We Need To Listen To The Warning Signs On Indigenous Suicide

If we did, we would better understand the deep roots of Indigenous suicide that are economic disadvantage, cultural dislocation and, most importantly, racism.

24/05/2016 10:40 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:53 PM AEST

Dadirri is an Indigenous language word that means "deep listening". If we take the chance to deeply listen -- with open hearts and open minds -- we may well find a practical and positive way forward to reduce Indigenous suicide.

It is through dadirri that organisations like Lifeline will seek to understand and help confront this unfolding national tragedy of suicide in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and it's hoped that in this election period our political class can really listen too.

As a country, we read sorrowful stories like that of a 10-year-old Aboriginal girl dying by suicide in Western Australia. We hear suicide rates among Indigenous people are twice as high as among non-Indigenous people and four times as high among young Indigenous men.

But how many of us are truly listening?

If we did, we would better understand the deep roots of Indigenous suicide that are economic disadvantage, cultural dislocation and, most importantly, racism. Clearly, in a country where most of us eat better than the royal families of the previous century, a better way is needed. Wasted life is lost humanity.

Based on data collected by our crisis supporters, we estimate 4 percent of the contacts to our crisis line are from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; an increase from an estimate of less than one percent 10 years ago. But while Lifeline services are used to some extent by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the fact is that our national charity needs to do more and better to help stop Indigenous suicide. We may be only one part of the suicide reduction solution, but we have to take greater responsibility for that part.

We will start by soon releasing a formal strategy and public pledge to reducing Indigenous suicide, prepared in consultation with key Indigenous community members. It will call things for what they are. Namely, that racism is a real and ongoing contributor to Indigenous suicide; that history matters and that healing is needed. Promises may not be popular with politicians, but for us it's about stating our intent and being held accountable.

We will strongly commit to doing more than simply waiting for our helpline phone to ring, as important as that crisis support is to hundreds of thousands of people. Our job is to really reach out and work with Indigenous communities across the country and find ways to support the extraordinary strength and resilience that is to be found in Indigenous communities when we allow for it.

It also means better cultural training of our crisis supporters and our staff, and more Indigenous participation in our structures and decision-making. We need to more fully understand the loss and trauma that many Indigenous people have to deal with and that often amplifies other elements of crisis -- such as poverty, domestic violence, lack of access to services in regional and remote areas, and substance abuse.

But more than anything else, it means respectfully listening to Indigenous people -- dadirri. In getting around the country and meeting with grass-roots communities, I've been told the following things.

While it is very confronting, and further to the breakthrough work of the Elder's Report, it's timely for Indigenous communities to discuss the deeply painful and sometime shameful topic of suicide in their midst. Too often, I'm told, the cycle of sorry business is so intense that there isn't the time to acknowledge and de-brief around causality -- like suicide.

When suicide is not "named and claimed" it is harder to cope with and move beyond. Therefore, we are currently thinking through how it can work with Indigenous partners to meaningfully "yarn-up" around the country on suicide -- including with elders, young people and community practitioners.

Indigenous people have also said that, because suicide was an unknown phenomenon prior to colonialism, there is a limited cultural and emotional vocabulary around it. Again, it appears timely to reveal a new way of talking and dealing with this relatively new and tragic experience. To this end, there is a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Strategy that seems more a Google search reference than a live conversation and concerted action -- partially due to a lack of funding.

Finally, Indigenous people firmly reject victimhood. It is almost hard to believe that in some communities -- where suicide can be such a regular occurrence -- the majority of members have the strength to keep on keeping on. They get up and go to work and school, and do their best to raise families. From Lifeline's perspective, this means not engineering prescriptive programs and solutions, but rather using our reach and resources to tap this exceptional emotional and cultural resilience and strength. The positive role of cultural and community connection cannot be understated.

Now, in the midst of an election cycle, the deep listening of dadirri is as pertinent as ever. As our country's leaders debate the topics that will shape our future, we must hear and heal the echoes of the past, while we also work with our Indigenous friends, workmates, schoolmates and neighbours --whose land we are blessed to live on -- in mutually and respectfully saving lives.

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