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Issue #1726      April 13, 2016

Call for overhaul

Adele Cox, senior project consultant with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Project (ATSISPP), is calling for an overhaul of the way the health system responds to suicide, mental illness and self-harm in Indigenous communities.

Cox and fellow consultant Gerry Georgatos are part of a critical response team that visits Indigenous communities after someone has taken their own life. This month they have been in a remote community in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, after the suicide of a 10-year-old Aboriginal girl.

“There needs to be a better holistic approach to mental health,” Cox said. “With the issues around suicide, we need to ask, ‘How do we move beyond rhetoric to really doing something?’

“There is lots of goodwill, but there is a crisis and we seem to be stuck in that place. Until we change the whole nation’s psyche, and start looking at these issues as a matter of priority, we’re not going to get much change.”

State Coroner Ros Fogliani announced that she would hold an inquest into several suspected suicides in the Pilbara and Kimberley regions, but could not say when or how many deaths would be examined. \

Georgatos said he was aware of 19 suicides in Indigenous communities since December. He said that for Indigenous people aged 15 to 35, the leading cause of death was suicide, with three people recently buried in five days in the Goldfields.

He has called for a royal commission into Indigenous suicides.

Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project was expected to report by mid-year, but had provided interim advice that existing response services were often not well coordinated or delivered in a culturally appropriate way.

Cox said that consistency of programs was an issue and said community-based organisations could often drown in paperwork. “What’s contributing to the frustration is that we’ve seen a lot of good programs trying to respond to needs in mental health and suicide prevention, innovative ideas using sport, or helping people with parenting, that sadly don’t always get funded,” she said.

In the recent case, Cox said the community had been further traumatised by insensitive responses by the mainstream media, which had included wild speculation, inappropriate reporting, misinformation and blaming of the community.

“It adds to and very much sensationalises the actual incident and creates further distress for the community,” she said. “In this particular case, I’m not happy about the fact that some news reports went down the route of naming a child. Journalists need to abide by the Mindframe guidelines about responsible reporting of suicide.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda said all governments needed to better fund health services. “I’ve been bashing my head against this wall for the last seven or eight years,” he said.

“The only way we’re going to make real difference is when the government decides to engage with us because we have the answers to what happened in the Kimberley.

“Canberra’s not going to solve that problem.”

Cox said there were difficult conversations that needed to be had regarding mental health – but that they needed to start from a position of support rather than blame. “Reality tells us that if we were all doing what we can to the best of our abilities, we wouldn’t be need to have a project like the one I’m involved with,” she said.

“All of us need to stop being defensive and talk about what can be done.

“I think there’s a need for a broader conversation, so that collegially we can come to a point where we can provide better care.

“We need to change the way we work as Aboriginal people, families and communities. We need to take responsibility. It’s all good to blame services, but, ultimately, these are our kids and families and we all need to make sure that our children are living their lives as children in the safest possible way.”

Koori Mail

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 or Kids Helpline (young people aged 5-25) 1800 55 1800

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander support services can be found at or or

Next article – Zooper results at Daily Drinks

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