Some members of South Australia’s Riverland Aboriginal community have lost 23 members of their family in the past two years, and they say they are desperate for help in dealing with grief.
Their plea comes as Prime Minister Scott Morrison delivered his first Closing the Gap statement on Thursday, saying years of limited progress were “unforgivable”.
Youth worker Tyson Lindsay, at just 23 years of age, has lost 23 family and friends in the space of two years.
“Having a funeral every six weeks, how do you cope? What do you do? You’re still dealing with the first one,” he said.
“It bleeds off into the community. You might have your crime rate go up, domestic violence go up, just because of the emotional content.”
Life Without Barriers Social worker Sam Mitchell has lost 16 close family and friends in the past year.
He has already attended three funerals this year and said the stress was overwhelming.
“When we’re losing some of these people it feels like we’ve lost part of ourselves. We miss that connection that we had with that person,” he said.
Elder Barney Lindsay has lost two of his nieces and his son.
“There’s been so much people passing away it’s like my tears have dried up. There’s no more tears to shed,” he said.
“You put on a strong face all the time … [but] your body and mind just cut off everyone and can’t see anything.”
All of the deaths referred to by the Aboriginal community were in South Australia.
Gap not closing for Indigenous Australia
Nationwide and in South Australia, five out of seven Closing the Gap targets are not on track.
When comparing the rate of Indigenous deaths to the wider community, the latest ABS statistics from 2017 indicate the standard death rate for Indigenous people Australia-wide is 9.8 per 1,000 people, while the rate for non-Indigenous is 5.7.
Some of the deaths referred to by the local Aboriginal people are due to chronic health conditions, substance abuse and suicide, amongst other causes.
Fifteen-year-old Andrew Lindsay said the grief has hit youth the hardest.
“You’re happy every time you come around and see them, and then they die,” Andrew said.
“The pain is something I never felt before, especially at my age … you’re lost and can’t find your way back anymore.”
Elders like Uncle Lindsay were concerned the loss of other elders would leave youth without a sense of identity and culture.
“It’s like a book without a cover. If you haven’t got the language or the culture then you feel like a cork in the ocean, getting tossed around, don’t know where you are, what you’re going to do.”
Need for investment in Aboriginal community
Missions like Gerard in the Riverland are run down and lack recreational areas for children and families to enjoy.
Barney Lindsay said the older members of the community were turning to alcohol, at times, to numb their pain.
“If it’s [grief] not regularly dealt with, and helped, it could become destruction. Driven to alcohol and drugs. Like I said, there’s hardly any opportunity for them to be given to lift them up,” he said.
“There’s isn’t any future for them, no jobs, and the stress level sort of becomes unbearable.”
The latest ABS figures from 2016 highlight this, with the unemployment rate at 22.1 per cent for Aboriginal people in the Murray Mallee, compared with 6.4 per cent for non-Indigenous people.
The most recent, local Life Without Barriers survey found almost half of the Riverland’s homeless population is Indigenous, with most of them aged 18 to 44 years of age.
Mr Mitchell is advocating for mental health services for children as young as 13 years old, when they would be culturally considered adults.
From his experience of working in Aboriginal health, he said the services that are currently available might not be age or culturally appropriate.
“Sometimes with a lot of our young people they don’t talk much, especially our young men, so it’s important they reach out,” Mr Mitchell said.
“Through the funding agreements with some of the organisations they generally wait till you’re 16 and then do an assessment.
“We might be a bit too late by the time they’re 16 and we’re sitting and waiting. A lot can happen in those three to four years.
“It’s very important we get to the young people early and teach them to be open and honest.”
Tyson and his uncle, Barney Lindsay, both said it needs to go further than that.
They said there was a need for jobs, leadership training and inspiration.
“They’re [youth] coming up and asking me questions [like] … ‘What do I think? How do I think?’ People need help out here,” Tyson Lindsay said.
“We need opportunities … we need more gyms where people can work out and get frustration off instead of going to the pub first thing in the morning. We need to create more employment.”