Aboriginal suicide - The State Suicide Prevention Strategy


HON ROBIN CHAPPLE(Mining and Pastoral)[10.04 pm]: I rise tonight also, like my colleague, to talk about Indigenous suicide. I do so because there was a motion by Hon Ljiljanna Ravlich given on 17 May 2011 that I did not have a chance to talk to. I will not make any criticisms of the processes that have involved previous governments or this government; I want to try to bring to this place an understanding of what causes some of the issues pertaining to Indigenous suicide. As my colleague Hon Alison Xamon said, it is not a matter of mental health.

As we know, Indigenous suicide rates in the Kimberley are the highest in the nation and agencies must respond more quickly when they occur than is currently the case. Mowanjum, near Derby—just opposite where I live on the Gibb River Road is Mowanjum—with a population of just 350, recorded six suicides in six months and there have been scores of attempted suicides amongst juveniles and adults at that location. The number of suicides has risen sharply since 2006. In 2008, a coronial inquiry led by Coroner Alastair Hope found that four young males in the remote Kimberley who committed suicide had seemingly done so out of despair and a lack of self-worth. I point out that this has nothing to do with mental health. A relationship between the use of drugs and alcohol and self-harming behaviour was also noted. In 2010, there was a spike in suicides that coincided with a dramatic reduction in the number of community development employment projects.

I will digress slightly. Recently, I looked to a number of the communities up there and they had some ideas on what individual communities found to be their problems. It is these problems that actually lead to suicide—not a mental health problem. I will not name the communities, but I will go through what two or three of them said. A community said its problems are a lack of housing, not enough activities for youth, young families struggling, high levels of alcohol and marijuana consumption, young people smoking, homelessness and a lack of aged care. Another community said its problems were poor school attendance, especially in their later years; alcohol misuse; lack of parenting skills; the early learning centre not being open; the turnover of staff in organisations; and not being able to go into the store because there is no window for people to see who is in there. These are very simple, very important things because we have to remember, as with Mowanjum, that some of these communities should not be where they are.

The Wororra, Ngarrinyin and Wunambul tribes, which make up the Mowanjum community outside Derby, Western Australia, are the Wandjina Supreme Being cultures. None of them actually come from Mowanjum; they were all brought into Mowanjum from their various homelands. One of the things that community has been striving to do for many years is to go back. I will quote extracts from Mowanjum: 50 years community history, which is a book written by the Mowanjum Aboriginal community. On page 256, Leah Umbagai states —

My dream is to see Wunambal, Ngarinyin and Worrorra people back in their homes from where they originally came; living on their land again. Making our ancestors happy.

Mowanjum future; it is sad here at the moment because the younger people are cutting themselves off from the adults, and cutting themselves off from their culture and language. They like town life for drinking and partying and just hanging around doing nothing. At the moment the community is trying to get the young ones involved in as much cultural stuff as possible taking them back home. Teaching them their cultural language and getting them connected back home.

Those are the sorts of things that drive despair in Aboriginal communities. Those are the sorts of things that lead to the unprecedented levels of suicide in the Kimberley.

The rate of suicide in the Kimberley is seven times higher than the rate of non-Aboriginal suicide. The standard government clinical health responses to Aboriginal suicides are failing. Aboriginal suicide is not primarily a mental health issue, but a matter of improving individual health and self-worth through encouraging a sense of belonging to something good, improving community wellness to the valuing of cultural practice and promoting hope in the future. The latest government funding to address Aboriginal suicides in the Kimberley will be through the Kimberley empowerment community action plan hosted by the Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services Council, which has been granted $428 148 to run a series of empowerment, leadership and healing programs in Broome, Halls Creek and the Kimberley ranges until June 2013. The Derby shire CAP covering the towns of Derby, Pandanus, Mowanjum and Looma with an amount of money allocated has also been approved after months of work and includes the unique Red Dust Healing program specifically requested by the people of Mowanjum. We are supportive of programs such as the Red Dust Healing program as they draw on Aboriginal expertise and learning to support the community. However, the sum of money allocated, given the magnitude of the issue, is incredibly low. We should be spending the $13 million that has been allocated to Western Australia in the Kimberley alone, not across the state. It is remarkable that we have already been there and done it all. In reports such as “The Western Australian Suicide Prevention Strategy 2009–2013” and the “Derby Youth and Drug and Alcohol Project Report” of 2006, everything I am talking about has been identified. Unfortunately, we continue to look at the issue as some sort of mental health issue. It is not; it is a sociological issue with communities distraught by a feeling of no future. I go back to the Derby crisis response meeting on Wednesday, 11 August 2011. According to my notes, comments from community participants included —

