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Issue #1760      December 7, 2016

“Culture and Identity”

WA parliamentary report into Aboriginal youth suicide

In March 2016, following another Aboriginal youth suicide in the remote north of Western Australia, the Education and Health Standing Committee of the WA Parliament decided to conduct an enquiry and present its report on November 17.

The 300 page report contains written and oral submissions from many eminent people throughout Australia. There has been more than 40 reports in the past 15 years. Most of these had failed to address the issue or have had no impact; there had been little or no implementation of the recommendations from the previous reports and no regular report back or feedback to government.

This can be seen in many of the current report’s 44 recommendations. A sense of how urgent the issue has become can be seen from Recommendation 35: “That the Premier and Minister for Community Services report to the Parliament on the implementation of Recommendation 6 in the Commissioner for Children and Young People’s 2015 report, ‘Our Children Can’t Wait: Review of the implementation of recommendations of the 2011 Report of the inquiry into the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people in WA’.”

How did the situation of our young Aboriginal people become so bad and yet so little has been done to address and turn it around? The news of the Committee’s report met with scant coverage in the corporate media.

The report found “Aboriginal children and young people represent 28 percent of all recorded suicide deaths of children and young people despite comprising only three percent of Australia’s population.”

The report makes salient reading into the impact which a capitalist society has on people from a culture and background which is based on collective ownership as opposed to private property held and exploited for profit.

It is salient that in the report’s Chapter 4 “Culture and Identity”, it recognises the importance of culture in stabilising and supporting young people in their quest for identity.

Dr Tracey Westerman, a consultant psychologist who was heavily involved in the research of the report said that in her experience:

“The people who are caught in the middle … who just do not fit anywhere, they are marginalised, they could not fit in their communities, they do not fit in mainstream for whatever reason and they are the ones who have the highest rate of suicide.”

It is for these “marginalised” young people that promoting culture and therefore their identity can play a key role in preventing suicide.

The importance of culture can be exemplified by the description of a female member of the Alive and Kicking Goals Women’s Reference Group who described the relationship between her liyan (spirit) and activities that supported her cultural identity, such as returning to country: “It is all about drawing back to the basic stuff, but for young people what makes your liyan feel good? My liyan feels good when I go back on country.”

It is symptomatic of the problem that the report found that while witnesses and submissions highlighted the need for culturally-based programs, they were currently undervalued and underfunded including on a short term basis for up to two years.

The state Liberal government’s decision to close down many Aboriginal communities claiming there was insufficient economic justification for keeping them open, also contributes to the disadvantage, destructive environments, dispossession and disorder felt by young Aboriginal people – and which are at the core of attempts to take their own lives.

The members of the Parliament’s Health and Education Committee concluded that while the answers to reducing the incidence of youth suicide are complex many are already known. More inquiries and investigations are not needed –only the political will to ensure that resources are allocated and action taken.

The Communist Party of Australia supports the call for action to implement the recommendations of the current report (and of the past 42 reports) into Aboriginal youth suicides to eliminate the causal factors of these tragic and avoidable deaths which will also include involving Aboriginal members – especially the elders of communities.

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