If we are to prevent suicide amongst our mob its going to be the simple things that do it.
For the last decade I have been working on the assumption that other people working at other organisations will always have our backs when it comes to the biggest challenges that face us as a people. The harsh reality is that the suicide prevention and mental health sectors are now an industry turning over billions of dollars per annum and yet, as the detail tells us, the rate of Indigenous suicide is not changing – in fact its getting worse. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples now have one of the highest rates of suicide in the developed world. Four years ago I made the decision that if were going to make a difference we needed to move from relying on others and begin to focus on what we can all do each and every day when it comes suicide.
By chance we had a men’s group meeting where one of our blokes began to talk openly up his struggles and this was around the same time another member of our group took his own life. For the first time I had realized that this was not just a case of mental illness (neither of these men had presented to a help seeking service or seen a GP) and much of what was confronting them was down to the daily struggle of life. The more I dug the more I discovered that the yarning circles we were running as part of our men’s group meetings was an outlet for our people to talk about what was happening in their lives – relationship breakdowns, struggles with drugs and drink, homelessness, lack of a job, the feeling of being disconnected from country, kin and culture. In actual fact what we were dealing with was an outlet for our people to speak and one where they were always heard – based on trust and the rule that anything that happens in the circle remains in the circle.
The important lesson I and others discovered, and we probably already knew, that when it comes to suicide prevention it’s a combination of a couple of things. The first is the acceptance that not everything is about mental illness, diagnosable or otherwise. Its often about the daily struggle of life. The there is the value in listening and identifying the root cause of the daily struggle – for example, if someone is struggling to find work then, over time, they will invariably become depressed. Their self-worth and confidence will decline and once that happens it’s a slippery slope. Then there are those who face homelessness and housing insecurity – when you are constantly worried about where to lay your head at night then they worry begins to consume you. When it comes to struggling with mounting debt because of fines or credit companies chasing you or the struggle with hitting the bottle to hide your shame or drown your sorrows – each of these things when you think about it is preventable. And yet we seem to be constantly taking the role of being the ambulance sitting at the bottom of the cliff waiting to catch those we can – and so we end up constantly focusing on mental health without spending time and care on things that create it.
You see you can sit around with a counsellor or call a help line, not that many of our mob do, and you make yourself better for a single hour or a day – but that doesn’t help with the struggle I have talked about. Notwithstanding we seem to have this unending appetite for programs that have been designed by non-Aboriginal people for us – having not included us but thinking they know what is best. Well, what has been happening has not worked – and yet here we are, Babana Aboriginal Men’s Group with our little ol yarning circle taking a different approach – a very ancient approach. The formula is simple. We sit, we yarn. We come with no judgement and we listen with love. In those moments of struggle talk (I call it) that listening helps us to identify what we can do to solve the problem and then; we set about the task.
Over the more than a decade Babana has been running we have placed dozens of our mob into work. We have found dozens more secure housing, found ways and means to put food in the bellies of there little Jarjums (children in the local language), of helping them get their fines and debts under control, of helping them get to the job interview by topping up their Opal cards. Small things, every day things that make a difference. In doing so I would argue we have been in the life saving business right from the very beginning.
This September 13th we will be joined by hundreds of our mob for our suicide prevention awareness day, by service providers and Government departments, business and industry. We will yarn, we will hear stories, we will talk about the daily struggles of life, addressing mental health and encouraging our mob to do more; to reach out and have a yarn. We will be doing what we have been for tens of thousands of years – simply yarning.
You see it’s the small things in community that can have the biggest impact.
About the Author: Mark Spinks is the Chairman of Babana Aboriginal Men’s Group and Tribal Warrior Association. He is the former Chairman of the Aboriginal Housing Corporation and one of the founders of the annual ANZAC Day Colored Diggers March. You can email him at email@example.com . Babana was a recipient of a Suicide Prevention Australia Life Award in 2018 in recognition of its suicide prevention programs.
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