Photo - Gerry Georgatos

Photo – Gerry Georgatos

I pay my respects to the Traditional Custodians and acknowledge Elders past, present and future across the lands in which I work and live.

We are now picking up the pieces of our loves ones.”

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 of those who grieve and keep screaming ‘Help…’” said Kabi Kabi Elder, Cheri Yavu-Kama-Harathunian.

In NSW, with Australia’s largest population of First Peoples, the youth suicide rate is one in 100,000. In the Northern Territory, the rate is 30 deaths in 100,000. In the Kimberley, with First Peoples comprising 16,000 of the total population of 42,000, their rate of youth suicide is over 80 per 100,000.

The rate of suicide in Western Australia’s Kimberley region tragically outstrips the overall national suicide rates of every nation on the planet. But the Kimberley’s First Peoples comprise just about all the suicides.

The rate of suicide among Western Australia’s First People males increased from 4.7 per 100,000 population to 78.8 per 100,000 in 1999.

The majority of the suicides are generally found within concentrations of acute poverty. It is a general trend that the majority of suicides are poverty-related. According to the World Health Organisation, at least 75 per cent of suicides are believed to have links to poverty. However, suicidal ideation among the world’s First Peoples includes other competing stressors that do not affect non-First Peoples.

Globally, suicide takes more lives than all wars and violence – according to the World Health Organisation, between 800,000 to one million people will lose their life to suicide each year.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there were 996 suicide deaths reported of First People across Australia between 2001 to 2010. This translates to one in every 24 First Peoples dying by suicide. According to the 2012 figures this is now one in 23.

Australia through the eyes of this little one - Photo, Gerry Georgatos

Australia through the eyes of this little one – Photo, Gerry Georgatos

The median age of First Peoples is 21 years, compared with 37 years for the rest of Australia. 1.6 per cent of all Australians die by suicide but for First Peoples this rises to more than 4.2 per cent. Half the Aboriginal population of Australia is less than 21 years of age.

By comparison, 99 First People died in custody – police and prison related – over a nine-year period, launching the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

First Peoples around the world endure disproportionate high rates of suicide, but Australia’s divide between its national average and its First Peoples is very likely the world’s worst.

Thirty years ago, Aboriginal youth were not suiciding at the rates today, nor were they twenty years ago. The suicide rates are on the rise – year after year – and the median ages of suicides are getting younger – this evidences the sense of hopelessness felt by far too 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 First 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.

Despite the majority of the youth who are suiciding or attempting suicide having been unemployed and dejected by a sense of hopelessness, far too many – though not the majority – were indeed employed, but they too reported at some point or demonstrated a sense of hopelessness and of a crippling dejection – the situational trauma of one’s cultural identity rubbished by a significant proportion of Australia, by misguided though well-meaning bureaucratic programs and by the various 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.

What the Prime Minister is yet to do despite the year-long-promises; the listening to people. Gerry Georgatos at One Mile Community, listening to what the residents have to say. They deserve better than the apartheid they languish within - Photo, Ingetje Tadros

What the Prime Minister is yet to do despite the year-long-promises; the listening to people. Gerry Georgatos at One Mile Community, listening to what the residents have to say. They deserve better than the apartheid they languish within – Photo, Ingetje Tadros

Alcohol and drug abuse are factors, but they are not drivers, other factors underlie the use of alcohol and drugs, and so for a radical reduction to drug and alcohol use and in reducing suicides, we have to address the factors that lead to the use of alcohol and drugs and other aimlessness and self-destruction. As long as we continue to deny that ethnicity and connectedness with historical and cultural identity do not matter then we will continue with suicide rates that are among the world’s worst, and indeed continue with the veils and layers of racism.

Recently, after a year of campaigning, and with the sustained coverage of the suicide crises in The Stringer, in The National Indigenous Times and through The National Indigenous Radio Service, funding was secured thanks to Senator Nigel Scullion, the Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, to establish through Professor Pat Dudgeon and Dr Tom Calma, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project (ATSISPEP).

ATSISPEP, funded by the Federal Government, thanks to Senator Nigel Scullion, finally arose subsequent to a ‘call to action’ from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Roundtable hosted in Perth on June 23 and 24.

ATSISPEP is coalescing regional and national consultants to identify the urgent unmet needs of community-initiated programs which support vulnerable communities and individuals. In supporting people who are vulnerable it must be understood as potentially a 24/7 effort, and also as outside the box of acute-only circumstance. There must be prevention, intervention and postvention.

The Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre (KALACC) hosted its 3rd annual festival, September 22 to 26, at the community of Jarlmadangah, 350 kilometres north of Broome. The festival was a tripartite gathering of major Kimberley organisations and included the annual general meetings of the KALACC, of the Kimberley Land Council (KLC) and of the Kimberley Language Resource Centre (KLRC). The festival programme revolves around the wet season, the most active period for Law and Cultural Business. For the majority of the rest of the year, the KALACC focuses on a diverse range of projects to maintain and control Culture, and the transmission of Culture.

The Kimberley as a region endures the ordeal of the nation’s highest suicide rates – 36.9 per 100,000 population. In 2007, the Kimberley endured 22 suicides – according to reported data collated by the ABS. 11 of the suicides occurred in and around Fitzroy Crossing. The spate of suicides led to a special coronial inquest by the State Coroner, Alastair Hope. However in 2014, the number of suicides appears to be tragically closing in on the 2007 figure. However, unlike the high concentration of suicides in some areas of the Kimberley, in 2014, the suicides appear to be spread out across the Kimberley. During the week of the festival, there were two further suicides, tragically of a 13-year-old girl and four days earlier of a 21-year-old woman, both in different towns however in the mid-Kimberley region. I will not identity the towns at this time.

