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Calling for JustJustice action on the related traumas of suicide and over-incarceration

Efforts to stop the over-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need to be informed by the same principles that should inform suicide prevention work, according to Professor Pat Dudgeon, a Bardi woman and a leading psychologist.

These principles include respect for human rights, community control and empowerment, holistic understandings of health that incorporate spirituality, culture and healing, and a focus on sustainable, strength-based capacity building.

Dudgeon, Indigenous National Mental Health Commissioner and leader of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project (ATSISPEP), made these recommendations in a keynote address to the Northern Territory Tony Fitzgerald Human Rights Awards in Darwin, on Larrikia Country.

Her speech came on the same day that the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Social Justice and Native Title Report 2016 was released, urging the Australian Government, “as a matter of urgency”, to support the development of justice targets, Justice Reinvestment initiatives and other evidence-based state and territory legislative, administrative and service delivery initiatives to reduce Indigenous incarceration rates.

Dudgeon sees similarities with the work of ATSISPEP and the investigation being undertaken by the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, which resumes public hearings next month. She said of the Don Dale revelations:

I know the situation is not simple, but I know that if we treat people like monsters – then they will become monsters. Yet, the greatest cost is to us as a society: we become monstrous ourselves.

So, we need to challenge ourselves and the way we do things, the way we see things.

An edited version of the speech follows below.

This article is part of a #JustJustice series running at Croakey this week to coincide with Guardian Australia’s Breaking the Cycle project (which is featuring a number of #JustJustice articles), and to mark the publication of the second edition of the #JustJustice book.


Pat Dudgeon writes:

Although I live and work in beautiful Noongar country in Perth, my people are from the Kimberley on the north coast of Western Australia. I was born and raised in beautiful Larrikia country, here in Darwin, so I feel that I have a special connection here as well.

I am especially delighted to be here to honour those who have worked towards human rights. As an Indigenous woman, I have a strong commitment towards social justice and have worked towards this all my life.

We live in a fair minded and civil society – Australia is a progressive society and, certainly over my lifetime, there have been massive changes for the better. But for my people and me, the struggle for social justice and recognition will go beyond our lifetimes.

I commend those who are committed to making positive social changes. I also pay respects and acknowledge those whose human rights we work for. They are not passive victims but desire their own self-determination and come to the table with great strengths and enrich our shared society.

With this in mind, I would like to do two things in the words that follow. I will briefly acknowledge those who have gone before us and share a project that I am part of in my work.

This year, there was a memorial function for the late Rob Riley, to mark the 20th year anniversary of his death. Rob Riley’s life and times symbolised the injustices that were perpetrated upon Australia’s Indigenous people. He suffered the pain of being stolen from his family as a baby; he was institutionalised and grew up in a racist society. He was a child victim of the Stolen Generations and was taken from his mother as a baby in 1955 and placed in Sister Kate’s Children’s Home.

Rob Riley was a significant political activist and leader of Aboriginal Australia. I understand that he and Tony Fitzgerald were colleagues and admired each other. He influenced politics and policy in unprecedented ways and hewas a voice representing Indigenous diversity at many levels. He was respected across all areas, from the remote outback, urban centres, to the halls of power in Canberra.

He held many important official positions such as the director of the Aboriginal Legal Service Western Australia; he was a key figure in the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody, and instigated the Inquiry into the Stolen Generations, and held key positions such as advisor to the office of the Commonwealth Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. The influence of his activism includes most of the major struggles of Aboriginal politics since the 1970s to his death in 1996.

Worn down by endless struggles for equality with changing governments, both at state and federal levels, who failed to deliver on promises, and beset by his own personal demons as a consequence of his institutionalisation, he took his life 20 years ago.

He left too early but he left a legacy for us. He said:

“Aboriginal people have great strengths including creativity, endurance, humour, compassion and spirituality. These characteristics of Aboriginal people have enabled their survival through the period of dispossession and oppression… This has helped us (Aboriginal peoples) through the worst of times.

They will go on sustaining us until, with your understanding and support and commitment, we are ready and able to enjoy with all Australians, the best of times.

