The inaugural Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention conference, which finished yesterday in Alice Springs, provided delegates with a safe space to come together and to share experiences, emotions and insights.
While the formal conference recommendations are yet to come, some of the key themes to emerge were the centrality of connection to Culture and country, the need for holistic approaches to address the wider social determinants of health, and the importance of healing and strengths-based approaches in working with communities.
Another recurring theme was the need for governments to be more accountable in how they work with communities.
Summer May Finlay, a Yorta Yorta woman, Croakey contributor, and PhD candidate, who has provided multi-media coverage of the conference via Twitter and Periscope interviews (see them here), writes an overview below.
And don’t miss watching this clip of her conference reflections, also featured at the bottom of this post.
Summer May Finlay writes:
As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we often have to be strong for our families and communities.
Like me, most of our people put on their protective armour when they step out into the world. That armour only comes off in a few very safe places.
This conference was one of those safe places. It allowed us a space to be vulnerable. It allowed us to share a full range of emotions – hope, sorrow, anger, and determination.
At times I felt very vulnerable. I felt the pain that most of us keep buried, and I decided that it was OK to feel the pain. It is that feeling that I know drives most of us.
When dealing with the topic of suicide, the emotions we feel are a strength. We needed to talk about our experiences to be able to understand what is required to heal and reduce the devastating suicide rates.
In a powerful keynote oration, Stan Grant, a Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi man, journalist and author, spoke of the enduring impact of “the memories and wounds” felt by many:
“The memories of loss and sadness, the memories of grief… this is our inheritance.
These memories are not just carried within us; these memories seep deep into our land.
This is a sad country in so many ways for us…We love and find laughter in each other but we check ourselves because we know too well that grief waits for us.”
We knew through these words he too has experienced the pain. Pain he generously shared with us.
Everyone who was at the conference has in some way been touched by suicide. Despite the pain they feel, they were able to find the strength to come together to work together.
Focus on solutions
Working together does not mean that there weren’t differences of opinions. There were. But the conference was about us coming together to find solutions, despite our differences.
The presentations were varied. There were sessions on the link between justice and suicide, local solutions, a holistic preventative approach, what we don’t know, and the importance of culture.
A number of key themes were repeated by different speakers across the two days. These included the need for better crisis management, a holistic approach to suicide prevention and that connection to Culture holds the key to reducing the toll of suicides.
Professor Pat Dudgeon, a Bardi woman, a research fellow and psychologist known for her leadership in Indigenous higher education and mental health, was the Chair of the Conference Advisory Committee. She has seen and felt the impacts of suicide, and decided to work in the space of suicide prevention and self-harm because of her experiences.
After a suicide of a close family member, she realised the lack of support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. “There were no services to support my family,” she said. “There were no services, no counsellors, no literature. It’s like they didn’t exist or something.”
For Professor Dudgeon, it was the family who was the support: “We were lucky that my family was quite strong…we were lucky in that regard”.
Professor Dudgeon is working for Culturally appropriate resources and services for our peoples. She believes “firstly, Indigenous suicide is different. If you are going to do any kind of service or intervention, it needs to be culturally appropriate and needs to have community engagement.”
Kanat Wano of the Meriam Nation says there is a difference between “surviving and thriving”, and he wants to see Culturally appropriate programs like his all over the country.
In some areas, such as the needs of gender diverse people and for people with disabilities, we need more information, and more needs to be done (as outlined by Dameyon Bonson in relation to LGBTQI people at The Guardian).
Vanessa Lee, a Wik and Meriam woman, says we need listen to the anecdotal evidence but we also need data: “We need that statistical information; we need that identification.”
She hopes that this will lead to better policy. She suggests we need a “strategy to bring this all together into one space…which is inclusive of the sexuality and gender diverse people”. (See a video interview with Vanessa Lee).
Scott Avery, a Worimi man who works at the First Peoples Disability Network, also acknowledges the limitations in our evidence base, which has an impact on people with disability.
“Aboriginal people with disability are often the most marginalised people in our country,” he said. “They often experience disadvantage and discrimination in layers.”
He wants the wisdom and lived experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with a disability to be captured, as at present it is an invisible space. (See a video interview with Scott Avery).