Today, Canberra, Federal Parliament, Dr Tom Calma, Professor Pat Dudgeon, John Shevlin, Gerry Georgatos pushed for me to done in suicide prevention - 'fingers crossed' after a positive meeting with Federal Minister of Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion

Today, Canberra, Federal Parliament, Dr Tom Calma, Professor Pat Dudgeon, John Shevlin, Gerry Georgatos pushed for more to be done in suicide prevention – ‘fingers crossed’ after a positive meeting with Federal Minister of Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion

Between 2001 to 2010, according to the ABS, there were 996 suicides of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, an average of 100 per year. This translates to 1 in 24 of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths by suicide, making suicide one of the leading causes of death for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. However, it is reasonable to comment that there is an under-reporting of suicide. Constrained by issues with evidence gathering, coronial inquests often  make limited finding and what should have been classified as suicides are classified in other categories of unnatural death or misadventure. Many are classified as drug-related deaths. In the Elders’ Report into Preventing Indigenous Self-harm & Youth Suicide published earlier this year, the Kimberley’s Wayne Bergmann stated, “The statistics show that suicide rates in the Kimberley haven’t changed. In fact, I am concerned suicide rates are being under-reported by the police department. I think they are showing more deaths as accidents, when they know that some Aboriginal people have been psychologically affected and walked onto a road or abused themselves through alcohol or drugs. As a result, the police will code it as death by misadventure or an accident, when it really isn’t.” In informal independent research of my own, I have estimated that the death rate by suicide among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is between 1 in 12 to 1 in 16. Nevertheless, whether it is 1 in 24 or 1 in 12 the rates are shockingly high. If we add the drug-related deaths to the confirmed suicides and to certain other categories of unnatural deaths we confirm a human tragedy. In the Kimberley, one in three Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males die before they reach 45 years of age.

The Northern Territory endures the ordeal of one-third of Australia’s suicides of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. The Northern Territory is home to five times as many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders than is the Kimberley – 80,000 to 16,000, however the Kimberley tragically reaches up to 20 suicides per year, while the Northern Territory reaches thereabouts 40 suicides per year. Together, the Kimberley and the Northern Territory are responsible for half the suicides of First Peoples nationally. The jurisdiction of the Northern Territory and the region of the Kimberley also have the highest homeless rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the nation. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics thereabouts seven per cent of the Kimberley’s and the Northern Territory’s populations homeless. The majority of the homeless is of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations. It is estimated that up to a quarter of these respective Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population groups are in some form of homelessness. In addition, most poverty surveys from various long-established organisations, including the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS), the Salvation Army and Mission Australia, affirm that poverty among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is becoming extensive and more acute, more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are living below the Henderson Poverty line.

In the last year, ACOSS , the Salvation Army and Mission Australia have all stated there are not enough services in the Kimberley to assist impoverished Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families. The Broome-based charity, Feed the Little Children, coordinated by locals Clint and Deb Durham, whom I know and also visited during my recent eight day stay in the Kimberley, was created a couple of years ago to provide nutritional meals to children who were malnourished. They began with 100 meals per week however with the support of volunteers and after some fundraising and the securing of a small grant from the Federal Government, Feed the Little Children, provides meals to 350 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children every week in and around Broome. The Durhams have said to me that there is still an urgent unmet need. They are at this time working towards rolling out Feed the Little Children across the whole of the Kimberley region and into the Pilbara. Mr Durham was an Intelligence Analyst with the Western Australian Police. He has often said to me, and once again stated this to me during my recent visit, that most of the juvenile property crime and minor offending are inextricably linked to “going hungry and stealing to buy something to eat.”

The KALACC festival saw more than 2,000 people come through, 800 on any given day, 32 language groups, five cultural blocks - at Jarlmadangah, 350 kms north of Broome - Photo, Cornell Ozies

The KALACC festival saw more than 2,000 people come through, 800 on any given day, 32 language groups, five cultural blocks – at Jarlmadangah, 350 kms north of Broome – Photo, Cornell Ozies

The KALACC Festival

I attended the KALACC festival but not to solicit any information with prepared questions but merely to engage and to preliminarily listen to what people had to say. Whether I introduced myself or others introduced me or whether people sought me out, I just listened. During the five days of the KALACC festival, more than 2,000 people from towns and communities from right across the Kimberley attended, with the majority from the western Kimberley however with significant attendance from the mid and eastern Kimberley.

People spoke freely and it was evident to me that far too many people carry unresolved grief and burden and who desperately want to assert the ways forward, including the healing of the grief that they carry and see also affects family and community members. They spoke to me under shady trees during the day, and by campfires in the evening. In all I listened to 83 people during my five days at Jarlmadangah’s gathering. There were similar themes but also elements unique to their communities. I received invitations from some of the former residents of Oombulgarri who are based in Wyndham, from residents and itinerants to Broome’s shanty precincts of One Mile Community and Kennedy Hill, to Halls Creek, Mowanjum, Balgo, Derby, Fitzroy, One Arm Point, Beagle Bay and Bidyadanga. On my return to Broome I delivered on the promise to visit One Mile Community and Kennedy Hill and to listen to what the residents had to say.

The Kimberley suicide trends are the highest in the nation but also tragically compete with the highest in the world. Guyana has an overall median of 44 suicides per 100,000 population according to the World Health Organisation. The Kimberley has a population of 42,000 with First Peoples comprising a significant proportion of the total population, at 16,000. More than 90 per cent of the suicides in the Kimberley are of First Peoples. If we disaggregate the data standalone to the Kimberley’s First Peoples population of 16,000 we would confirm that the suicide rate among the Kimberley’s First Peoples would be more than 60 per 100,000 population – a conservative estimate.

Programs such as the KALACC’s men’s and women’s Yiriman Projects work to improve and to save lives, in empowering young and older people, in working holistically, despite the rising suicide rates. Despite the rising numbers of suicides, the Yiriman Project is indeed a success, and it does save lives. The rising suicide rates are the result of other factors; rising poverty, rising arrest rates, more people in prison than ever before, rising homelessness. The Yiriman is a success story and a pointer to the ways forward. There are competing factors and influences that need to be addressed in order to reduce suicide and self-harm trends. The Kimberley is acutely enduring a rise in homelessness, enduring housing pressures and cost of living pressures. The Kimberley is enduring among the nation’s highest arrest rates, more of its population is being incarcerated than ever before. Poverty has become more extensive.

In Broome alone, with a total population less than 14,000, there are 628 applications on the Department of Housing State Housing waiting list. This is a disproportionately high rate of application in comparison to the rest of the State which has among the nation’s highest proportion of families on waiting lists – more than 20,000 applications. More than 80 per cent of Broome’s State Housing waiting list applications are of First Peoples, the majority with families. However the majority will never secure State Housing. One woman said to me she finally secured a home but had to wait 24 years to do so. She now lives in fear of losing her home as she is only allowed to keep her house if her income threshold remains under $430 per week.

The Western Australian Council of Social Service (WACOSS) reported that in 2011 that for Broome the median rent is $620 per week.

The options of private rental and of purchasing one’s own home are not realistic options for not only a significant proportion, but for the majority, of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population in most of the Kimberley region. As a result the Kimberley has given rise to increasing homelessness and to a proliferation of shanty-like communities. In Broome there is the shanty-town precinct of One Mile Community.

It is vital to preliminarily document what people are thinking, feeling and hurting from. It is at their urging that I have compiled this summary of the 8 days I spent in the Kimberley.