There is more to this than drugs and alcohol. There is a lack of opportunity. We are tired of talking, we want action! There are constant changes happening to our people. How do they live a balanced life in two cultures?

Some of these people want to work on the immediate development of convening a community-based committee, including young people, to help guide strategies and solutions. That is the very thing that has been outlined in the document entitled “Fixing the hole in Australia’s heartland: How Government needs to work in remote Australia” and indeed in “Hear our voices: community consultations for the development of an empowerment, healing and leadership program for Aboriginal people living in the Kimberley, Western Australia”, another research document. It is about empowering the community to take charge of the issues. It is not about funding outsiders to do the job; it is about funding the insiders to help lift the community. It is about implementing a youth volunteer foot-patrol program for the weekend; a 24-hour support and safe house for young people; training and support for families and communities to be implemented as soon as possible; a safety house program is being established; identifying key houses in the community that young people can access in times of need; and long-term permanent foot patrols. The 2006 “Derby Youth Drug and Alcohol Project” identified, again, exactly the same issues and we need listen to Professor Pat Dudgeon, chair of the Indigenous Australian Psychologists Association, who according to my notes stated —

“We need to start building communities that have resilience and strength and a sense of hope in life. The solutions to our community despair are imposed on us, but we need to take that on.

“There are aunties and uncles in our family holding us together and they’re the ones, with the parents, that we need to support. It’s them who go out in the middle of the night to cut someone down; it’s often not the white services doing it.

“The best suicide prevention strategies are community-inspired ways of keeping people alive. But why is so much consultation needed when, in even fractured communities like Mowanjum, local people taking remedial action can be found?”

As I said, we are spending $13 million on suicide prevention in this state. In the Kimberley alone, that would be a drop in the ocean.



HON ALISON XAMON(East Metropolitan)[9.44 pm]: The recent debate that we had on a state suicide prevention strategy has prompted a great deal of feedback, particularly to my office, and I want to talk about the issue of Aboriginal suicide in the Kimberley. I have received quite a bit of correspondence in recent times about this matter. I will not go into detail about the enormity of the problem of Aboriginal youth suicide. I am sure that members would be well aware of the appalling statistics and significant challenges faced by many Aboriginal communities in this area. However, I would like to share some of the feedback that I have received from these communities about the state suicide prevention strategy. I recognise that the Kimberley is a big place with many local communities that have vastly different opinions and in no way do I presume to speak on behalf of the entire community; that would be presumptuous of me and appallingly rude. However, I will canvass a range of issues that have been brought to my attention.

The WA state suicide prevention strategy—the One Life strategy as it is called—aims to be community driven and to empower communities to develop local strategies. As we discussed in this place, that is a great approach. I am aware that one of the ongoing criticisms from Aboriginal communities has been that too often inappropriate so-called government solutions in the form of programs have been imposed on them. I know that part of the thinking behind the state suicide strategy was to do something quite different. Unfortunately, this intention has not translated on the ground in some of the communities as a truly community-driven program. For example, the strategies will be based on locally developed and implemented community action plans, and the decision on which group will be funded to implement a local CAP, particularly in a smaller community, can be a very sensitive process. We know that if it is not done properly, it can have an adverse impact on the community, including undermining community cohesiveness and exacerbating existing local tensions. The feedback I have received indicates precisely what has happened in at least two communities. In order to be effective and meaningful, decision-making processes need to be locally appropriate. Another concern raised has been about the lack of provision of follow up and ongoing support subsequent to the delivery of many of the really good suicide prevention training and healing programs that are available and seem to be increasingly delivered under the One Life strategy, and this is also becoming a problem. It is important that the delivery of training or healing programs is not a one-off or an isolated process. Communities need solutions that will be sustainable and ongoing. On that point, I have been told that there are issues with the imposed existing time frames of the One Life strategy. Communities are concerned that the time frames do not respect their own time frames and that there is a lack of flexibility and a sense that there is no time for the response to really be community driven. The push for programs to be on the ground before we go into pre-election mode means that some—not all—communities are feeling rushed. This results in coordinators not being given time to establish the knowledge and relationships that are essential to working effectively within Aboriginal communities.

