A focus on culture may be the key to reducing the high rate of suicide among Indigenous Australians, experts say, as they gather to hear the experiences of First Nations people from around the world to find solutions.
Richard Weston, chief executive of the Healing Foundation, said he was keen to hear from experts from New Zealand and Canada at the World Congress on Public Health in Melbourne today to discuss how they had tackled the issue.
“Suicide is a pretty difficult issue because it shocks people, because it’s so sudden, and in a lot of our communities it is happening to younger people, so that creates a lot of despair,” he said.
“I think we have to, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, find that space to have conversations about what are the difficult issues, to be able to find those activities that will instil purpose and hope in young people’s lives so they are less prone to despair.”
Mr Weston said culture should be used as a “tool for hope”, and programs that re-engaged people through activities like yarning circles, where people shared their stories, had had some success.
He said a men’s healing project, which targeted three communities in Northern Territory, had proved beneficial.
“We’re talking about guys, dealing with alcohol related issues, alcohol abuse, guys that are violent, guys that are going in and out of jail, these are guys that are living disrupted lives,” he said.
About 40 per cent of the group were under the age of 18, and they were connected with older men who took them fishing and taught them traditional dances.
“One these younger men were learning dances that hadn’t been performed for 30 years or so,” he said.
“All that knowledge, telling stories, telling the history of our communities, is all there. It’s dormant, it’s held in someone’s head somewhere in the community.
“These men’s healing projects just help unlock that knowledge and it created some significance changes.”
He said police in the communities reported violence had halved within two years, there was a reduction in recidivism, and some of the men found work.
“What that tells us is that culture is providing a place people can find strength, they can find support for the issues and challenges they face,” he said.
“It gives men a sense of purpose, a sense of connection to their past, and those are things that build resilience and safety.
He said since the program had been in place, he was not aware of anyone taking their own life.
Professor Pat Dudgeon from the School of Indigenous Studies at The University of Western Australia said speaking to other First Nations people with experience in suicide gave a greater sense of hope.
“I think the high rates of suicide and mental health issues and the disadvantage that’s happening is not just an Australian story,” she said.
“I think indigenous people do have a lot to share between ourselves, and there are similar issues, so coming together does give us a global support network and information sharing platform, and it makes us not feel so alone.”
‘Solutions lie in cultural strength’
Professor Dudgeon said the shared colonial past of Australia, New Zealand and Canada could not be ignored in the discussion.
New Zealand’s Maori people have a suicide more than one and a half times the non-Maori population, while suicide rates among Inuit people in Canada are among the highest in the world.
“I know we’re not alone, that the same thing is happening in other indigenous countries.”
Mr Weston said understanding the past was important to finding solutions.
“Solutions lie in our cultural strength, our connection to our culture and understanding our histories,” she said.
“For Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it’s not about trying to have a debate in this country about blame or guilt for non-Aborginal people, it’s really just trying to understand how we got to where we are.
“So if we understand how we got to where we are, we can create solutions that can change the situation.”
Michael Maera, who works in suicide prevention with New Zealand’s Maori people, said connection to the land was still an issue.
“A lot of our people were taken from prime real estate sites next to the ocean where they fished and hunted and did all those sorts of things, and now they’re stuck in lower social economic areas trying to survive and keep their culture alive,” he said.
Earlier this year, the Federal Government started the rollout of an Indigenous suicide prevention plan in Northern Territory and South Australia to help boost support services.
The Congress discussion on suicide prevention in First Nations people was supported by the Black Dog Institute.
This piece was orginally published on ‘ABC News’ April 4, 2017.