A woman from Beagle Bay said, “If there is any chance that anyone will hear, if Government hear, please make them hear what we say cos we got it no good here and no one come help us.”

The Yiriman Project

The KALACC’s Yiriman Project was established 14 years ago, inspired by KALACC Nyikina Elder John Watson and conceived by the Elders from four Kimberley language groups, Nyikina, Mangala, Karajarri and Walmajarri. The Yiriman Project is a culturally based project in the west Kimberley region. The old people were concerned for their young people especially as they witnessed a rise in self-harms and substance abuse. The Elders saw the need for a place where youth could separate themselves from negative influences, and reconnect with their Culture in remote and culturally significant places. Through this reconnection young people would develop various strengths and resilience built up from positive stories and experiences which they could take with them back to their towns and their communities.

The Yiriman Project is also a conduit, reconnecting and strengthening the relations between the young and the older in culturally relevant and empowering ways. The Yiriman Project is a holistic approach in empowering youth and its connection to community. It is an ongoing experience and does not end the provision of support at any point in time. It is a lifelong support, 24/7. Yiriman Project coordinator, Scott Herring said the Yiriman Project is as much prevention and postvention in as much as it is also intervention. The Yiriman Project does not wait around for someone to experience an acute crisis. Through empowerment Yiriman is focused on preventing any downward spirals by individuals. Methodologically, Yiriman is cultural and psychosocial, working with people from very young ages.

The Yiriman Project reconnects young people to their Elders, to their Country, empowering historical and contemporary identities, strengthening identity through language and Culture. Psychosocially, identity, especially in formative periods, is crucial to social and emotional wellbeing which is imperative to steer people through life. For those young people experiencing acute crises or the surge towards these crises, the Yiriman Project offers the opportunity to remove young people from harmful influences and provide them with the opportunity to build strategies for harm minimisation.

I heard many positive stories from young people, or from their families, who had been through the Yiriman Project. There were stories heartfelt where some insist their lives or the lives of their young ones have been saved. There were stories heartfelt where some insist they were diverted from “going off the rails” and who instead have been empowered and guided to steady and meaningful lives. Many are now role models. I met many of these role models, many now in their twenties. Building resilience, identity, hope and purpose in young people, and as a result, assisting in the prevention of various despair and in the prevention of tragic culminations such as suicide underwrites the objectives of the Yiriman Project. The Project works endlessly to prevent justice-related confrontations, to improve health and wellbeing, to guide youth to various opportunities and to various education, to lead the best and most meaningful lives.

Murdoch University’s Professor Dave Palmer, a sociologist, who coordinated the University’s Community Development Programme, undertook a three year evaluation of the Yiriman Project, completing it in 2013.

“We know they healthy cos they on Country with old people,” said an Elder in reference to the social value of the Yiriman Project.

Dr Palmer used multiple methods to test efficacy. Dr Palmer used case studies to test evidence of change in individuals and to test evidence of impact on others and of the evidence from elsewhere of the efficacy of cultural maintenance, language use and the involvement of on-Country activities.

Dr Palmer stated, “Some emphasised the Project’s role in changing the behaviour of young people, particularly in relation to their criminal and anti-social behaviour. Others focused upon the Project as a way of improving young people’s health, particularly responding to the growing incidence of suicide, alcohol and drug use, sexual health and poor diet. Regularly, funding bodies and many community members turned to Yiriman as a way of encouraging community building and intergenerational exchange. For others the project is expected to help prepare young people for the market economy and help direct them into education, training and employment. Important to note is that many of the senior cultural bosses focused upon Yiriman as a way to help maintain Culture, language and relationships to Country. In addition, many articulate the central importance of ‘bringing out stories’, building narratives and offering young people a chance to join the currency of Traditional Culture and law.”

The Yiriman personnel and the Elders consider it a significant step forward when indeed young people agree to participate in Yiriman and indeed when they go spend time on Country with Yiriman. The personnel and the Elders state that it is inevitable that “they will find themselves once out there.”

The Yiriman Project is approached by the majority of the communities it is established within. Families reach out to Yiriman. In his 2009-13 evaluation report, Dr Palmer stated, “In 2010, Mr Jefferies, the Principal of the Fitzroy Crossing School, had the following to say about the value of Yiriman to young people: As the Principal of the school I do not believe that you can support Yiriman enough.”

“I have seen the young men, particularly, return from their Yiriman experience as changed people, without a doubt (Hansard 2010, p.34).”

Dr Palmer states, “Like all young people who participate in Yiriman activities, when he is out on Country, he (or she) is not using drink and drugs. This is in contrast to his (or her) life in town and allows him (or her) to spend time talking and thinking about his (or her) dreams and aspirations and some of his (or her) problems back in town.”

Indeed, in listening to Yiriman Coordinator Scott Herring and in listening to many parents during my five days at the Jarlmadangah hosted KALACC festival, hundreds of youth who have gone through the Yiriman Project are now gainfully employed, culturally empowered and who have been rescued and diverted from various self-destruction. The families expressed heartfelt gratitude and respect towards Yiriman.

Dr Palmer stated, “There is also solid evidence that the Yiriman Project has had an important impact on the life of the community. This has happened on a number of levels. Young people gain from Yiriman activity, particularly in relation to learning about Culture, language and Country.”

Dr Palmer stated, “As workers, bosses, community and representatives from other organisations testified, there is good evidence that Yiriman has had long-term benefits for young people.”

The Palmer report established solid evidence of the efficacy of the Yiriman Project. In my listening to many people at Jarlmadangah the Palmer report’s conclusions and findings were reinforced in my view. The Yiriman Project is a much necessary ongoing engagement with substantial through-care and various advocacy to build the positive cycle of beneficial social contact communally between the old people and the young people. Yiriman has pronounced enjoyable experiences which amplify social and emotional wellbeing and positive pathways to ensure the further engagement of individuals within enjoyable experiences whence independent of Yiriman.

Dr Palmer stated, “There is good evidence that taking young people and other generations on Country is important for their health. There are definitely immediate healthy effects of taking young people away from their poor diets and living conditions that create depression and despair. There is also evidence that Yiriman has assisted in the campaign to minimise young people’s involvement in the justice system. Indeed, some, including a magistrate, conclude that Yiriman is more capable in this regard than most other diversionary and sentencing options.”

Yiriman Coordinator Scott Herring said, “We work with the youth from a young age. We do not wait for a crisis. We are happy to work with a cradle to the grave approach, in many ways Yiriman is lifelong. We do not give up on people. We are there for them even when it seems they will further downward spiral. We are there for them when others would give up. We have many stories of sticking it out with people for years and in getting them to a good place.”