Finally, I say to you, two thoughts that I keep in the back of my mind when the struggle along the road to social justice and equity gets a bit tough:

You can’t be wrong if you’re right, and,

You don’t stop fighting for justice simply because those around you don’t like it. Just keep on fighting.”

Although I propose this from an Indigenous perspective – it is a truth for all the marginalised, different and oppressed groups who make up our society. We have struggles and we have great riches to share with each other.

Solutions that work

I work in Indigenous suicide prevention. We have just finished the national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project Report, Solutions that work: what the evidence and our people tell us, that was launched in Parliament House in Canberra.

This signified the end of two years work – some of this included holding roundtables around the country and speaking with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people about what they thought the solutions needed to be.

The summary of this work told us that:

  • Poverty, disadvantage, unemployment, racism, lack of housing/overcrowding, transgenerational trauma and issues around incarceration contribute to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides.
  • What they told us also reminded us of the history of colonisation and how it has contributed to the present situation.
  • All the roundtables and the literature and program reviews emphasised the importance of culture and identity, the need for local leadership in determining problems and finding the solutions.
  • The people who contributed to the report were concerned that many programs and services were not culturally relevant. Self-determination was needed.

Our recommendations included:

Community control and empowerment: projects should be grounded in community, owned by the community, based on community needs and accountable to the community.

Holistic: based on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander definitions of health incorporating spirituality, culture and healing.

Sustainable, strength based and capacity building: projects must be sustainable, both in terms of building community capacity and in terms of not being ‘one off’; they must endure until the community is empowered.

Partnerships: projects should work in genuine partnerships with local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stakeholders and other providers to support and enhance existing local measures not duplicate or compete with them.

Safe cultural delivery: projects should be delivered in a safe manner.

Innovation and evaluation: projects need to build on learnings, try new and innovative approaches, share learnings, and improve the evidence base.

What kind of world do we want our children and grand children to live in?

There are similarities with our work in suicide prevention and with youth and incarceration in the Northern Territory -– particularly the Royal Commission into Youth Detention.

Both have attracted much media attention. Both suicide and youth incarceration are the tips of icebergs of larger suffering and issues and the demand for greater changes to be made.

There needs to be upstream population health approaches that empower and increase resilience, so that youth are not becoming incarcerated or taking their lives.

But these long-term investments and immediate actions need to take place simultaneously.

At the hard end – in immediate intervention – things need to be done differently. For suicide prevention, this requires recognition of cultural differences and working in partnership with communities. This can make programs and services much more effective with better outcomes.

With youth incarceration, there are different views about what has happened and what needs to happen in the future. But from the information we have, from the event of establishing a Royal Commission to investigate the situation, we know that something is broken and it needs to be fixed.

When I saw the media images of youths being restrained, it had a great impact on me.

I know the situation is not simple, but I know that if we treat people like monsters – then they will become monsters. Yet, the greatest cost is to us as a society: we become monstrous ourselves.

So, we need to challenge ourselves and the way we do things, the way we see things.

This is about human rights and how we uphold and practise this in every part of our society and at every level – from policy, practices in programs and services and in our everyday lives – the attitudes we have and the behaviours we do.

We have to ask ourselves: what kind of world do we want our children and grand children to live in?

I know that I want to live in a world where each person is valued, and where the inherent dignity of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

This means – as we heard in our community consultations for the ATSISPEP report – that we need to do much more to “keep out of prison those who should not be there”.

Our report has given governments and communities clear advice on the ways forward to tackle the related traumas of suicide and over-incarceration. It is time for action.


The #JustJustice team acknowledge and thank Western Sydney University for sponsoring stage two of the project, including a second edition of the book (with extra articles), the series at Croakey this week and related dissemination activities.

WSydUni

How you can support #JustJustice

• Download, read and share the 2nd edition – HERE.

Buy a hard copy from Gleebooks in Sydney (ask them to order more copies if they run out of stock).

• Send copies of the book to politicians, policy makers and other opinion leaders.

• Encourage journals and other relevant publications to review #JustJustice.

• Encourage your local library to order a copy, whether the free e-version or a hard copy from Gleebooks.

• Follow Guardian Australia’s project, Breaking the Cycle.

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