Policy makers, health and other services, media organisations and journalists need to reflect upon their own practices, and do a much better job in responding to the issues surrounding the suicides of Indigenous people, and particularly young people.
This is an overwhelming message from articles by a range of experts, featured below, in responding to the recent suicide of a young Aboriginal girl in Western Australia.
Leading Indigenous health experts Professors Tom Calma and Pat Dudgeon have also urged primary health networks to partner with Indigenous communities in the work of suicide prevention, given that the PHNs are receiving funding allocated under the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Strategy.
In an article in NACCHO Aboriginal Health News that can be read in full here, Professors Calma and Dudgeon urge policy makers and services to work with Indigenous communities, who must be in the driver’s seat.
They call for comprehensive, proactive and preventative responses, rather than threats to close communities and other such traumatic interventions.
“Let’s think about investing in these communities, rather than seeing them as a drain on the public purse,” they say.
They also warn against knee jerk responses of removing children from families in crisis, rather than working with their families.
“While removal is necessary in extreme cases, it should always be seen as a last resort,” they say. “We need to break the intergenerational cycles of despair and dysfunction, not accelerate them.”
Meanwhile, in the Croakey #LongRead below, a number of experts examine some of the concerns surrounding recent media coverage. This is timely reading ahead of the inaugural Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Conference, to be held next week in Alice Springs.
• Richard Weston, CEO of the Healing Foundation, says there must be a holistic approach when trying to understand and respond to suicide in Indigenous communities.
• Dameyon Bonson, a Mangarayi and Torres Strait Islander man and a Kimberley-based social entrepreneur and innovator, says there is differential treatment of Indigenous and non-Indigenous suicides, and that “death is not a commodity to trade in.”
• Rudi Maxwell, editor of the Koori Mail, the fortnightly national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander newspaper, and a member of the Mindframe Media advisory group, advises journalists to get educated and to do a better job.
A call for journalists to stop and reflect
Jaelea Skehan writes:
The reported death of a 10-year-old girl in a remote WA community recently made national headlines – first as a news story, then as part of a range of feature stories across print, broadcast and online publications.
People have been sharing these news stories online, commenting on these news stories and blogging about the incident. The reporting, on the whole, has been varied but concerning.
When asked by Croakey to provide some commentary on the reporting (, I did so with some hesitation (Note from Croakey: this request followed a previous article on the challenges of suicide communications).
Firstly, because these are challenging issues to understand and to communicate about and, secondly, as a white female living in NSW, I live with a certain privilege which means I can never truly appreciate the impact that a death like this, and the subsequent media reporting, can have on individuals, families and communities.
So, I have joined with some of the individuals and organisations we work with under Mindframe to provide some combined reflections.
Suicide is an important issue of community concern and a legitimate issue to be covered by the media. There is no doubt we have made much progress here in Australia when reporting suicide.
After almost two decades of education and training via Mindframe and the media work of the mental health and suicide prevention sectors, it is covered more often, and more thoughtfully and sensitively (Media Monitoring Study, 2010).
But certain stories challenge our communities and our media. In my view, this has been one of them.
Modern theorists looking at suicide and suicidal behaviour, such as Professor Thomas Joiner, have argued that suicide may be the most stigmatised of human activities. By its nature, it includes two big fears or taboos that as a society we hold – fear of death, and fear of killing. And what could be more fear provoking for a society than a child taking their own life?
One of the most common ways in which stigma is shown or experienced is through the avoidance of individuals bereaved by suicide or those that are currently feeling suicidal. However, this can also be experienced by whole communities.
It is always challenging to report a suicide quickly and accurately. While the media do play a role in raising awareness about the issue and the factors that may contribute to suicide, it is often very difficult to understand the true context in which a death occurred quickly.
I have seen this with other suicide deaths of children and young people – where reporting has made a strong link with a specific risk factor (such as cyberbullying) only to have coronial findings suggest other factors were more likely to have contributed to the death. But those early reports and those early ‘reasons’ are the ones that are remembered – erroneous or not.
What struck me in the reporting of this case was the almost immediate reporting about the community – the specific remote community where the death occurred, as well as remote Indigenous communities more generally.
While many people have advocated for more attention, and more community-led action, to address the higher rates of suicide experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, you have to consider if media coverage adds to the distress for grieving families and communities through speculating, sensationalising and generalising about suicide and self-harm behaviour.
The sad reality is that people of all ages in Australia die by suicide and as highlighted in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Children’s Rights Report 2014, more needs to be done to reduce suicide and deliberate self-harm among children and young people. And the media have an important role to play in that.
While the media do get it right most of the time in Australia, I think much of the reporting of this story missed the mark.