“There is a resilience borne of having in you the power of one’s Culture, of one’s Country, of a strong connection to Culture and Country. They are both strength and healing when needed.”

“There is belonging that comes from being able to speak in language, in knowing your Country, in identifying its landscape and history, in knowing Traditions and in being able to pass knowledge on to others.”

Culturally based community initiated community driven methodologies in mental health and suicide prevention care need to be supported. The Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion has made a commitment to what needs to be done. The first steps are being taken. ATSISPEP are some of those first steps. The two-day national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Roundtable convened in Perth by Professor Pat Dudgeon recommended that adequate funding levels for cultural methodologies should be provided.

KALACC’s Coordinator, Wes Morris made the valid point that years have passed dominated by clinical therapeutic treatment programs but that they have not reduced the suicides. The shocking spates of suicides in the Kimberley in 2007 and 2008 led to a special coronial inquiry by the State Coroner Alastair Hope. In his findings, Coroner Hope criticised the relative inaction of Governments.

Mr Morris said, “Seven years later we are still here with massive investments to clinical therapeutic programs but what are the outcomes seven years later?”

“These clinical programs have failed to address the crisis.”

Tragically, it appears at this time that 2014 will record thereabouts the same number of suicides that were recorded in the region in 2007. Mr Morris referred to “five and a half years of exhaustive years of dialogue with the State Government” through COAG processes, through the Tripartite Forum, through Kimberley Futures, and other forums and reviews but the upshot of these was that “we are still approaching the starting line.”

Canadian suicide prevention care expert, Emeritus Professor Michael Chandler during a recent keynote speech at the Healing Centre in Canberra said that exclusive spending on clinical therapeutic programs was money spent “fishing in the wrong pond.”

“Communities need to own their own cultural past, their languages, services and curriculum. We must develop markers in communities to engage people,” said Professor Chandler.

He said that without these markers communities tend to have high suicide rates and that communities with these markers tend to have lower suicide rates.

“High suicide rates among Indigenous peoples around the world are a product of colonial impacts.”

Professor Chandler states that cultural identities are being erased and as this goes to the heart of one’s form and content that this is a “formula for suicide.” He states that it is imperative that First Peoples must be free to determine and manage their own fates. Only recently, the northeast Arnhem’s Yalmay Yunupingu said, “We are not brainless and dumb, we can manage our own affairs, we can manage our communities.”

“We must be allowed to speak as predominant our languages, to learn in our languages, to have these languages in our schools. Our people are literate in our languages, so they should not be judged by how well they speak English.”

Ms Yununpingu said to me that the language one is born into, the Culture that one is born into, should be supported and empowered as powerful tools to guide one to the best of the both worlds that exist in most of this continent.

In a 2012 ABC radio interview, Professor Mick Dodson said, “I was disappointed this morning to hear the Western Australian Minister announce that he is going to pour money into psychiatric services. Well, hello! Here is something that a dozen psychiatrists couldn’t fix.”

“What makes for good policy are things like Yiriman – it is a powerful testament to community action and should be supported because what else can the Government point to that is working? I would like to know. If they say well let us put the money into psychiatrists then show me how that works?”

Halls Creek Healing Taskforce

Donna Smith from the Halls Creek Taskforce said that Halls Creek has low employment levels of its local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander residents. Ms Smith said that there is an inadequacy of skills learning opportunities in the town for its First People.

Ms Smith said that the Healing Taskforce is underfunded and that it needs to be adequately resourced in order to provide a 24/7 service that enables the full suite of prevention and postvention services and programs in addition to any existing interventionist support.

“Often we need someone ready to respond to someone who is at-risk at say 3am in the morning. Helping those at-risk is not a 9 to 5 thing only,” said Ms Hall.

Ms Smith said that the Healing Taskforce represents the social and emotional wellbeing needs of the people and the communities of the shire of Halls Creek.

“We listen to what people want and need, to what their issues are and are then best placed to explain to government agencies how community wants them to work.”

Ms Smith said the Healing Taskforce needed funding for a 24/7 crisis response capacity and for a crisis helpline. At this time some funding has been secured to ensure that these services will be set up by the end of the year and run through the Jungarni-Jutiya. But a long-term funding commitment would stabilise budgets and planning and coordination. The Taskforce does not have enough funding for community counsellors who can work as mentors and in the crisis helpline service. Funding is needed to develop a Healing Place on Country program – teaching, learning and healing on Country.

The Halls Creek Healing Strategy initiative was created out of listening to the needs and hopes of residents of Halls Creek and of surrounding remote Aboriginal communities.

Similarly to the Yiriman Project the Halls Creek Healing Strategy seeks to empower people and build resilience and capacity.

“It is the journey of change that people, families and communities want to go on to move beyond the trauma of the past that is leading to a cycle of grief, depression, cultural loss, self-destructive actions and suicide.”

“The journey will be different for each person and family. It can mean different things to different people. It might mean cultural healing, it might mean strengthening faith or it might mean overcoming addictions.”

“The Halls Creek Healing Strategy will support the community to heal.”

Ms Smith reinforced the need for local First Peoples to guide the ways forward, to enable the healing. This will lead to stable local leadership, to local ownership of problems and solutions, to local planning, to role modelling, to the empowerment of the local First Peoples.

“This strategy will not succeed without being driven by and having the involvement, support and guidance of local Aboriginal people.”

The Halls Creek Healing Taskforce is in pursuit of a holistic whole of community involvement.

“The Halls Creek Healing Taskforce will have members which include a balance of men and women, young people, Traditional Owners, Elders from major family groups and representatives of Aboriginal Corporations as well as members from different language groups, town communities, remote communities, and churches.”

“The Halls Creek Healing Taskforce will bring service providers together to support the Healing Strategy. The community wants service providers to work better together and avoid a crossover in programs. The Healing Strategy will be driven by the Halls Creek community and not by a Government department. This is different to how it has been done before.”

Comments and insights from some of those I listened to at Jarlmadangah reinforce the above statement. An Elder from Beagle Bay who had come with family to Jarlmadangah said that after each suicide the grieving families of Beagle Bay did not know who to turn to. They did not know what the service providers actually provided. This was a theme presented to me by many. Ms Smith said that it is imperative that “Aboriginal owned strategies such as the Taskforce will enable contact and referral to the existing service providers”. The Healing Taskforce can provide support to service providers to optimally engage with families and individuals they have referred.

