First Nations elders launch a campaign to tackle youth suicide

We end up with ideas on suicide prevention that come from Canberra and bear no semblance to what is needed in the community and on the ground

Dean Gooda of Fitzroy Crossing, West Kimberley, WA

Suicide epidemic image: Lives are being extinguished across the north of the country. (

Cameron Wilson ABC Radio National 'Bush Telegraph' 15 April 2014

Aboriginal people now make up 50 per cent of all suicides that take place in the Northern Territory. That's up from five percent 20 years ago and, for the Elders, the pain is unbearable, writes Keiren McLeonard.

Highly recommended listening: Audio report from ABC Radio National Bush Telegraph 15 April 2014

The tragic waste of life that occurs when a young person commits suicide takes your breath away. In Indigenous communities, particularly across northern Australia, the people are gasping.

That's because of the massive increase in the level of self-harm and youth suicide.

Ten to 24-year-olds, mostly boys and young men, make up 80 per cent of all Indigenous suicides.

The older people's anguish is palpable and a report out today gives voice to Aboriginal Elders across northern Australia, from the Cape to the Kimberley who have never before witnessed such an epidemic of self-harm.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Gooda calls it 'a problem that was close to non-existent a generation ago [that's] exploded into an epidemic that is devastating families and communities right across the top end of Australia'.

He says some of these communities have become places with some of the highest rates of youth suicide and self-harm in the world.

The report gives Indigenous Elders an opportunity to speak out about this unrelenting loss and the pain it leaves behind and to challenge the federal government to help save a generation.

The report says that despite all the good intentions, state and federal governments have not been able to stop the loss of life, and have instead been presiding over its increase.

Despite millions of dollars spent on a network of local suicide-prevention centres, in some parts of the Kimberley the rate is 100 times higher than the national average.

The 31 Elders, from places including Broome, North East Arnhem Land and the Central Desert, Maningrida and Cape York, believe that cross-cultural confusion and loss of cultural identity are the toxic ingredients in the confused reasoning that results in young people killing themselves.

All agree on the need for community-led programs that bring young people back to their roots, culture and country. And they believe they have a pivotal role to play.

YouTube: Culture is Life: James Baydon - Source ABC News

The Elders say learning language and understanding culture are keys to surviving and then thriving, rather than top-down social and health services that are not effective in many remote parts of the country and have a limited life span because of funding changes.

Bardi Elder Lorna Hudson says when she was growing up, 'most of our education was on culture'.

'But when the missions were closed everyone was moved from their own environment, their homelands into one place, in town,' she says.

'Back in the old time, we never heard about suicide. Now it is very, very difficult to talk to the young people about culture and tradition.'

'There's no future in their eyes,' she says.

'They are so full of problems in their own selves and they haven't got a place where they can go to and sit down and talk.'

Indigenous psychologist Professor Pat Dudgeon calls the Elders 'our wisdom keepers'.

She says they are the vital bridge between the modern world and Aboriginal culture.

'They are the leaders of our communities, to whom we continue to rely on for guidance and counselling. There is no more urgent time to sit down and listen to our Elders than now,' says Professor Dudgeon.

In soft, warm, honeyed tones Baydon Williams, the traditional owner at Hermannsburg in the Northern Territory reinforces that message with an appeal to young Indigenous men and children.

'Why it is important to listen to old people is to make your soul strong. Their words, when they speak to you, it feeds your soul to become strong,' he says.

For any solution to be effective, the Elders' guidance must form the foundation of how governments and service providers work with Aboriginal people, Professor Dudgeon says.

The Elders' Report has been put together as part of a Culture is Life initiative.

Culture Is Life: Lorna Hudson OAM

Aboriginal elders lament loss of culture as Indigenous youth suicides rise

ABC News 15 April 2014

Aboriginal elders in northern Australia say a loss of cultural identity is one of the main reasons for rising Indigenous youth suicide rates.

The elders have outlined their views on the issue in a new publication.

Two years of consultation has gone into the elders' report into Preventing Indigenous Self-harm and Youth Suicide.

The report, released today, has interviews with 31 elders and community representatives.

The suicide rate of young Indigenous people in the north of Australia has been rising for the past 20 years and is now claimed to be the highest in the world.

Statistics show young Aboriginal men in Australia are four times more likely to suicide than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

For young Aboriginal women, the rate is claimed to be five times higher.

The report says that in some remote communities in the Kimberley of Western Australia, suicide rates have reached 100 times the national rate.

The elders' report says that, despite good intentions, government programs have failed to stop the problem.

In the report, one elder says alcohol and drugs are the main issues that are pushing young people over the edge.

The report says a loss of cultural identity and and cross-cultural confusion is prevalent among young Aboriginals.

Mix of traditional and modern wayss

Common among the elders' comments in the report was a desire to find a mix of traditional and modern ways.

"Suicide occurs when young people find themselves in no-man's land," said Bernard Tipiloura of the Tiwi Islands.

"If our young people today join their Aboriginal culture with the Western style, they will be okay."

Des Bowen of Cape York in Queensland said: "The only way to find out what is going on with at-risk young people, and to tell if they are really hurting, is to take them fishing and hunting; sit down with them on country. Sitting in your office is no help."

Dean Gooda of Fitzroy Crossing in Western Australia is also dismissive of bureaucratic intervention.

"We end up with ideas on suicide prevention that come from Canberra and bear no semblance to what is needed in the community and on the ground," he said.

Andrew Dowadi of Maningrida in the Northern Territory was more blunt: "The government should know we are now facing life and death in the community."

The report says that Aboriginal people now account for 50 per cent of all suicides in the Northern Territory, with the most at-risk group being 10- to 24-year-olds.

The elders say they need more support to pass on their knowledge to young people, to help stop the problem.

Need for more support

One of the contributors to the report says, despite the best efforts of successive governments, little headway has been made.

Lorna Hudson from the Kimberley town of Derby said young Aboriginal people, especially males, need access to 24-hour mental health support.

Ms Hudson says she hopes the report is taken into account by those who fund and develop suicide prevention strategies.

"This report is mainly being aimed at government departments and agencies who have got the services, the service providers," she said.

She wants more funding for grass-roots suicide prevention programs.

"A lot of our young people nowadays are more adapted to the non-Aboriginal culture than their own," she said.

"Whatever educational programs we have, it is all handed down to us from the upper hand, you know, not coming from bottom-up."

Elders from central Australia, including the communities of Yuendumu, Hermannsburg and the central desert area expressed disappointment with policy makers for not fully using the feedback they received when they spoke to Indigenous groups.

The report says policies such as the Intervention have not been culturally relevant and ignored the underlying problems that have led to higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse as well as suicide.

One elder called for better discipline to develop a stronger work ethic among young Indigenous people.

Anyone needing help should call Lifeline on 13 11 14, or contact Beyond Blue.

SEE ALSO: Gerry Georgatos Elders across Australia say Governments need to listen to them on how to address youth suicide The Stringer 15 April 2014