A month after a coroner’s findings into the deaths of 13 young Indigenous people, governments have been criticised for a “lack of action” by former sportsman turned mental health campaigner Joe Williams.
Mr Williams made the comments while working with school children and youth workers in the east Kimberley town of Kununurra with his suicide prevention and wellbeing education organisation, The Enemy Within.
A month ago, the WA coroner Ros Fogliani reported on the deaths of 13 young Indigenous people from the region, finding 12 of the deaths were by suicide, and making an open finding on one case.
Ms Fogliani made 42 recommendations, saying services were inadequate and that the situation in the Kimberley was dire for children and young people.
The West Australian and Federal Governments are yet to formally respond to the coroner’s findings.
Mr Williams has questioned why, and made comparisons with the response to the suicide of Dolly Everett, the daughter of a well-known Northern Territory cattle family.
“The campaign around a young non-Indigenous girl went viral all over the country and there was action,” Mr Williams said.
“Thirteen young Aboriginal people die by suicide and it’s quiet now after a month.
“We are finding young people are dying here, yet there’s no response.”
Governments considering findings
While the governments have not responded formally to the findings, the Federal MP representing the Kimberley, Melissa Price, and WA MP Josie Farrer, provided statements to the ABC.
“These are challenges that have confronted successive governments, and Aboriginal communities, for decades,” Ms Farrer said.
“We will be speaking with senior Kimberley Aboriginal people in coming days, weeks and months to talk through the findings and recommendations as we develop a considered response.”
Ms Price said the coroner’s findings were being considered by her colleague Ken Wyatt, Federal Minister for Indigenous Health.
“I know there is work being done by Ken Wyatt,” she said.
“This is clearly something that they are taking into account and I think that this is not something to politicise and this is something that he is doing a very good job with.”
But Mr Williams challenged the responses.
“If we’re doing a good job then we’ll see results won’t we? It’s that plain and simple,” he said.
“There’s got to be some accountability at the top to where certain programs are being implemented.”
Mr Williams has come to suicide prevention after surviving his own battle with mental health.
He was spotted as a talented rugby league player as a teenager, but as he progressed to the professional level, his thoughts were growing darker.
“Everyone has a dialogue inside their head,” Mr Williams said.
“For me, that dialogue heightened to a really negative place, and didn’t only question things I was doing, but questioned my worth.”
He managed to beat his alcohol addiction and found some insight into his condition when he transitioned from the NRL into professional boxing.
“Boxing taught me resilience, boxing taught me how to stick in there in tough times, boxing taught me how to fight back,” Mr Williams said.
“It was very much what I was going through in the real world.”
But it was after surviving an attempted suicide in 2012 when he found his life’s passion.
“When you’re sitting inside a mental health ward and you’ve got people hovering around you, and doctors telling you that you’re lucky to be alive, that’s when you start to question the purpose of your life,” he said.
“My real purpose in life is about helping other people who struggle with mental pain.”
Since that time he has worked in suicide prevention in some of the most remote communities across Australia.
His experience has led him to believe that a coordinated national response to suicide is needed urgently.
“It’s about normalising that conversation and having the conversation with kids that speaking about this stuff is actually good,” Mr Williams said.
“That’s where the community and the country can come together in healing and having difficult conversations because we’re losing lives here.”
The WA Government has said it will formally respond to the coroner’s findings in the coming weeks.