Ms Smith said that the First Peoples of Halls Creek face many pressures and the disparity between them and non-Aboriginal residents is wide. Ms Smith reinforced that this disparity cannot be allowed to replicate itself within any Healing Strategy, the ways forward must be owned by First People and if this is the case hence half the journey is completed. This sentiment was widespread among the many people I spoke to no matter where from within the Kimberley they lived.

KALACC Festival Monday 22 to Friday 26 September

Annually, there are now more than 100 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander festivals across the continent and they play an increasing vital role in coalescing peoples and in culturally empowering people. Woolongong University researcher, Dr Lisa Slater has evaluated the impact of cultural festivals on community health and wellbeing. Dr Slater was present at the KALACC festival and she stated that “cultural festivals are important to Indigenous communities for their contribution to community wellbeing and resilience.”

Dr Slater states festivals are under-recognised and under-utilised in reference to their importance to cultural maintenance, cultural transmission and in identity and capacity building. Festivals can be powerful tools in connecting people culturally, in empowering people and communities. Festivals should be more adequately funded and extensively utilised. Festivals have a huge capacity to contribute to substantial cultural maintenance and in giving birth to contemporary creativity and to promoting social inclusion. Festivals affirm the significance and value of distinct cultures.

The Kimberley as a region has the largest concentration of First Peoples in the nation. The Kimberley also has the highest concentration of remote communities in the nation. Western Australia has 274 remote communities, the most of any jurisdiction in the nation. The majority of the Kimberley’s First Peoples live in family-based communities and in relatively large communities. In most of these communities, English is not the first language. The social norms of the majority of the Kimberley’s communities are governed by cultural protocols. Festivals and large regional events are an opportunity for communities to come together and engage with one another.

During the KALACC festival I listened to 83 people from various communities, mostly from the western Kimberley but also from the mid and eastern Kimberley. I heard from one man that the community of Balgo had initiated more involvement by Elders and families of their young following the tragic spate of suicides several years ago. According to this individual, there eventuated more conversation between families about the scourge of suicide and its causalities. This has led to Elders and families opening up regular discussions with their young people “and in keeping a constant look out for them.”

“My brother died of drugs and when we buried him, that day I stopped doing drugs and changed my life.”

“I been to prison a few times before I gave up the drugs. I no longer drink too. Now I do many different kinds of work and when KALACC needs me I am here to work at the festival, to help everyone.”

Another individual said that taboos need to be challenged and that “some shame” has to be set aside so people can better understand how to deal with grief, how to best heal, how to best help those at-risk,  how to alert others about someone at-risk. He said that only community gatherings can educate certain “shame” out of people which he said for too many prohibits many from discussing the issues that affect far too many youth and adults.

“We got to stop hanging our heads down, stop looking away, stop the shame and start talking, listening, helping…”

“We got to take control.”


I listened to what Cissy Gore-Birch Gault had to say to me. Ms Gore-Birch Gault is the Chairperson of the Board of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation. Last year the Balanggarra secured native title over their part of the east Kimberley which includes the town of Oombulgarri which the State Government closed down three years ago. Ms Gore-Birch Gault said that the displacement of the Oombulgarri people has had a detrimental effect which has not subsided. Ms Gore-Birch Gault said it led directly to the suicides of two individuals last year which included a 12-year-old.

“I am from Oombulgarri and there was no reason for (the State Government) to move our people on.”

“They had lived there for three and four generations.”

“They may demolish our homes but we will return there whether our houses remain there or not. It is our Country, our land, our place and they cannot take it away from us.”

“There are 64 homes there.”

“The Oombulgarri people want to return, to move back to Oombulgarri whether it is demolished or not. Some of our people are three and four generations of Oombulgarri families.”

“In regards to the removal of our people from Oombulgarri about three years ago, because of this, we have had two suicides of our former residents in the Wyndham area alone recently. One was a 12-year-old girl. The other was of one of our leaders in our community and who was also a member of the Oombulgarri Aboriginal Lands Corporation. He was the last person standing at Oombulgarri, not wanting to move to Wyndham. He was a proud man, proud of his house and when finally he was brought to Wyndham he became so depressed he turned to alcohol and finally took his own life,” said Ms Gore-Birch Gault.

Ms Gore-Birch Gault spoke of her distrust of Governments and of Government departments. This is a pernicious theme that I find not only here in the Kimberley at Jarlmadangah but in general in my myriad travels to communities right across the continent. This distrust of Government and of many non-Aboriginal people stifles the prospect of optimum relationships and of enabling social and emotional wellbeing as a whole-of-community approach.

Ms Gore-Birch Gault expressed a view that Governments consider “Aboriginal peoples as dispensable.”

Oombulgarri, formerly known as the Forrest River Mission and once home to hundreds of people during Australia’s long apartheid period, sits on the edge of the Forrest River, some 45 kilometres southeast of Wyndham. It is a beautiful location, and Ms Gore-Birch Gault lamented that it is somewhere the children and grandchildren of the former residents who have been moved on would have enjoyed coming back to. Ms Gore-Birch Gault views the looming demolition of the community as akin to erasing part of the identity of those who lived there.


–         Prison experience

Many people spoke to me of various pressures but the most common theme was the prison experience is a destructive one. Whether they were talking about themselves as former inmates or whether in reference to a family member who is or was incarcerated, they described incarceration as tentacles of destruction rather than in anyway restorative and rehabilitative. They described prison as a furthering of grief, dysfunction and ruination. Despite the stereotyping premise that there is a ‘brotherhood’ and ‘sisterhood’, and that there is some sort of ‘initiation’ by going to prison, I did not hear a single person speak of prison as a positive experience nor that there is some ‘brotherhood’ or ‘sisterhood’ while inside. There are within prisons people who look out for each other and they bond but there is no foundational truth to a brotherhood and sisterhood. In my own experience, in assisting people pre-release and post-release, I am of the view that in general people come out of prison in a worse condition than when they went in.

I have written widely on the suicides crises and on the urgent need to disaggregate the data region by region and where necessary community by community and furthermore by various categories. We need to identify the highest need groups and in my view the highest need group are people who are experiencing or have experienced imprisonment. We must include within this high need group the children of parents who have endured imprisonment. A number of studies over many years have reported an unusually high unnatural death rate in the first six months prison-post-release. Some of the research has the unnatural death rates at up to ten times the rates of unnatural deaths while in prison. Despite many people having family to return to once released from prison, many of those released also have no fixed address to go to, they finish up itinerant or homeless.

The Kimberley has among the nation’s highest arrest rates of First Peoples, and this correlates with the high homeless rates in the Kimberley, the extensive impoverishment and the high number of suicides.

