THE BLOG

Vital Voices Are Missing In The Discussion To Reduce Indigenous Suicide Rates

First Nations voices must guide this journey.

26/05/2017 12:08 PM AEST | Updated 26/05/2017 12:08 PM AEST
davidf via Getty Images
"What's missing on a broader scale in public debates about rising Indigenous suicide rates are the lived experiences of those who are actually on the ground dealing with this issue."

As Reconciliation Week approaches, we're being encouraged to "take the next steps" towards equality. But when it comes to the issue of Indigenous suicide rates, First Nations voices must guide this journey.

This year marks key anniversaries in the nation's history towards reconciliation. It's 50 years since the 1967 referendum, 25 years since the Mabo decision and 20 years since the landmark 'Bringing Them Home' inquiry into the Stolen Generation. These are important milestones well worth reflecting on and celebrating.

Yet by any measure, suicide rates among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are deeply troubling. They remain a blight impeding our nation's slow march towards justice.

Compared to non-Indigenous Australians, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth aged 15-24 are four times more likely to take their own lives, and those aged 25-34 have almost three times the risk of suicide.

What's needed is an evidence-based approach to suicide prevention that not only draws from best practice globally, but also takes seriously our views as First Nations peoples.


These are more than just statistics to me -- and they hit home because my family tragically contributed to them.

I grew up with a single mother who was an alcoholic, suffered from depression and was suicidal. When I was 10 years-old, she died by suicide. As a child I lived in foster homes, and when mum passed away I lived with a few family members.

I too have experienced depression and suicidality. It was only when I found a counsellor through a local women's service that I was truly able to understand that much of my experiences were normal given many of the circumstances I encountered growing up.

For all of those experiences, I could have ended up in a very different situation to where I found myself today. It was my ability to connect to culture and the strength I gained through my Aboriginal friends, many of whom are still my family to this day, that I was able to heal and become strong. In many ways, I'm lucky to be here. Thankfully, I know first-hand the importance of seeking help and support for mental illness.

Since those dark times, I've made it my mission in life to help others learn from my experience, in the hopes of preventing others from facing a similar fate to my mother. For the past four years, I've been working with a youth mental health early intervention service. Prior to that, I was working with adult men at a correctional facility, running cultural programs and counselling.

It's clear that I can be most useful by working with young people when they are most in need and at risk. With hope and vision, we can give them some tools and support to show that they can make more positive decisions in life.

But there's only so much one person can do.

What's missing on a broader scale in public debates about rising Indigenous suicide rates are the lived experiences of those who are actually on the ground dealing with this issue.

This may seem obvious, but it's unfortunately not something we hear from mainstream services very often.

There's a saying popularised by disability rights groups in South Africa in the 1990s which deeply resonates with me, and speaks to the next steps we must take in this space: 'Nothing about us without us'.

There is often a belief from organisations that 'we can do it and consult with communities later'. This is the reality behind a majority of the policies and frameworks that directly impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's lives.

We see this happen in many arenas ostensibly working to redress social ills against Indigenous people. Well-intentioned strategies become bogged down in process, with consultation almost tacked on as an afterthought. Time and again, such initiatives lose sight of the very people they're meant to be helping. After all, we are only human beings.

There's a saying popularised by disability rights groups in South Africa in the 1990s which deeply resonates with me, and speaks to the next steps we must take in this space: 'Nothing about us without us'.

What's needed is an evidence-based approach to suicide prevention that not only draws from best practice globally, but also takes seriously our views as First Nations peoples. Suicide prevention activities must be targeted and culturally informed, reviewed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, elders and experts for feedback and further development.

I've heard first-hand how much our people don't want another document that isn't helpful or created without the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities from the beginning. This has opened up a robust conversation exploring what we value as important, and how this knowledge can be used in a systematic way to gain traction in our suicide prevention efforts.

Without this approach, many young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will continue to land on the back foot, and face a similar sad childhood as mine. We need a living strategy that can adapt and improve as we continue to engage with more communities -- and most importantly, we need to actually listen to these voices to identify the services that will best suit their specific needs.

The road to reducing Indigenous suicide rates won't be easy, but it can't be walked alone. If we engage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in suicide prevention projects in a meaningful and culturally appropriate way, we can take the first steps towards progress and a fresh start for our young people.

____________________________

Leilani Darwin is winner of the Suicide Prevention Australia 2016 Excellence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander award, and is an adviser to LifeSpan, Australia's largest suicide prevention trial developed by researchers at Black Dog Institute.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondBlue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

ALSO ON HUFFPOST AUSTRALIA

More On This Topic