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”.
“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.