On any given day, one in 54 of all First Peoples adults is in prison. One in nearly 30 of all First Peoples has experienced prison. These are appalling rates that from the Aboriginal lens is seen as racialised imprisonment. In Western Australia, today, one in 13 of all adult First People males are in jail. At Jarlmadangah, I listened to people say that prison “makes people sick in the head”, “it cos our boys to give up”, “it is bad place”.

The criminalisation and incarceration of people impacts negatively on their identity and for far too many cripples them psychosocially.

Not a single person referred to a single positive outcome from the prison experience. Instead for those with family members currently imprisoned they were concerned for them. They did not always show it but when they spoke of their family members their words trembled. They said that their crimes were usually menial and that they would have been better off in the care of family and on Country. Not a single person had a positive comment about the ‘all-Aboriginal’ Derby regional prison. Some said they were appalled by a dedicated Aboriginal prison.

Effectively many believed that imprisonment led to arrested development and to entrenching self-destructive behaviours. Most said that crimes were relatively minor and generally poverty-related. Some said that prison “make ‘em worse” and that any serious offences were according to them in reoffending, not the first time around. Minor offenders were hardened by the prison experience, leading to the possibility of serious offending second time around. They are right. Data demonstrates that the majority of first time offenders are convicted for minor offending and poverty-related crimes whereas second and third offences tend to be of a more serious nature.

Research may eventually confirm what appears clearly to be the case to many experts and academics, that the high imprisonment rate of First Peoples may have a direct link to the high suicide numbers. There are more than 8,300 First People in prison. Proportion to total population deaths in custody have decreased but in terms of total numbers of deaths in custody they have not decreased. The implementation of certain protocols and some of the recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody have indeed saved lives. The Custody Notification Service, implemented by the NSW Government in 1998 has led to zero deaths in police watch houses. The removal of hanging points from prison cells and other safety checks and measures have reduced prison suicides, that is in reference to proportion to total prison population but because of the increasing arrest and sentencing trends the total number of suicides and unnatural deaths have not decreased.  I believe that the increasing prison population has a direct correlation to the increasing suicide rates.

I would like to point out, that though there should always be a focus on the reduction of the means one can use to facilitate a suicide attempt, a much more significant focus must be on reducing the will to contemplate suicide. People need people to support them, people need hope, people need to be assisted in enabling the prospects from hope.

I listened to people who said that more needs to be done not only to soften sentencing regimes but also more needs to be done to assist people to improve their outlook and to help them in reference to their emotional and social wellbeing while they are incarcerated.

The engine room of the suicides crisis may not be in prisons but it is where the majority of those who will go on to take their lives pass through. Genuine humanity needs to be prospered to people while they are incarcerated – capacity building, improving literacy and numeracy skills, providing legitimate educational opportunities with qualifications as part of outcomes, while at the same time psychosocially empowering people, while underwriting every support with cultural empowerment.

One person I listened to who has family members in prison said that there should be halfway houses for people leaving prison. He said that many who are released from prison should have the opportunity to spend time with cultural mentors and healers before they return to their communities and families. The ideal of halfway houses for post-release transition is just not going to happen anytime soon for people who need that little more time to adjust to how they should best engage with family and community before actually returning to their loved ones and community full-time. However these transitional halfway houses should be pursued from now even though it may require mountains to be climbed before Governments will fund them. But psychosocial support that starts pre-release can be on standby post-release if Governments are prepared to sponsor this. Many people who endure the prison experience have to deal with the accumulation of various guilt and the pile of up of additional multiple traumas while in prison, which ‘shame’ often makes difficult for them to discuss with anyone, including family members.

We need to appreciate the impact of the behavioural disturbance that the harsh prison experience has on one’s identity – the damaging impacts that arise from isolation and confinement. Prison is a guilt-building experience rather than one of healing and rehabilitation. Regions such as the Kimberley have high reoffending trends.

Some prisoners and former prisoners are so ‘broken’, so deeply depressed and anxious, with dangerously low self-esteem, that they have said to me that it was best they finished up in prison, so their families at long last could be relieved from them and in turn have a shot at the prospect of calmer, brighter futures. With this type of thinking what hope does one have once released from prison?

If we can increase the levels of support for those on the inside we will be helping not only the one in 54 of all First Peoples in prison, we will also be helping their families and their communities. This may go a long way to reducing the suicide rates. This may go a long way to reducing dysfunction in the operations of families and communities. It may well reduce various violence and abuse.

While non-Aboriginal female imprisonment rates are steadily decreasing across the nation First People women are being jailed at higher rates and in higher numbers. Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland endure significant increases in female imprisonment rates. Aboriginal females account for one-third of the total Australian female prison population.

The CEO of the Brisbane-based Sisters Inside, Debbie Kilroy, not long ago stated, “For most of these women, the notion of human rights is unheard of. They have lived all their lives believing that they have no rights at all.”

“These high imprisonment rates of Indigenous women can no longer be overlooked.”

From 2000 to 2010 there has been a 58.6 per cent increase in the imprisonment rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. For the men there has been a 35.2 per cent increase. The women have a tragically high reoffending rate – with 67 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison having previously been in prison.

–         The Custody Notification Service

Western Australia and the Northern Territory have the highest arrest and imprisonment rates of First Peoples in the nation. But unlike NSW neither has implemented the Custody Notification Service. The Custody Notification Service was a recommendation of the 1987-1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

In NSW, the Custody Notification Service is a 24/7 phone service hosted by the Aboriginal Legal Service. Lawyers, trained in additional skills, are rostered for police to be able to contact as the first port of call, a must-do requirement, when an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander has been arrested or detained. The lawyer will immediately speak with the detainee and provide immediate legal, health and welfare instructions to the police. If the lawyer ascertains the need to visit the detainee, he/she will do so. The Custody Notification Service in NSW costs only $500,000 per year. The Service deals with 15,000 contacts per year and its public value is evidenced by the fact that since 1998 there have been zero deaths in police watch houses.

The Service should be rolled out in every State and Territory. It will not only save lives but relieve police of much burden and judgments calls. The Service provides a sense of support for the detainee and deescalates potential predicaments. In NSW, the Custody Notification Service has been enshrined in legislation through the Powers and Responsibilities Act 2005.

Earlier this year, the CEO of the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT, Phil Naden, said that the CNS “is more than a phone line, it is a lifeline.”

“Significantly, there have been no Aboriginal deaths in police custody since the phone line began.”

“Every time our lawyers speak to an Aboriginal person detained, they check upon the welfare of the person by asking ‘Are you okay?’”

