More than 2,000 people will participate in the 15th World Congress on Public Health in Melbourne this week, and one of the key sessions will be a First Nations Suicide Prevention World Leaders Dialogue on Tuesday afternoon.
As the session’s co-convenors Summer May Finlay and Dr Vanessa Lee write below, the discussions are expected to put a global focus on strengths-based cultural solutions for a major cause of trauma in Indigenous communities globally.
To stay in touch with news from the conference, follow #WCPH2017 and @wcph2017 on Twitter. At @WePublicHealth, guest tweeter @billbellew (aka Adjunct Professor Bill Bellew) will be tweeting up a storm (and also covering this World Leaders Dialogue). @croakeyblog and @CroakeyNews will also be covering the conference.
Summer May Finlay and Vanessa Lee write:
Public health leaders from around the world will have the opportunity to listen to and learn from Indigenous leaders with deep expertise in preventing suicide among First Nations people.
The First Nations Suicide Prevention World Leadership Dialogue at the World Congress of Public Health will bring together people working in the First Nations suicide prevention space to discuss “best practice”, with a focus on strengths-based cultural solutions.
The aim of the World Leaders Dialogue is to develop a set of recommendations for the organisations that are part of the Congress, which can be used to inform their policies to address suicide rates among First Nations.
The event will also enable First Nations peoples to share their knowledges and expertise about what works in preventing suicides, so that solutions can be shared and adapted to local contexts.
As the co-convenors of this landmark event, we are delighted that the panel for the World Leaders Dialogue includes three internationally recognised experts: Professor Pat Dudgeon from the University of Western Australia; Michael Naera, Kia Piki te Ora Project Leader for Te Runanga o Ngāti Pikiao Trust; and Carol Hopkins, Executive Director of the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation (see their bios at the end of this article).
The panel will be facilitated by Richard Weston, CEO of the Healing Foundation.
Suicide among First Nations people is a symptom of trauma caused by colonisation and its impacts. Dudgeon believes culture plays an important role in healing our communities.
“Closing the mental health gap requires the re-thinking of conventional models and assumptions across the mental health system,” she said.
“From the literature and conversations with other Indigenous peoples, our challenges and our solutions are very similar. Firstly, that identity and culture, and culturally determined relationships to land, family, kin and community are great sources of mental health and resilience to Indigenous Australians (referred to as social and emotional wellbeing or SEWB).
“Also, that in order to address suicide prevention, we know that there are two important principles: firstly, self-determination – the community must own and be in charge of any solution. Secondly, culture – programs must be culturally appropriate in order to be effective.”
Richard Weston also believes cultural solutions rather than western solutions are required to heal our communities.
“Sharing knowledge will help us find solutions that are rooted in our ancient wisdom about how we are in the world, rather than looking to the western systems that have so severely interrupted our cultures through colonisation,” he said.
“Dialogue amongst the world’s Indigenous peoples enables us to define the challenge on our terms and acknowledge the historical trauma our ancestors have experienced and that has passed down generations to the present day.”
Cultural approaches underpin the Healing Foundation’s work with communities.
“The Healing Foundation has found the solutions that work best are those that are led by communities to design, develop and deliver projects that are rooted in the strength of our living culture and that strengthen our cultural identity,” Weston said.
“To this end, effective community engagement and co-design practice is essential from Indigenous institutions (and others) that honour a community’s cultural authority and play a supportive technical role to help communities create an environment for healing.”
Focus on “life promotion”
Similar themes emerge from the work of the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation in Canada, according to Carol Hopkins.
“First Nations youth in Canada have articulated very well their interest in ‘life promotion’ from a foundation of Indigenous culture,” she said.
“Using Indigenous culture as the foundation for life promotion can be measured by the extent to which it creates outcomes of hope, belonging, meaning and purpose.”
She believes the event “provides an opportunity for collaboration on defining outcomes from a foundation of Indigenous knowledge to guide initiatives towards the prevention of suicide.”
To see a change in suicide rates, the history and impact of colonisation on First Nations Peoples must be understood, she says.
“Suicide among Indigenous peoples must be understood from within a context of colonisation and oppression and the intergenerational trauma stemming from such experiences, rather than from a perspective of mental illness of individuals that must be treated by mental health experts.”
Michael Naera, who works both on the ground with communities on suicide prevention and also is involved in advocacy and policy, is acutely aware of what happens when the needs of communities are ignored.
“The shortcoming is, when these health needs are unmet, then suicide and suicidal behaviours become more pronounced amongst Indigenous communities,” he said.
He believes in a wellness approach to reducing First Nations suicide.
