Local communities beating back suicide

Neda Vanovac

Youth worker Noeletta McKenzie has had despairing teens on her veranda holding nooses in their hands, contemplating taking their own lives.

But she says it has been almost four years since the remote top end community of Maningrida has had a youth suicide.

The statistics are appalling, and bear repeating: the national suicide average is 10.6 people per 100,000, but it is six times that figure in the NT, and 70 people per 100,000 in the Kimberley and Far North Queensland.

In some communities, indigenous people are taking their lives at more than eight times the national average, including children as young as nine.

This week, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project (ATSISPEP) held a round-table talk in Darwin with more than 40 NT service providers to hear about successful grassroots programs that were slowing suicide rates.

McKenzie, who manages the GREATS Youth Centre (GYS) at Maningrida, says about 75 young people come through the doors each night.

The largest community in Arnhem Land, Maningrida is home to about 3500 people, half of them under 25.

"Suicide comes in waves; we haven't had a youth suicide in nearly four years," she told AAP.

"I guess that comes down to our youth centre operating: we have specialty programs (like sex education), back to country stuff: elders are involved in young women's and young men's programs engaging kids on country."

She said every remote community needed a locally-run youth centre.

"Young people know they can come to the youth workers when they're feeling no good. I've had kids on my veranda with rope; instead of them going to do it they come to me," she said.

The young people grappled with relationship difficulties, marijuana addiction and hunger, she said, but they did not lack resilience.

"I reckon the indigenous kids in my community are probably the most resilient kids in the world; they start attending funerals when they're two years old," McKenzie said.

"The kids I have haven't had a feed, haven't had a good rest. Just having someone to listen instead of dictating - the government comes into our communities and dictates and dictates, 'this is what you need'. We don't dictate to the young people."

All the service providers meeting in Darwin agreed the government needed to hand responsibility back to communities to manage programs.

Under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy funding recently unveiled, GYS was allocated $70,000 instead of the $850,000 they were expecting.

After arguing her case, McKenzie said the funding was reinstated for two years, but the uncertain future made it hard to plan long-term programs for children or to give staff job security.

"I think the government needs to look at 10-year funding," she said.

"The government needs to put more resources and staff into youth services, and stop bloody closing the damn things. They're closing all these youth centres down and then what happens to those young people?"

ATSISPEP community consultant Gerry Georgatos said social health was the largest contributor to indigenous suicide.

"Social health was low 20 to 30 years ago, but they've been neglected by one government after another," he said.

"They've been degraded with the stripping of services and infrastructure, which reduces social health, which leads to impoverishment, that leads to acute hopelessness, aimlessness, unemployment, lack of education."

Georgatos said many indigenous people had been pushed by a lack of services to relocate to "sub-Saharan poverty" in satellite shanty towns around regional centres.

Such displacement caused major psycho-social harm, "making their historical and contemporary identity a liability and impoverishing them further," he said.

"They should be allowed to have their cultural settings and the social wealth all people are entitled to."

Investing in social health was essential if suicide rates were to be brought down at least in line with the rest of the country, Georgatos said.

NAIDOC Person of the Year Rosalie Kunoth-Monks said the last suicide in her community in the Utopia region of central Australia was by a man in his 30s last year.

"I think the main message in him taking his life was 'if we are to lose our identity, our land, and our ceremonial rites, life is not worth living'. That shook a lot of us because I think we were living in a fool's paradise that nobody could penetrate," she said.

Kunoth-Monks said a hidden assimilation agenda was driving suicides.

"The assimilation process so far has failed to the extent that people are taking their own lives because they've been made to feel second-class, they've been made to feel less of a human being than the rest of the Australians."

Psychologist Tanja Hirvonen, from the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance NT, said there wasn't an Aboriginal family that had not been affected by suicide.

"One suicide is too many. It affects all the surrounding communities," she said.

ATSISPEP will soon hold another round-table session in the Kimberley, and will report to the government at the end of the year.

Hirvonen said there would be change only if the government seriously considered the input of local communities.

"Don't talk about us without us," she said.

  • Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 (for young people aged 5 to 25)

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  • Suicide is the leading cause of death for young Aboriginal people aged under 35

  • The NT has the highest suicide rate of indigenous people than any other Australian jurisdiction

  • The NT and WA have some of the highest median wages in the world but also some of the highest rates of poverty

  • One in 20 indigenous people die by suicide but it is believed it is under-reported and that the rate is actually double that, at one in 10