“Often, people are not okay. Threats of self-harm or suicide are common,” said Mr Naden.

“Our lawyers are skilled at hearing ideation or real threats of self-harm or suicide. The lawyer notifies the police and the person in custody is made safe.”

–         Abuses in prison – halfway houses needed post-prison release

I listened to a Kimberley mother with a son in prison. She said that she is concerned he may not make it out of prison alive. She said that sexual abuse is rife in prisons. She said her son has been sexually abused. The mother said he is in need of both cultural support and trauma counselling in order to “help him make it out”.

She said that halfway houses are needed for people such as her son post-release to recover from the prison experience and from the traumas generated by various abuses. She said that it is imperative for people like her son to be supported and counselled in halfway houses before returning to their communities. She worries that unless her son is counselled at what he is feeling as ‘shame’ that it could spiral him to suicide.

The mother said to me, “Our people are broken by the time they come out of prison.”

“Our people are broken while in prison, our men are broken. There is sexual abuse, there is rape and violence.”

Western Australia has 14 adult prisons, and 14 halfway houses would be a good start.

“Our men and boys are vulnerable when they leave prison.”

“My boy sits silent, he is lost, it is sad for everyone. We worry for him. We fear he may not make it out.”

The effect of children being removed from their families

Far too many spoke about the removal of children from their immediate families or extended families for me to not include this in. Many referred to families they have grown alongside as part of their families, and described two and three fathers and two and three mothers, and any number of ‘old people’ as Grandfathers and Grandmothers.

“Stop taking the children,” said one person.

14,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are currently in ‘out-of-home-care’ across the nation.

“It is not possible that 14,000 children have been abused or neglected. It is bullshit, cannot be true,” said another person.

Many said that they felt it “was racism” that was removing the children and that in effect it was indictment of an abhorrence of their cultural ways and the ways in which they wanted to live that was driving the record level rates of the removal of the children. There is very deep hurt.

One person said, “I don’t know why they took my children.”

According to the Commonwealth Government 1997 Bring Them Home Report, at the time 2,785 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children had been removed from their families. This figure alone was relatively record-high on a per annum basis – and tragic. The figure was higher for removed children in just about every year of the Stolen Generations – a period generally attributed as 1900 to 1970. But seventeen years after the 1997 Bring Them Home Report, there are now 14,000 children removed.

“14,000 children removed is a far greater number of children removed in any year over the Stolen Generations period,” said University of Technology Jumbanna House senior researcher, Paddy Gibson.

Broome’s shanty-precincts – One Mile Community

I was invited by people I met at Jarlmadangah to Broome’s One Mile Community. I was invited to many communities along the coast and I will keep my word and visit them as opportunities arise. I listened to their descriptions of disparity and various inequalities that were insurmountable in their view without support – such as homelessness, such as never being able to afford rent and home ownership.

In my view, the pristine Kimberley tourist mecca of Broome is a sorry tale of ‘two cities’ – one where residents can afford a socially interactive and healthy lifestyle and who enjoy social and emotional wellbeing while a significant proportion of the Broome population, just about all of it Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, live itinerant, homeless, in the shanty that is One Mile, in incongruous grinding poverty. I describe One Mile Community as a shanty precinct, a corral of human misery that reminds me of the town camps, official and unofficial, that littered apartheid South Africa, many still remain.

I visited One Mile on several occasions and sat with families and listened. They are from all parts of the region, from Bidyadanga, One Arm Point, Beagle Bay, from the mid and east Kimberley. Some said that native title has failed them, that it is not a holistic whole-of-community benefit.

“Native title is rubbish,” said one gentleman.

“It helps some, not everyone.”

Another gentleman said, “The services in town they not come here, they no care us.”

Another gentleman said, “We are the forgotten people.”

Another gentleman said, “I like calligraphy, I am very good. I would like calligraphy business but no help.”

His wife said, “He is very good. Can you help him with business?”

It is just abominable that in the world’s 12th largest economy, 2nd wealthiest nation, in the nation with the world’s highest median wages, that people live like this, in third-world-akin conditions, in acute impoverishment. Some of the houses are not fit for human habitation but they have nowhere else to go.

There are many who argue that people choose their lot, but this is not true. Many argue that there are abundant services to assist each and every person but this too is not true. If this was true why would seven per cent of the Kimberley’s total population remain homeless?

The shanties are not limited to Broome, they are a pernicious theme right throughout the Kimberley. Australia cannot hold its head up on national and international stages when thousands of people languish as if forgotten in the most deplorable despair. I do not need to describe the dysfunction born of the impoverishment and the aimlessness within One Mile Community but the poor standards of living, the poor standards of support, the near non-existent assistance cannot be let slide. There are hundreds of these shanties, whether they are called communities, town camps – official or unofficial – right throughout the Kimberley, the Western Desert, the Goldfields and the Northern Territory.

The extensive poverty within the Kimberley does not need a generation of ‘closing the gap’.

I was asked to take many photographs of One Mile Community to disseminate far and wide but I do not want to publish photos of the hovels of their despair, of the images that will be misrepresented in the minds of far too many and who some will then misuse to hijack the truth. I will publish only the tamest of images however adequate to depict what I saw.

An Elder said, “I want my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren to grow up here. We have been here 30 years, this is our home. Many of our people have nowhere to go.”

“What they should do is rebuild the community.”

“This is our Country, but look how we are forced to live.”

“Canberra has forgotten us, everyone has forgotten us. I worry everyday about this community.”

“I will not leave the community. I will die here.”

It is the responsibility of Governments to help people whose ancestors they removed from their Country and dumped into missions and then into third-rate towns and communities.

Despite the impoverishment, despite the neglect of these people, despite many far too ill to be without trained carers and medical assistance, I noticed the love between many couples, their closeness, and the camaraderie through much of the community.

One gentleman said, “We are the forgotten people. We do not want this life but there is no place for us on our own lands that others have taken from us.”

Another gentleman said, “We do our best with the nothing that we have. Fortunately, there are only so many days in this life.”

The children of One Mile Community deserve better. The children of the Kimberley deserve better.

Break the taboo around suicides, we reduce suicides

A woman from Beagle Bay said, “Please take our story to the world, please.”

I remember the words of the Narrungga Elder, Tauto Sansbury, “We have to speak up about suicides because they will just keep on happening. Too many of our people are with heads bowed down, silent, doing shame when we need to break the taboos and to save lives.”

