Dr Warren Mundine, head of the Prime Minister's Indigenous Advisory Group. Image - www.theaustralian.com.au

Dr Warren Mundine, head of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Group. Image – www.theaustralian.com.au

The Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council headed by Warren Mundine has committed to including suicide prevention as part of its mandate – after Mr Mundine read our coverage on the extent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides, which many have described as a suicide epidemic; a racialised one. Mr Mundine at first committed to a three month review, but today extended that to six months.

National Indigenous Radio Service : Warren Mundine announces he will include Aboriginal suicides in the Indigenous Advisory Council’s mandate, which advises the Prime Minister

The Australian Aboriginal suicide crisis has been covered extensively by The Stringer with Gerry Georgatos complementing investigations with various research and comparative global data. The Stringer, The National Indigenous Times and The National Indigenous Radio Service have sustained the coverage, and introduced a rise of voices in commenting on Australia’s hidden shame – South Australia’s Tauto Sansbury, Western Australia’s Robert and Selina Eggington, Wes Morris, Cultural Lives’ Peter McConchie, among others, in addition to those who advise government ministries and agencies, Professor Pat Dudgeon, Dr Tom Calma, etc.

Mr Mundine said to The National Indigenous Times reporter Geoff Bagnall, “It is really going to be a sharp learning curve for me, and then bringing that back to the Council and bringing back to the Government to deal with.”

Mr Mundine did not make funding commitments. “Before I start shooting my mouth off I need to actually get my head around the suicide issue and that means, like what I did last week and I’ve been doing this for a while now, in regard to juvenile detention centres and talking to the kids, and talking to the psychologists and other people and taking their advice on board.”

“This area of suicide I have to do now too, which is I have to get in and sit down with psychologists, sit down with people who are suffering depression and kids who are in danger.”

“It is amazing. A lot of these people are kids, I can’t believe how young they are who are doing this and what are the causes of this and what can we do to stop it happening,” said Mr Mundine to reporter Geoff Bagnall. Mr Mundine said he wanted to consult Mental Health Commissioner, chair of the National Empowerment Program, Australia’s first Aboriginal psychologist, Kimberley Bardi woman Professor Pat Dudgeon, and former Australian Human Rights Race and Social Justice Commissioner, Dr Tom Calma, who alongside Professor Dudgeon heads the Ministerial Indigenous Suicide Prevention Group which reported to former ALP minister for Mental Health, Mark Butler.

Mr Mundine said he is not an expert on the issues and needs to consult widely. “We need to have people who are at the coalface sitting down and driving us to actually come up with the policies and the programs that are going to make this work.”

“My personal opinion, and there is no science in this, this is just my observation, is our self-esteem and culture, I think, plays a major part in these areas.”

“It is a problem and I congratulate The National Indigenous Times for putting it on the front page,” said Mr Mundine. “We need to really start focusing on this a lot better, and I’m not talking about the people who are in there already doing it because they’re the champions. I’m talking about myself and the rest of Australia, we need to get our act together.”

Mr Bagnall reported that while Mr Mundine has committed to do something about the horrific suicide rates, Dr Calma has been part of an advisory group that has conducted “a range of national consultations.” Dr Calma said that the group had not been a failure. “I would not say it would be fair to say that at all. We went through a range of national consultations, many people presented their stories and made suggestions to us. We looked at the literature both nationally and internationally, and there was not a lot of literature but we in fact sponsored not that committee but through Pat Dudgeon and the people in Western Australia.”

Mr Bagnall wrote, “While Dr Calma rejected any suggestion there had not been action to prevent suicides he admitted suicide figures are probably in reality much worse than the 1,000 identified.”

Dr Calma said, “I don’t think there is any one solution to this problem. Suicide is very complex and what is important to remember and even though the stats will talk about close to a thousand you could almost be accurate in suggesting it is even greater than that because there are different ways to classify whether somebody has completed taking their own life.”

“It is a major, major issue that had the attention of the previous Government and we’re still waiting on advice from the current government on what their position is going to be.”

“All Australians needs to see this as a major priority and need to lobby and advocate for Governments to take on this responsibility,” said Dr Calma.

