Indigenous elders should be put in charge of arresting an epidemic of youth  suicide in Aboriginal communities, according to a report to be released on Tuesday. The report, based on  interviews with more than 30 elders from communities in northern and central  Australia, calls for suicide prevention funding to be directed to elders to help  young people connect with their land and culture.

“Culture has become life-giving medicine for our people, closing the wounds  of the past and standing us strong to face the future,” Pat Dudgeon, who  co-chairs the federal government’s Aboriginal suicide prevention advisory group,  wrote in an introduction to the report.

Young Aboriginal men are four times more likely to take their own lives than  their non-indigenous counterparts, and young Aboriginal women are five times  more likely to die by suicide than their non-indigenous peers.

Professor Dudgeon, a National Mental Commissioner who was Australia’s first  indigenous psychologist, said youth suicide across the top end had been almost  non-existent before the 1980s, but had now reached “crisis proportions”.

She said efforts to prevent indigenous suicide needed to recognise the  cultural differences between non-indigenous and Aboriginal and Torres Strait  Islander people.bigstock_All_Excited_251062

“There is no more urgent time to sit down and listen to our elders than  now,” she wrote. “After so many years of top-down policymaking and funding  programs that have not achieved the changes intended on the ground, they are  crying out to be heard and to be involved in healing their communities and  giving young indigenous people their inheritance of cultural knowledge, identity  and strength.”

In a foreword to the report, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social  Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda said there was “a clear imbalance between  efforts to provide a westernised education and access to traditional cultural  knowledge”.

“Learning how to live on country and having access to traditional knowledge  and culture strengthens and reinforces a positive sense of identity. It provides  young people a cultural foundation and helps protect them from feelings of  hopelessness, isolation and being lost between two worlds,” Mr Gooda wrote.

“If we lose our culture we are lost. Without it we are finished as a  people,” Andrew Dowadi, an elder from Maningrida in Arnhem Land, said in the  report.

In his interview, Joe Brown, of Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley said: “If  they lose language and connection to culture they become a nobody inside and  that’s enough to put them over the edge.”

Edward John Naylor, from Cape York said: “If we take them out on country and  get their minds occupied, we can see where to go from there. From that  experience, they can learn to respect their elders too.”

Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said elders had told him engaging  young people in education and work was critical to tackling the problem.

“Far too many Indigenous people, particularly young people, have taken their  own life,” Senator Scullion said.

“Whilst significant funding is tackling this problem, the most important  thing we can do is to ensure young people are engaged.”

The former federal Labor government last year committed $17.8 million of new  funding over four years to tackle suicide and self-harm among indigenous  people.

This article first appeared on ‘ Sydney Morning Herald’ on 14 April 2014.

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