Professor Pat Dudgeon once wrote, “Over the last 30 years, we have witnessed an escalating tragedy in modern Australia with more and more Indigenous Australians, in particular youth, taking or attempting to take their own lives. Almost non-existent before the 1980s, youth suicide across the top end of Australia has reached crisis proportions.

Derby Elder, Lorna Hudson said, “A lot of things are happening at night and there is no follow up. Young people who’ve been involved in trouble, whatever that may be, haven’t got a safe place to go to, to feel comfortable and to talk to somebody. Not just for the one day, but an ongoing communication.”

There remains a relative silence and a coterie of taboos around suicide and even more so around the determinants that culminate in suicide. More than 62,000 Australians attempt to take their lives each year. More than seven lives a day are lost to suicide. Deaths by suicide in 2012 were reported at 2,535. This is double the number of lives lost to road deaths annually. Teenagers aged 14 years to 18 years old are more vulnerable to dying by suicide than by any other means. Yet, there is relatively little public discussion. Despite acknowledging suicide as occurring in families, there is still not enough discussion about it among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities. But some communities are gathering together and beginning to take control of some of the ways forward, but these communities need every assistance that should be provided.

There is a crisis at tragic levels for all Australians but it is much worse, much more pronounced among First Peoples.

The news media is still relatively quiet on the issue of suicide. The news media only began to engage with some types of depression only a few years ago. There are still taboos and silences that need to be unveiled. We can learn much from the families and the communities that have been touched by suicide. The wisdom will be more easily imparted and will resonate best if more families and the stories of those who have attempted suicide are allowed to have their say in any national conversation. They need to be included. I found during my eight days in the Kimberley that families, parents, that grandparents, that brothers and sisters, they wanted to speak openly, they did want to have their say.

Feed the Little Children

A couple of years ago, Broome residents Clint and Deb Durham took it upon themselves to make a difference in the lives of far too many children they knew to be malnourished. The acute poverty streaming through Broome cannot be missed. The Durhams were of the view that they could not continue to reside in a relatively small town but with so much acute poverty.

The former police intelligence analyst, Clint Durham, sees a connection between acute poverty, between going hungry and the downward spiral into a life of crime. He said that most of the youth offenders “steal some food or steal some money for food.” It is the way it goes the world over, that is wherever there is concentrated poverty.

“Too many children were malnourished, and we as people have to do the right thing and do what we can. In Broome, the majority of children going to bed without a decent meal are Aboriginal kids,” said Mr Durham.

“Deb and I decided to get them meals and that is how Feed the Little Children began.”

Broome’s population is only 14,000, so it is incredible that the Durhams are responsible for providing meals to 350 children every week.

“We have grown into a charity and Feed the Little Children started with 100 meals a week to now being able to provide meals to 350 children every week. Our volunteers drive out meals to meeting places, to the parks, to homes, to the communities of One Mile and Kennedy Hill.”

“A lot of the children come from dysfunctional families. It is just circumstances beyond their control in many of the cases,” said Mr Durham. “There is nothing deliberate in what parents and families do who are trapped by acute poverty.”

Feed the Little Children is now working towards the objective of 365 days a year food service for the children. They intend to extend the charity across the Kimberley and also into the Pilbara.

“We want to roll out Feed the Little Children to the towns and to major communities across the Kimberley, places including Derby, Fitzroy, Halls Creek, Kununurra, Wyndham, and as far south as the Pilbara’s Hedland,” said Mr Durham.

A few conclusions – and holistic ways forward

A few years ago, the small Kimberley community of Mowanjum endured a spate of suicides. Central Queensland academic and Kabi Kabi Elder, Cherie Yavu-Kama-Harathunian responded, “All around this community of Mowanjum there is much progress, production, affluence. What is this progress, this production, this affluence stealing from our people?”

“To read about this painful crisis, to recognise layers of disconnection, the internal anguish, community sorrow, pain, trauma, suffering is like a microcosm of the inherent legacy of pain, torment, and suffering that our people are immersed in. This is a culturally collective crisis and it impacts upon all of us who say we are First Nations peoples. To think that this tiny little community possibly had the highest rates of suicide not just in Australia but in the world is insanity.”

“We are now picking up the pieces of our loved ones. 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 of those who grieve and keep screaming for help?”

No amount of funding should be denied in order to reduce the suicides. And it should not be misspent on non-Aboriginal organisations or providers of services, and should not be misspent on church-based organisations. I have not able to glean any extensive social reach and support from these organisations in the communities of First Peoples, and certainly near zero reach in the vast majority of remote communities. Healing is a major step in the intervention of trauma, however we also need to work preventatively, to improve social contact between people, to improve social conditions. First Peoples must have every resource made available to them to manage the ways forward, to manage it all themselves.

“We must be boss of ourselves, boss of our people,” said an Elder.

I could write chapters alone on what people said about their distrust, mistrust of Governments, of Government departments. I could write a chapter on what people said about in effect the critical need of their cultural identity. One’s identity should not be devalued, diminished, second-rated, one’s historical and cultural identity should not be made a liability. People were proud to identify as Yawuru, Bardi, Nyikiina, Mangala, etc. The suicide crisis in the Kimberley can be reduced but it will require a holistic response. Some ‘shame’ needs to be lifted and this will only arise if community-initiated responses are encouraged and supported and the communities start talking freely and openly and engage in the ways forward.

If we can reduce the suicides of the Kimberley and of the Northern Territory we will in the least inroad a long way to bridging the disparity in the statistics between suicide rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and of non-Aboriginal Australians. Once there, we can keep on working forwards in reducing suicides period. Forty years ago there were not the disproportionate suicide rates between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and non-Aboriginal Australians that there are today.

Preliminary recommendations

  1. In reference to the Kimberley, the Yiriman Project should be further supported and where possible rolled out across as much of the region as is culturally appropriate.
  2. The Halls Creek Healing Taskforce and Strategy should be further supported.
  3. There should be adequate investment in developing cultural festivals. Three-year funding cycles should be the minimum requirement in order to enable budget stability and planning and coordination requirements.
  4. Further funding for the charity Feed the Little Children.
  5. Funding for LGBTI programs and projects among First Peoples.
  6. There should arise an acknowledgment of those incarcerated as the highest need group and in supporting them with healing and with positive ways forward, in empowering them, it may well arise that this will significantly reduce the suicide rates.
  7. Halfway houses for those needing them after being released from prison.
  8. The Custody Notification Service which has been in operation in NSW since 1998 has led to zero police watch house deaths of First Peoples should be implemented in every State and Territory in the nation.

This would be the good start, long overdue…


–          Declaration of conflict of interest – the author of this article, Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention researcher and a senior national consultant to the ATSISPEP.