As it has been relayed to me, the concerns around time frames also extend to the funding cycle being too short. This potentially undermines the sustainability and, in many cases, limits the community action plans and means that coordinators are only just gaining the required knowledge when their contract ends. I acknowledge that this is a difficult area and that the minister has come under fire from people who are frustrated that the strategy has taken too long to implement, but I believe this could be addressed by more adequate information sharing with the public. I recognise that it is sort of coming from both sides. Suicide prevention is an important issue that should and, indeed, must be able to rise above election cycles and whims of governments. I would be really concerned if it was ever anything other than this.

I have just mentioned some quite specific concerns with how the One Life strategy is being implemented on the ground in Aboriginal communities. I would also like to mention more broad concerns that have been raised with me about the nature of the debate in this place about suicide prevention in the Kimberley. Firstly, what has been raised with me, and it may not be a surprise to some, is the concern that far too often the focus is on mental health and mental health service delivery. Certainly there is a need in this area and I am one of the people who is often on my feet in this place talking about the need for improved mental health services in this state—so it goes without saying that I will support any initiatives that do that. However, discussions about the provision of mental health services can often obfuscate the fact that mental illness is not generally the cause of Aboriginal youth suicide in the Kimberley. As such, although increased mental health services, are important in their own right, and I will always applaud them happening, they should not be used by governments trying to boost their credentials in the area of suicide prevention.

The broader issue of the causes of Aboriginal youth suicide is a complex topic and one that I cannot do justice to given the limited time available to me tonight. However, what I would like to raise before I conclude is the relative absence of discussion in this place of the importance of culture in debate about suicide prevention. The value of Aboriginal culture is too rarely acknowledged or even really understood properly by many decision makers, yet effective suicide prevention is impossible without this. I want to paraphrase the words of Professor Michael Chandler, who recently visited Australia. I understand that the Mental Health Commission had a role in co-sponsoring Professor Chandler’s visit and that many people had an opportunity to hear him, which is great. He came to visit Australia to share his expertise from more than 40 years researching and working among Canada’s First Nation communities. He made the point that cultural wounds require cultural healing and that it is not about mental health; it is not about mental illness. I know that his words resonated strongly with many people who heard him. He spoke about cultural continuity and cultural healing, and the importance of young Aboriginal people having a sense of identity, belonging and purpose. He pointed out that Aboriginal youths take their lives because they cannot see a future for themselves, and suicide prevention efforts must be founded on addressing this basic premise.

This is recognised by many people and I am pleased to say that some fantastic programs of this nature are being run in the Kimberley. An example, of course, is Yiriman. We have talked about Yiriman before in this place; it gets bandied about a fair bit. But this model has been a successful one. I also wanted to use this opportunity to say that I am pleased to note that the program recently won first place in category B of the 2012 Indigenous governance awards, and I congratulate them for this fantastic achievement. In his speech at the Indigenous governance awards, Mick Dodson noted that the clearest key ingredient of successful programs such as Yiriman was that they placed culture at the centre of everything that they did. I hope many people were listening to this statement.

I wanted to say those few words because I have had some really interesting correspondence since that debate occurred in this place. I think the prevention of Aboriginal youth suicide in the Kimberley is too important for any government to get wrong. All the goodwill in the world will not make up for flawed delivery. It is true to say that there are some success stories; it is also true to say that there are many stories emerging in the Kimberley of lack of success that is creating a lot of division, and that is very, very concerning. There are problems on the ground and I do not want them to be glossed over; these people need to be heard and, more importantly, the issues emerging need to be addressed

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