“Indigenous suicide prevention is not about looking at the failures of Indigenous peoples, but asking what went wrong in the first place,” he said.
“Once you discover the source, rewrite the truth and bring forth the wisdom of our elders and ancestral knowledge to restore what was rightfully ours in the first place. Only then will we see a change in our people’s wellness.”
Enacting self determination
In organising this event, we have been guided by the foundational principle that tackling suicides among First Nations people requires First Nation leadership and solutions. Cultural solutions can only be developed, designed and implemented by First Nations people.
First Nations people need to part of the dialogue for change, and must also be adequately resourced to do this work. It is important that mainstream health organisations support us in this work and the need for us to lead this work.
Too many First Nations people are taking their own lives. There are very few First Nations people whose lives have not been touched by suicide.
It means a great deal to us that the World Congress of Public Health has shown its support for action in reducing First Nations suicides.
We have all grown so used to hearing the distressing statistics about Indigenous suicides – locally, nationally and globally. We do not want these statistics to be repeated across future generations.
To address this global public health issue requires full collaboration with First Nations people.
It is important that leaders around the world listen to First Nations peoples and our solutions – as Naera says: “It’s of utmost important to all political leaders, health specialist, researchers, and community groups working with and or developing policies for Indigenous peoples.”
• Summer May Finlay is a Yorta Yorta woman, public health practitioner, a PhD candidate at the University of South Australia, and a Contributing Editor at Croakey. On Twitter, follow @OnTopicAus.
• Dr Vanessa Lee, from the Yupungathi and Meriam people, resides on the land of the Gadigal people. She is a social epidemiologist, educator and public health/ health sciences researcher within the discipline of Behavioural and Social Sciences, in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Sydney. She is a director for Suicide Prevention Australia and is working with the Mental Health Commission to develop a mental health gateway. Vanessa holds a number of current expert advisory positions that contribute to changing policies, including the National Advisory Group Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Informatics and Data, Australian Health Care Reform Alliance, and Close the Gap. On Twitter, follow @LeeVanessa2011.
Professor Pat Dudgeon from the University of Western Australia, is from the Bardi people of the Kimberly area in Western Australia and brings with her a wealth of experience and knowledge. Amongst her many commitments, she is a Commissioner of the Australian National Mental Health Commission, deputy chair of the Australian Indigenous Psychologist’s Association, chair of the National Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Leaders Mental Health, and co-chair of the ministerial Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Advisory Group.
Michael Naera is the Kia Piki te Ora Project Leader for Te Runanga o Ngāti Pikiao Trust. Through his work, he has made significant contributions for improving mental health services and suicide prevention strategies and activities for Māori across Aotearoa New Zealand. In 2016, Michael was one of the project leaders for the very first World Indigenous Suicide Prevention Conference and Indigenous Youth Summit. Prior to this event helped to successfully run the National Maori Suicide Prevention Conference in 2015. Currently he leads the roll out of Conference Recommendations, in particular, The Turamarama Declaration document which is recognised internationally by Indigenous nations. He formed a Global Indigenous Network Advisor Group which is chaired by Emeritus Professor Sir Mason Durie and involves members from Canada, Australia and USA First Nations Peoples.
Carol Hopkins of the Lenape Nation at Moraviantown, Ontario, Canada is the Executive Director of the Thunderbird Partnership Foundation. She believes culture is key to reducing youth suicide among young First Nations people in Canada. Carol has co-chaired national initiatives known for best practice in national policy review and development, resulting in the: First Nations Mental Wellness Continuum Framework (FNMWC), the Honouring Our Strengths: A Renewed Framework to Address Substance Use Issues Among First Nations in Canada, the Indigenous Wellness Framework, and best practice guidelines for culturally based inhalant abuse treatment. Carol has also inspired the development of the Native Wellness Assessment. In recognition of this work, Carol received the Champions of Mental Health Award 2015 for Research/Clinician, the Health Canada Innovations Award.
Richard Weston is CEO of the Healing foundation and the Chair of the National Health Leadership Forum. The Healing Foundation works with communities, members of the Stolen Generations and their descendants to design solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems. The Healing Foundation’s evaluations show amazing outcomes can be achieved when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are supported to lead and develop their own responses.
Previous related reading at Croakey
• Stories from a Healing Foundation forum on cultural solutions in 2014.
For help or more information
For people who may be experiencing sadness or trauma, please visit these links to services and support
• For young people 5-25 years, call kids help line 1800 55 1800
• For resources on social and emotional wellbeing and mental health services in Aboriginal Australia, see here.