Image: New Zealand youth at a talk by Mike of the Key to Life Charitable Trust Photo: D GOPI
Right across the world, wherever you go, Indigenous communities are suffering. The truth is that whether those communities be in Australia or New Zealand, the United States or Canada the data around social challenges is always out of all proportion to the general population. From mental health to incarceration, to employment and economic participation – each step we take to move forward it appears we are taking two to three steps back.
When it comes to the prevention of suicide the challenge is great and the rates have remained unarrested for more than a decade. In Australia for those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, there were 143 deaths due to suicide (102 male, 41 female) in 2014. The relative age standardised suicide rate was higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males than for non-Indigenous males (30.5 to 17.0 per 100,000 respectively). Similarly, the relative age standardised suicide rate was higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander females than for non-Indigenous females (12.1 to 5.8 per 100,000 respectively).
In Canada the rates also remain stubbornly high. According to research: “Suicide rates among Inuit are shockingly high at six to 11 times the Canadian average. In Nunavut in particular, 27% of all deaths since 1999 have been suicides. This is one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and it continues to rise, especially among youth. For the First Nations population, suicide rates are twice the national average and show no signs of decreasing. However, these rates differ from community to community. Some communities have had “epidemics” of suicide, while others have had few or no suicides for several years.”
In New Zealand, among Maori, it is estimated they are more than twice as likely and at risk of suicide. This stark reality should lead to the conclusion that what we have been attempting to do to arrest these rates is not working. If it had been then we would not be having this conversation.
In Australia the Babana Aboriginal Men’s Group has attempted to disrupt conventional thinking through its now annual suicide prevention awareness day. This is where service providers don’t come and preach about the myriad of services they offer instead they are to listen and observe. The day itself is facilitated by Aboriginal people for Aboriginal people. Workshops are held covering different age groups and challenge areas all conducted through the process of culture engagement and awareness. What this does is allow Aboriginal people to talk in their own languages and using words and phrases that are meaningful to them. In this process Babana is able to bring people together from vastly different places on the challenge continuum from recently released prisoners, to those who are struggling with their sexual identity right through to the aging.
Babana Aboriginal: Suicide Prevention Awareness Day 2015
Of significance is the ability not to be bound by conventional western structures and delivery of service methods. That theme is continued in New Zealand by the Key to Life Charitable Trust where they disrupt current thinking by speaking directly to young people. In the case of Maori its about not binding the young to the world of cultural protocol while still being respectful to culture itself. In others words we often run the risk of hiding behind such protocols and using them to speak down to our youth instead of empowering them to speak up.
From Australia to New Zealand, from Canada to the United States the need to disrupt conventional ways of thinking is important. Even at the higher level of the governance structures of our institutions there needs to be reform. As Chairman of the National Coalition for Suicide Prevention I remain convinced that even our organisation needs to do more to ensure we are listening to and including Indigenous peoples.
Joe Williams: world boxing champion now advocating for suicide prevention
Then there is the other important part we need to, and must focus on, when it comes to suicide prevention. Well may we assist someone back into a state of well-being but unless we also provide them with access to economic opportunity or a return to employment, an active participant in the economy, all we are doing is setting them up for failure. That is why there must be a clear link between the need for social and economic connectivity when it comes to suicide prevention strategies. No longer should social service programs and initiatives run in isolation to economic and employment development. In other word’s we need to, and must, provide people not only with hope but fill them with aspiration and access to opportunity.
We also need to get away from the business of division and feeling the need to pull people down.
Sometimes we can be our own enemies; fighting among ourselves when really what is happening is we are saying the same things albeit in a different way. One person said to me in response to a situation only last week, in an attempt to get me to understand protocol, that “so you should know that just like our Ancestors, we tend to attack first and ask questions later.” Well actually no. That is not what our Ancestors did and that is not what we should be doing.
The truth is if we are truly going to prevent suicide in our communities we need to stop with the barrier building, disrupt current convention and get on with the job of saving lives. In the end, that’s all that should matter; saving lives.
If you - or a friend or family member - are struggling with mental health, there's always someone you can talk to. If you don't feel like talking on the phone, there's also online chat services available through the links:
Matthew Tukaki is the Chairman of Australia’s National Coalition for Suicide Prevention and a non-executive Director of the Board of Suicide Prevention Australia. He is the founder of EntreHub.org, Chair of Sustain Group and Deakin University CSaRO. When the word Indigenous is used in this article it refers to Indigenous as a universal term and not restricted in its use to a single geography.
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