for all of Western Australia for four years for the whole of the program. What a joke.”
Mr Morris pointed out that Aboriginal peoples have not been adequately included in the delivery of strategies, and he said the current strategies fail to understand Aboriginal culture and identity.
He also said that in reference to mental health the State Government has failed to address the needs of Aboriginal peoples. “The State Government can only pony up $22.47 million for the psychiatric and psychological treatment of Aboriginal peoples with severe and persistent mental illness.” He said this is not enough, but it got even worse for suicide prevention, with only the $13 million.
Mr Morris said that the State Government’s 2001 Suicide Prevention program was much more sensitive to the cultural and identity needs of Aboriginal peoples “but, all too predictably, the recommendations within it have never seen the light of the day.”
Mr Morris said that Aboriginal peoples need Aboriginal peoples with knowledge of Aboriginal peoples, not Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples disassociated from the lived experiences of communities with underlying issues that give rise to the horrific spates of suicides realised in recent years.
He identified generic premises made by non-Aboriginal peoples in authority which indeed undermine authentic solutions. Mr Morris referred to a recent proposition by the Children’s Commissioner and Youth Justice of an independent Youth Justice Service to help reduce the high rates of juvenile detention. But he said bureaucrats continually miss the point of “Aboriginal-owned and controlled services.”
“There is no room in their world for an Aboriginal controlled youth justice service as per recommendation 50 of the 2006 Law Reform Commission (Final Report on Aboriginal Customary Laws). A specific agency is not the answer (if it is not Aboriginal controlled),” said Mr Morris.
He said whether it is to address incarceration rates or to reduce rates of suicide the answers lay with Aboriginal control of the response services.
“KALACC has been intimately involved in the three coronial inquests in the Kimberley. We gave rise to the first of these three inquests,” said Mr Morris.
He said that mental health is not the major underlying issue and indicated that attacks on cultural identity and disempowerment were significant contributors. “Nowhere in the three coronial inquiries does the Coroner identify mental heal as a major issue.”
He said the State Government’s misguided approach to presume the current spend on mental health can incorporate suicide prevention is misguided. Mr Morris said Aboriginal counsellors are needed to heal cultural wounds, to bring about “cultural healing.”
“Until these fundamental realities are addressed, the suicides will continue.”
Right around the world suicide rates of First Nations peoples are disproportionately higher than the rest of their nations’ populations and this is underwritten by not only the general poor living conditions of First Nations peoples, but by degrees of dispossession and the governmental driven, whether inadvertent or otherwise, erosion of cultural identity. Where there has been a failure to allow and support the preservation of culture and historical identity people have been put at risk of suicide.
671,000 Australians identify as Aboriginal but if we standalone the poorest 150,000 of our Aboriginal peoples, a significant proportion of them are living in third world akin conditions in the world’s 12th largest economy. Per capita, Australia has the world’s highest media wages and once again per capita Australia is the second wealthiest nation in the world. These statistics underwrite research I have titled “The Aboriginal Clock.”
Thirty years ago Aboriginal youth was not killing itself at the rates we have today, nor was this the case twenty years ago, and ten years ago the suicide rates were much lower than today. The suicide rates are on the rise, the median ages of suicides are getting younger – this evidences the sense of h hopelessness felt by many. Much of the hope of previous generations invested in the Black Power movements, in the Land Rights movements, in the striving for Treaty and equality has dissipated for many Aboriginal peoples who have waited and nothing positive has eventuated for them, and for many the belief is that they have less now than they did two decades ago. I have interviewed more than 100 Territorian Aboriginal Elders, and similarly more than 100 Aboriginal Western Australian Elders for research titled “Climate of Death” and “People are not the Property of People; the Northern Territory is Prison built brick by brick by the Commonwealth” and the overwhelming majority described beliefs that all they or their parents struggled for two and three decades ago has now vanished. They despair at being effectively forced into surrendering culture, their homelands, their right to their historical identity.
They have no trust in ministries of Aboriginal Affairs or in a Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs, they do not believe any longer in the presumption these perceivably affirmative actions will deliver what is now long overdue. The majority of those I have spoken with, hundreds, inherently fear these ministries which they believe are responsible for corralling them and extinguishing many of their rights and freedoms. They see these ministries, as I do too, as covert, whether inadvertent or not, social engineering attempts by Governments and their bureaucracies, and that the colonialist attitudes continue.
“We need our people helping our people, we have programs that work, such as Yiriman, acknowledged by many, evaluated by universities, and these need to be funded, and adequately so,” said Mr Morris.
The Yiriman project includes KALACC, and is a partnership between four Kimberley language groups. Each year, approximately 400 young adults, between 15 to 30 years of age, participate in Yiriman activities. The project centres on trips to Country with Elders. Senior Elders meet together to make decisions about the location, activities and purpose of each trip. Young people self-nominate or are nominated by their parents, the community, youth workers, juvenile justice workers and in some instances through the Courts. The nature of each trip is determined according to Traditional law. Yiriman workers and cultural advisers engage with the youth on the trips to Country.
Remote communities are enduring higher rates of youth suicide than in big towns and metropolises, through Aboriginal suicide rates are disproportionately high Australia-wide. Employment, education, health and community, infrastructure are invaluable to reducing both imprisonment and suicide rates but with suicides it is not just underlying issues related to impoverishment – my research and investigations have found that disempowerment is a major contributor. Despite the majority of Aboriginal youth suiciding or attempting suicide who are unemployed and dejected by the sense of hopelessness, far too many despite not being the majority were indeed employed but they too reported a sense of hopelessness or crippling dejection – the situational trauma of one’s cultural identity rubbished by the majority of Australia, misguided do-gooder bureaucratic programs, by the forces of assimilation. Cognitively, all this generates situational trauma, and degenerates into continuing traumas and stress disorders, disempowering far too many into a sense that their historical and contemporary identities are a liability.
“How many suicides, how many more deaths will it take to open our eyes, and open our ears to the silent screaming that is coming from the hearts, and souls of those who are gone, and for those who grieve and keep screaming, ‘Help’“ said recently the Kimberley’s Bishop Christopher Saunders.