“As Gerry Georgatos’ article says, when we look at the Deaths in Custody Royal Commission, there were far less losses. The bottom line is we don’t know why people suicide, there is no one common reason for it.”

“A lot of it comes down to, I guess, the viability of culture, the ability to be able practice culture and that’s one of the issues. But it’s also about people having control over their lives and, of course, it’s also about some of the other things like substance abuse issues that sometimes might predicate somebody to develop low self-esteem and not be able to cope with life.”

The three year old National Congress of First Peoples, which is at the discretion of Government whether it survives past July 1, next year, as its $5 million a year funding may not be renewed, issued a statement to The National Indigenous Times on Georgatos’ story of 996 reported suicides of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

“We see suicide in many of our own families and communities.”

“Congress co-hosted a roundtable on mental health earlier this year with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health Advisory Group.”

“Front and centre at this meeting was dealing with the rising rates of suicide amongst our young people.”

“Culture must be at the heart of any suicide prevention measures for our people and we know it is a preventative tool in addressing a broad range of issues including suicide, anger, depression and drug and alcohol misuse.”

“The roundtable stressed the importance of a long-term commitment to services developed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities as essential to turn back the shocking suicide rates in some of our communities.”

We hope the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Strategy will provide the kind of long-term support for successful programs run by our communities and our organisations,” read the Congress statement.

However, both the Ministerial Indigenous Suicide Prevention Advisory and the National Congress came under fire from many quarters, it wasn’t all just abuse, many people are frustrated with the lack of public responses and engagements by particularly the Congress. South Australia’s chair of the Narrunga’s people, and a former CEO in Aboriginal health, Tauto Sansbury said that they had been sitting “idly by while our people are dying, and what they’ve done so far is not good enough.”

“I applaud Warren Mundine for making this commitment but he must make sure he surrounds himself with those on the ground who know what is going on and what needs to be done. In South Australia we continue to deal with a suicide crisis out of control which governments have consistently turned a blind eye to. Warren needs to talk to people like myself, to WA’s Eggingtons (Robert and Selina). Not only should white Australia hang its head in shame but the National Congress and the Indigenous Suicide Committee should have a good look in the mirror and ask where have they have been. They can argue all they like that they have been ‘consulting’ but while they’ve been doing ‘consulting’ our people have been dying.”

“What does the National Congress do? It does not represent our people, they prance around the world and all over the nation but they do not speak up, but they will be the first to jump on an issue when it’s in the news media – they are the last ones we should trust in consultations on the tragedy of our people’s suicides. Each year of the last three years the Congress has been quiet, we’ve had at least 100 suicides each of those years.”

Mr Eggington was of a similar view, and said that “if we are to get across the issues, understand why our people are suiciding, what needs to be done, and by whom, then Warren needs to ensure he speaks to us, and not consult those who are nothing but a disgrace of idle quiet.”

Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation has interviewed 550 victim families and compiled their stories, a majority of them with a Stolen Generations past. The Eggingtons lost their 27 year old son Bob three years ago to the scourge. He left behind a four- year old son. Recently, this little boy lost his step father to suicide. “Imagine this little boy, my grandson, to whom I’ve had to explain at age four, and age seven, that his dad and step-father are not coming back.”

“We need to understand suicide in the ways that are truthful, that some are not preventable, but the result of conditions created against our people, and we have to change these conditions, and we have to respect the families,” said Mr Eggington.

Ms Eggington counsels families victim to the scourge. “Selina, is an angel, a martyr. It’s the Selinas of the world who should be acknowledged. I am appalled every time I see nominations and awards go to this and that person who work in ‘Suicide Prevention’, who pale compared to Selina.”

“The term ‘Suicide Prevention’ is also a dangerous one, because not all suicide is preventable, the conditions culminating in suicide are often what need to be addressed. It is an inherent grievous insult to families to suggest that they could have prevented the suicide of a loved one, to which the factors are external or settled in over generations and to which our children, to which we all, are born into.”

It is a positive step that Mr Mundine has committed to get his head around the crisis and to include the suicide crisis within the Indigenous Advisory Council’s mandate. If there was ever a time for a Government to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on something, it is this, the saving of lives.