996 reported suicides of First Nations people from 2001 to 2010 – 1 in 24 of all First Nations deaths are by suicide. 400 suicides estimated from 2011 to 2013, up from 100 per year to more than 130 per year. It is estimated that suicides could be as high as between 1 in 12 to 1 in 16 if unreported suicides and the difficulty factor in securely classifying deaths by suicide are considered. Suicide rates among First Nations peoples in Western Australia and the Northern Territory are the highest in the nation, and among the highest rates in the world.
Yesterday, I met once again with the Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion, not as a journalist however as a researcher – in unveiling racism, premature deaths, unnatural deaths and suicides. As both a journalist and researcher, alongside many others, I have campaigned for Government to address the suicide crises among First Nations peoples.
I left the meeting confident that Senator Scullion is bent on saving lives and that he will strive to significantly reduce the suicide statistics – which, without fail, have gone up each year of the last two decades. I have now written more than 80 articles on the crises, and on the ways forward, for The Stringer, The National Indigenous Times and The National Indigenous Radio Service. As a result of the sustained coverage and the unrelenting campaigning, on October 23, the Chair of the Prime Ministerial Indigenous Advisory Council, Warren Mundine responded by including the suicides crises to the Council’s high profile agenda. During February, I travelled with Mr Mundine and Senator Scullion to northern and western WA, and we discussed extensively the range of issues that need to be addressed. Everything in the spectrum needs to be addressed however the strongest focus needs to be on the origins, the psychosocial fundamentals.
During yesterday’s meeting at the Commonwealth ministerial offices in Sydney, in addition to our discussions on the ways forward, I also presented Senator Scullion with the Culture is Life organisation’s recent Elders Report into Preventing Indigenous Self-harm & Youth Suicide.
Alongside others prominent and longstanding individuals in mental health, in suicide prevention and at the coalface of the First Nations crises – Professor Pat Dudgeon, Dr Tom Calma, NACCHO’s Justin Mohamed, and coalface stalwarts Tauto Sansbury, Robert & Selina Eggington and the Culture is Life and the Red Dust Healing organisations – in what we have long campaigned for as ways forward, there shall unfold in the weeks ahead what needs to be done. However, the first steps will be announced by the Senator’s Ministerial Office, first steps that will be taken at speed. Lives – young and older – depend on the well-resourced and finely tuned implementation of the ways forward.
If Senator Scullion were to achieve little else in his time as the Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs but to significantly reduce the outrageously crisis level loss of life, his legacy would never be forgotten. There is no greater legacy than one in which lives are saved.
Senator Scullion said that the total Australian Government spend on suicide prevention – taking in the whole range of issues, which is a must-do – will be $882.4 million from 2013-14 to 2016-17. $257.1 million will be spent through ‘Health’ and roughly split between the National Suicide Prevention Programme and the Taking Action to Tackle Suicide. $625.3 million will be spent through ‘Indigenous Affairs’ on a variety of programs – substance abuse, volatile substance use, rehabilitation and transitional aftercare, social and emotional wellbeing programs and supports and on mobile outreach counselling services in remote Northern Territory communities.
Senator Scullion pointed out that “funding of $33.1 million has been specifically allocated over four years from 2013-14 through the Access of Allied Psychological Services programmes” to ensure suicide prevention services to Indigenous patients are delivered in a culturally appropriate manner.”
In reference to The Elders Report, Senator Scullion said, “I am listening to the Elders voices in this report.”
“We know that in 1991, Aboriginal deaths in the Northern Territory from self-harm represented 5 per cent, it’s now 50 per cent.”
“This is all going backwards at a geometric rate, accelerating so fast that we need to do something about it.”
“I have to say the Elders Report is very insightful in the sense it is not an academic report. It is a suite of anecdotes from Elders, in the communities, who have been around through that entire period of time. There are a couple of common themes – they say loss of connection to culture which means the kids are more disconnected, which means they are not connected to culture or grounded as they were in the early 1990s,” said Senator Scullion.
Senator Scullion said many communities “are just awash with alcohol particularly and now, sadly, with ‘ice’. The impacts in the communities are inordinately hard.”
“It is interesting to read what the Elders had to say… it is not the normal polished academic report, it’s a raw grounded look from the Elders who have endured the losses and seen the deterioration of their communities. It is a really insightful report reflecting on how a community feels, what the loss means and what it feels like for people thinking ‘what could I have done to prevent it’. (When there is a suicide) any family thinks ‘what could I have done’, ‘what if I had done this or that’, so imagine (with the First Nations suicides crises) what it must be like for a community to feel like that, to grieve as they do.”
“Particularly, when a young life is taken, it is something that the whole community feels. I commend the report to anyone – it certainly spurs me to look at our current investment.”
“There is a huge investment across a whole range of areas, whether it is alcohol prevention or suicide prevention, or alcohol and drug related counselling. But despite this huge investment there is a rise of suicides, so it’s very important that the Government have a look at the way we make that investment and make some comparisons to best practice, and we just simply sharpen the capacity to help people, and that is something that we will be starting straight away.”
At this time I cannot comment on everything said during our meeting, however this will happen soon – the ways forward, those who will lead it, any additional funding but for the first time I am at last confident that what should have arisen a long time ago may soon arise, and if it does arise, then I will be confident we are walking the road that counts.
– “The Government needs to come before there’s a suicide. They need to get a meeting going and talk to the community, talk to the families, get the teenagers, the people in their twenties and thirties, get them together and talk to them. They need to support us so we can be ready,” Eddie Bear, Mowanjum, Western Australia.
– “We need to empower the community. We need to empower the people,” David Cole, Central Desert Elder.
– In memory of my father, in whose spirit and teachings I do my part in all this.