Last week the 2nd National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Conference, and the 2018 World Indigenous Suicide Prevention Conference, began and ended, calling First Nations people from across Australia and the world, to Perth, Western Australia.

The conferences aim to create a space for Indigenous people around Australia and the world to share their stories and their common social justice issues, and discuss the hope they have for their futures and their young people. As the names of the conferences suggest, the main goal for attendees is to find new ways to reduce suicide rates and the impact of suicide on Indigenous communities.

In Australia, it is widely accepted that suicide among Aboriginal Australians was a highly rare occurrence before European settlers first arrived in 1778, and only rose to what some consider an “epidemic” post-colonisation. From 1778 onwards, Aboriginal people were impacted because their lands were stolen, dangerous diseases were spread, the ensuing violence that was perpetrated against them, culminating in some 250 massacres of Aboriginal people, their languages were eroded and their traditional culture was disturbed.

Since the 1980s, suicide rates for Aboriginal people have skyrocketed, which is often linked to mental health issues and drug and alcohol abuse, and is more likely to occur in areas of Australia where the Stolen Generations occurred.

The most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics report on suicide showed that 100 Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander (TSI) committed suicide each year, every year from 2001 until 2010. This is almost three times the rate for non-Indigenous Australians.

Considering such horrifying statistics, Culture Squad Ambassador and Palawa woman Lily Graham knows how important these conferences are. Graham has worked in the Victorian Aboriginal community for the last five years, particularly on issues concerning mental health, youth justice and substance abuse. This year she, along with other young Indigenous Ambassadors, ran a suicide prevention campaign called “LOVE and HOPE” at the conferences.

Graham says that the conference is an opportunity for everyone across the country to demonstrate what they’re doing in their local community, or in their field, to prevent youth suicide.

“The answers each community has found to combat their issues are independent [from each other],” Graham says, “So what works in one community might not work in another. But it’s an opportunity for us to share how we’re doing it, or what’s working. There’s been some really great sharing from youth programs, from LGBTIQ [people], and also just around contributing base solutions.”

The main factors in youth suicide among Aboriginal and TSI Australians seems to return to cultural dislocation and disconnection, trauma, and the continuing issues of racism, discrimination, and social alienation that can culminate in mental health issues, substance abuse, and finally, suicide.

Graham agrees that “disconnection to culture” is one of the biggest factors in leading to suicide for her people, but the best way to combat it is with “love and hope.”

“That’s how we’re trying to find answers,” she says, “Thinking, how can we wrap love and hope around young people no matter what their situation is, so they can feel that love and feel that hope, and know that they’re important, and not get to the point where we have young people taking their life.”

For her, the conference has been greatly successful because it is run by young Ambassadors like herself, who have experience working with young people and can, perhaps, relate to some of the stories themselves. While Graham acknowledges the need to respect their elders, she argues that young Aboriginal people should be considered the experts in young people’s affairs, as they are the ones who have lived these experiences.

The other interesting aspect of the World Conference is that Graham and other Indigenous Australians were able to meet and network with many First Nations people from across the world, including Canadian First Nations and Maori First Nations.

 “It was a really great opportunity to see that no one person expresses their culture the same way,” Graham says, “and we had a number of people jump up and share their dancing from their community; their songs, poetry, art and craft-making.

“It’s been really interesting hearing stories and seeing the similarities in mobs from all around the world, and it both gives me hope and sadness, to see that this is an issue that is spread far and wide.

“Youth suicide isn’t an issue that’s affecting just our community—it’s affecting all the First Nations people across the globe. That’s really heart wrenching, but it’s also really hopeful to see all of the work and the programs that are going into reducing that, and that there are similarities in a lot of the programs.

“The core message of culture, connection, love and hope really comes through in all of the projects and all the First Nations mob. So that’s really exciting.”

While it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reason why youth suicide is occurring at such high rates among Indigenous populations, Graham says that achieving that connection to culture again is one of the best preventative measures against it. Receiving support and having access to support services that are culturally sensitive is also key in preventing youth suicide.

Last week the Healing our Spirit Worldwide event was also held in Sydney, which similarly aims to bring Indigenous peoples from around the world together to celebrate their unique understandings of traditional cultural knowledge and stories, and share them with pride. While this was an event separate from the other conferences Graham attended, she recognises the importance of all of these events in creating strength for Indigenous people through listening to each other’s stories.

“I think a lot of our issues as First Nations people across the globe are shared,” says Graham, “and a lot of our solutions are based on a similar model. So, the more we share and the more we learn from one another, the better we can be at what we do and reducing youth suicide across the country and the globe.”

For some readers, particularly non-Indigenous Australians, it may be hard to understand why colonisation is still impacting Aboriginal and TSI people today given that it occurred over 200 years ago. But Graham explains that not only is 200 years not that long ago, but the consequences of colonisation, particularly with the Stolen Generations, are still being felt by Indigenous people today. This occurs through intergenerational trauma, where the pain left by the brutal violence of colonisation is remembered, and passed down from one generation to the next. For Graham, she knows that colonisation is still felt strongly by her parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

“Colonisation happened only a small 200 years ago, but the impact of colonisation and the Stolen Generation have only happened two generations ago. [People] my parents’ and my grandparents’ age have faced trauma from the Stolen Generation, and when that is your lived experience, and you have a family down the track, that trauma is carried, because the life that you’ve lived impacts your family.

“To see that our out-of-home care rates are the highest that they’ve ever been in this country, and that our suicide rates are twice as high as non-Indigenous people, shows that intergenerational trauma is real, and it is there.”

This is why the conferences are so vital and work towards empowering Indigenous people to tell their stories, find their voice, and find strength in themselves and one another.

For Graham, the highlight of the event for her was a song-writing session organised by Culture is Life, called “Connecting through Music Across Lands and Oceans”. The First Nations people came together and wrote and performed a song that they felt had meaning to all of them.

“That was really beautiful to see: Canadian First Nations, Maori First Nations, and Australian First Nations, all coming together to sing and perform that song. It was a really powerful moment, because that’s where that whole connection and [us] sharing the same story was really emphasised. It was a pretty breath-taking moment, looking around the room [and seeing people] joining in with the clapping, or singing in the chorus.”

While the ongoing trauma left over by colonisation still presents major challenges for the mental and physical wellbeing of Aboriginal and TSI Australians, Graham and the other Ambassadors hope that conferences like these will begin to make young Indigenous people see their self-worth, start a process of self-love, and renew their connection to culture, which may just start to turn the tide against youth suicide for their people.

 

If you or someone you know needs help or support, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 (24 hours-a-day), contact your local Aboriginal Community-Controlled Organisation, call Beyondblue on 1300 22 4636, or call Q Life on 1800 184 527.