Holistic approaches needed
To explain the meaning of suicides in communities, Professor Dudgeon draws on an analogy used by Professor Michael Chandler, who has worked with First Nation Peoples in Canada to understand youth suicide and self harm – that “suicide is like the miner’s canary”.
“Reform is needed, it’s not just about suicide where it’s needed. Suicide is that last desperate act that people do, it’s a sign.
When the birds die, it means the air around is not good. So high rates of suicide are indicating that things are not good in a group.
We need to do other kinds of changes. It can’t be looked at in isolation to the other social determinants and mental health.”
The social determinants approach to suicide prevention was also raised by Professor Tom Calma AO, a former Social Justice Commissioner, who said we need to “break down the silos” within government.
His comment reinforces the need for us to see the whole person, community and family in their totality to truly be able to prevent suicides.
Mervyn Eades, who spoke of his experiences in and out of the justice system, understands the need for holistic approaches.
He realised how hard it was for many people like him to get a job, which is why he started a training and employment agency, Ngalla Maya, for other people who have been in jail.
He wants to see more opportunities on release because “the reality comes in when you walk out in the community and the options aren’t there. The recidivism and reoffending comes from the lack of options.” (Read more in this ABC story.)
Vicki O’Donnell, the CEO of the Kimberley Aboriginal Health Services Ltd, said we need to develop a better understanding of local responses in regards to suicide.
“We don’t want to be concentrating on the numbers of suicides, but the social determinants and all the reasons people suicide, and how we can actually run programs to stop that happening,” she said.
Keynote speaker Rosalie Kunoth-Monks stands proud on her land, that of the Arrernte people. She has seen too many deaths from suicide, and believes “it is Culture, language and ceremony which keeps us healthy, but more importantly it’s our land which is the most important”.
The “joy of life is to be found in the black Culture of this country”, she said.
Stan Grant also talked of Culture and the role it played in the health of our Peoples, but said that we can also walk in both worlds:
“We can have a foot in our traditions and a foot in the market. That we can speak our languages and we can know our kin and we attend the best universities and I can be a Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi man in New York or Jerusalem or Bagdad or Beijing as surely as I can be in Alice Springs or my home town of Griffiths.”
There was talk of the issues and of solutions. There was also a call for government to listen to communities and fund programs designed by them to address their individual needs.
There was also a recognition that the issues we face cannot be solved solely by governments. Rather, communities need to step up as Peoples, and make changes for future generations.
Professor Dudgeon wants to see the $17.8 million that was set aside by the Federal Government for suicide prevention allocated once the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project report is completed.
It’s not just the amount of money which is important but also the implementation. She said: “I think that a lot of funding is put in for Indigenous issues but they aren’t successful because they don’t engage with community.”
It is the people in each community who know what’s happening. Their input into any program or support is the only way to make a real difference to preventing suicides.
Richard Weston, a Meriam man and CEO of the Healing Foundation, said: “We need broader strategies around preventing crises, and to be supporting communities to access healing and other services before they get to crisis.”
This “is going to take a different way of thinking,” he said.
The conference was not just about sharing and networking. It was also about making recommendations, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and governments.
The Conference Advisory Committee will list all the conference recommendations in a report, which will be available on the website.
From the Twittersphere:
Stan Grant’s keynote presentation generated lively interest from Twitter and the wider media
The impact of over-incarceration was highlighted.
There was music and dance.
Selfies and social shots
The conference Twitter analytics were added to this post on 23 May, showing there were 997 participants at #ATSISPEP on Twitter and almost 22 million Twitter impressions (30 March – 12 May).
Read the Twitter transcript here.
For help or more information
For people who may be experiencing sadness or trauma, please visit these links to services and support
- If you are depressed or contemplating suicide, help is available at Lifeline on 131 114 or online. Alternatively you can call the Suicide Call Back Serviceon 1300 659 467.
- For young people 5-25 years, call kids help line1800 55 1800
- For resources on social and emotional wellbeing and mental health services in Aboriginal Australia, seehere.
Declarations and acknowledgements
Summer May Finlay is reporting on the event for the Croakey Conference News Service. Her expenses for attending the conference have been covered with a bursary. We also acknowledge and thank Frank Meany of OneVision for his donation to cover Croakey’s editorial production and design costs associated with conference coverage.
Bookmark this link to track all the #ATSISPEP conference coverage.