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Issue #1649      July 30, 2014

Summit targets suicide

WA: Putting Indigenous people in charge of their own affairs and creating strong connections with culture are the prime ingredients for making happy, healthy communities that can protect young people from taking their own lives, a recent roundtable summit on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide heard.

The Perth summit, held last month at the Nedlands Yacht Club, also saw the launch of a new National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership Group in Mental Health, said to signal a new era in Indigenous leadership in the areas of mental health and suicide prevention.

Professor Pat Dudgeon, from the University of Western Australia’s School of Indigenous Studies and Australia’s first Aboriginal psychologist, hailed the roundtable as an “absolute success” in bringing together people from all walks of life to tackle the alarming rate of Indigenous suicide – twice the rate of other Australians and among younger age groups up to six times higher.

Professor Dudgeon said the summit heard from a mix of people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous: community members, grassroots campaigners including several contributors to the recent Elders Report on youth suicide, academics, policy makers, mental health professionals and government representatives.

A pivotal point of the summit was an address by Canadian academic Michael Chandler, a noted expert in suicide prevention among Canadian First Nations communities. His research points to a sense of “cultural continuity” as a key protective factor against a community’s risk for suicide.

“The Canadian experience has done a lot of research with colleagues to show communities with low suicide rates have a whole bunch of factors,” Professor Dudgeon said. “They call it cultural continuity but if we translate it to the Australian context it’s about self-determination, or preserving cultural activities.”

Other factors identified by Professor Chandler’s research include communities that have achieved a measure of self-government; been quick off the mark to pursue Aboriginal title to traditional lands; promoted women to leadership roles; constructed facilities that preserve their culture; and worked to gain control over their own civic lives, including health, education, policing, and child welfare services.

The WA roundtable was Professor Chandler’s “third conversation” with his Australian counterparts since 2010 – hence its title, “The Third Conversation: Has Anything Changed?”

When asked by the Koori Mail if anything had changed, Professor Dudgeon said things had changed “a little bit, with a lot of action happening in the community and Indigenous people gaining more of a voice”.

She said it was important that the national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide prevention strategy be reactive to the roundtable’s outcomes, which will be presented to government in coming weeks.

“I think that ministers will be really keen to see what the outcomes of the roundtable are. They are keen to hear and get concrete ways forward,” Professor Dudgeon said.

“Governments – whether state or federal – want to do something; they do want to do something but they’re not sure how to go about it.”

In some communities, suicide clusters involving up to 20-plus deaths in a short timeframe had devastated those left behind, Professor Dudgeon said.

She said good case management was needed following a suicide to prevent more such tragedies. She said she believed clusters occurred because of grieving and loss in the community.

She also points to broader concerns about identifying what is wrong with society itself. “Chandler says suicide is the miner’s canary,” Professor Dudgeon said.

“So we have high rates of suicide, which in itself is a terrible and tragic thing, but what are the reasons?”

On the last day of the summit, Professor Dudgeon launched the new National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership Group in Mental Health, endorsed by NSW Mental Health Commissioner John Feneley and Western Australian Mental Health Commissioner Timothy Marney.

The body has coalesced around a core group of senior Indigenous people working in the areas of social and emotional wellbeing, mental health and suicide prevention. Many of the group’s representatives are involved with the state and national mental health commissions and other leading Indigenous health organisations.

If you would like to speak with someone about suicide, call the 24-hour Lifeline crisis service on 131 114 or the Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.

Koori Mail

Next article – “Free Palestine” rallies continue in Perth

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