A new campaign, launched today, draws on the strengths of Indigenous Australian culture, such as connection, resilience and community, to support actions to reduce suicide and improve the mental health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Below, Dr Vanessa Lee, Chair of R U OK’s Indigenous Advisory Group, outlines the aims and main messages of the campaign, which has been led by Aboriginal owned and managed creative agency, 33 Creative and developed in consultation with Indigenous communities.
Vanessa Lee writes:
For a lot of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nations, there is no language for the word suicide.
When there are no words to describe an outcome, it makes it difficult to determine the behaviour that has led to the outcome, especially where you come from a culture that is connected to the world around you through the cycle of life-death-life.
When the connection is broken unnaturally, in the case of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – inhumanely, people must live to survive rather than just enjoying the connection of living. This makes it difficult to articulate the words to describe suicide and in-turn how you actively look for symptoms of someone thinking of taking their own life?
Suicide is not a normality for our culture and probably not too many other cultures either, however, death by suicide is the highest cause of death for Indigenous people. More so than any other population in the world (and it’s not a competition).
The power of ancestral knowledge
It is not a new phenomenon that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people come from the oldest living, practising culture in the world. Our ancestors go back 40,000 to 60,000 years on the Australian continent due to our connections to land, family, and culture. As we come into the new millennia, we bring our world view and the power of ancestral knowledge so let’s not forget who we are and where we have come from.
We know that the impact of colonisation, the inequitable actions of the settlers, and the constant surveillance of us as First Peoples continues to fuel a transgenerational scar that we as a people are struggling to overcome and heal.
Today’s injustices in the form of racism, bullying and other discriminations that are placed upon us is making it harder for us to see and hear the calls for help from our own people. We must stop and think about the words and behaviors that we do have in our own culture to combat suicide. Instead of looking at the deficits in our vernacular, we need to draw upon our strengths and a collective as a people.
Because of our connections when we stand united, we are stronger together.
I am grateful to stand with you this week to launch ‘Stronger Together’, a national campaign that has been developed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders People.
As Chair, I have worked with R U OK’s Indigenous Advisory Group to set the direction for engaging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in the power of conversations when it comes to suicide prevention.
I am grateful to see the work we initiated, led by Aboriginal owned and managed creative agency, 33 Creative, made available today to regional, remote and urban communities across the country. It is amazing to see what can happen when passionate, creative people come together.
We come from a culture where we are so connected with art and audio and that sense of innate creativity. I can see all of that reflected in the work 33 Creative has put together with support from the team at R U OK? A campaign that speaks to our people must be developed by our people, and this is something we have focused on every step of the way.
I know that R U OK? may not be for everyone but is here for all of us. I acknowledge that there is so much resting beneath that question for us.
The legacy of trauma
Wellness for our people is not a simple endeavor when processing layer upon layer of trauma, with many of us struggling with socio economic issues that may make it hard to see when someone else is struggling. I acknowledge that it is almost impossible to pick someone else up when you yourself are just living each day to survive.
I got behind this campaign because even with the complexities of our lives, the pain of our past and the pressures of our present, seeing the signs when someone is not OK and starting a conversation can and will change a life.
I have personal experience of preventing suicide within my own family, so when I got the chance to think about how R U OK? could help our mob, I immediately saw its potential.
A campaign like this opens that door and let’s everyone know that you don’t have to be afraid to have those conversations. ‘Stronger Together’ reminds us to take the time to look out for those often-subtle signs that someone may not be doing well.
It’s a reminder to look out for our mob, to look out for each other and continue to raise our children together. Just as we always have.
A simple yarn
You don’t have to force the yarn. Sometimes I just sit with my son back to back as we both read. That physical touch and closeness makes a difference. If you take the time to sit with loved ones or those you care about, to talk generally, the tougher conversations may come a little easier.
Show you’re interested. Young people need to know that someone cares, and someone loves them. We all need to know that we are emotionally connected.
Really listen to what those around you are saying and notice when their behavior changes. Perhaps it is the way they walk? Perhaps the way they are eating, sleeping or socialising has changed? Maybe their relationship with drugs or alcohol has become riskier?
Suicide is not only about mental illness. It can be a solution that people seek out when life pressures are getting too much. Noticing the signs before it gets to crisis point can save a life.
When people are looking for alternatives to numbing the pain, they often don’t see the opportunities in life. A simple yarn can help people find the opportunities.
Through this campaign, I hope you’ll feel inspired and motivated to have a yarn with each other, spend time with each other and remember where we came from.
As the First Peoples of this country, it’s time to remember our strengths because we have survived.
Let’s support each other to build capacity in community to connect with each through conversation.
Use these tools and others to become your own change agents.
Let’s be the ancestors our ancestors were to us.
Dr Vanessa Lee is from the Yupungathi and Meriam people, Cape York and the Torres Strait. She is Chair of R U OK’s Indigenous Advisory Group, a senior researcher in social-epidemiology within the Faculty of Health Sciences at University of Sydney, chair Public Health Indigenous Leadership Education Network and a director on the board of Suicide Prevention Australia.