Elder John Watson with Yiriman youth on Country - Photo, Scott Herring

Elder John Watson with Yiriman youth on Country – Photo, Scott Herring

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…’” Kabi Kabi Elder, Cheri Yavu-Kama-Harathunian

In NSW, with Australia’s largest First Peoples population, 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 a First Peoples population of 16,000, the 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 this planet. The Kimberley’s First Peoples comprise just about all the suicides.

The rate of suicide among Western Australia’s First Peoples 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.

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

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.

By comparison, 99 First Peoples died in custody over a nine-year period launched 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 was not suiciding at the rates we endure 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 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 being unemployed and dejected by a sense of hopelessness, far too many – though not 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 a significant proportion of Australia, misguided do-gooder bureaucratic programs and 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.

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 the 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 National Indigenous Times and in The Stringer 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 and which was convened by Professor Dudgeon.

ATSISPEP is coalescing regional and national consultants to identify the urgent unmet needs of community-initiated programs which are supporting vulnerable communities and individuals.

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 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.

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 underreported 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 in 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 ABS thereabouts seven per cent of their respective Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations 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 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 children every week in and around Broome.

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 for the mid and eastern Kimberley.

People spoke freely and it was evident to me that far too many people carry much grief and burden and who desperately want to assert the ways forward, including healing of the grief that they carry but that they 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.

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 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 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 are working in improving and in saving lives, in empowering young and older people, in working holistically despite the rising suicide rates. 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 applications on waiting lists – more than 20,000 applications. More than 80 per cent of the 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 a significant proportion 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.

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 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 born 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 speaking 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 inactions 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?”