We had a child named, her family and her community named and in some reports the method of her suicide reported. We had daily (and on some days, half-hourly) reporting about the death – with little other context than it occurred in a remote Aboriginal community in Western Australia. A story to shock, but not inform. Then came the speculation about community factors involved.
We do not want the media to shy away from challenging stories, but we do need to stop and reflect on what is being done and why. We need to ensure that all reporting of suicide is safe, is accurate and shows the complexity of suicide.
We need to ensure that reporting challenges public misconceptions about suicide and encourages discussion about what can be done to prevent suicide. But we also need to ensure that the impact of suicide is shown and understood, and that families and communities affected are supported to grieve and heal.
It is quite clear from recent reporting that we need to recognise and support leadership across the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander wellbeing and suicide prevention sector, as well as build the capacity of First Nations media to facilitate these challenging discussions as well as provide guidance to the mainstream media and suicide prevention commentators.
Otherwise, we will be prone to repeating the same media narratives that are not helpful.
• Dr Jalea Skehan is director of the Hunter Institute of Mental Health
Healing centres are needed now
Richard Weston writes:
Western frameworks of mental health focus primarily on individual issues and symptoms management rather than providing a holistic approach that encompasses people’s circumstances, culture and history.
The evidence is clear that where trauma has been experienced collectively, a collective healing response is needed: whole community healing strategies that include community healing forums and healing programs with a focus on children, men, women and families.
Trauma has an effect on our ability to relate to others in positive ways. Part of a holistic response is an understanding of trauma and its impact – physically and neurologically.
International and national evidence tells us that children feel the impacts of communities in distress most acutely. Our children need targeted responses when they are living in communities that have high levels of trauma.
Schools are struggling to provide appropriate mental health supports for our children including counsellors, social workers and psychologists with a strong cultural framework. Children need greater support such as trauma informed responses from schools. Trauma informed responses incorporate healing for mind, body and spirit.
Children have very poor access to mental health supports including culturally strong and safe family support. Cultural practices and connections develop a strong positive identity, which is critical to trauma recovery.
Many families aren’t seeking support from mainstream agencies because they are fearful that their children will be removed. This points to a systemic breakdown in understanding of how to create healing.
We can’t wait for crises in communities to respond. The healing opportunities and infrastructure, such as healing centres, have to be there now so people have somewhere to go for support when difficulties happen.
Communities need integrated cultural response options with the provision of services in a cultural framework rather than attempt to make a western system more culturally appropriate.
These integrated responses connect back to culture and draw from the best therapeutic knowledge.
• Richard Weston is CEO of the Healing Foundation
Aboriginal communities are problematised rather than supported
Dameyon Bonson writes:
Where self-prophesising behaviour is gifted to some parts of the wider Australian community, for Indigenous people it often described by outsiders as ‘rites of passage’.
This narrative continues the discourse of mythical otherness and savagery. Conjuring historical and pre-settler ways of initiation and conflating them into a modern context.
Sections of the media that perpetuate this have to accept blame as much as the environment in which self-prophesising happens. If you are repeatedly reinforcing the negative aspects of a person’s life and culture, it will affect a person’s behaviours and create a situation for them to be fulfilled.
Suicides happen in every day life, but when they involve whiter, urban, rural and remote folk, they do not receive the prejudicial condemnation that Indigenous people do. Suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians aged 15-24. Suicide, or intentional self-harm, for 5-14 year old Australians rated highest in Queensland and New South Wales, between 2010-14, 32 and 14 respectively.
Recently a young Aboriginal child in a remote Aboriginal community ended her own life. I am not aware of the intimate circumstances surrounding this tragedy; other than what played out in the news. Yet these two pieces by James Fitzpatrick and Gerry Georgatos, people who have been there and worked out there, spoke positively of that community.
I don’t recall the towns, communities, or suburbs where 32 or 14 children under the age 14 who died by suicide received such rebuke on their environment like some areas of the media cop to Aboriginal communities.
Personally, I find it hard to fathom that a child of that age knows the consequences of behaviours or what death or finality actually means. Regardless, sections of the media memorialise those lost to suicide by the colour of their skin. Because if that skin is ‘black’, let the demonisation begin.
By no means what-so-ever is the ‘suicide prevention sector’ not immune from such memorialising of white Australia. Scroll through the Facebook pages of some of Australia’s largest non-Indigenous non-government mental health organisations (NINGOS) and count the number of Aboriginal people represented. If we are represented, it is largely through the benevolence of a saviour mentality. The wails and cries of Indigenous people are a commodity to both the media and the health sector at large.
But when you memorialise white Australia over black Australia in the way that you do, you are dishonouring all lives lost to suicide. Death is not a commodity to trade in. Racialising suicides this way, only makes you worse.
• Dameyon Bonson, a Mangarayi and Torres Strait Islander man, is a Kimberley based social entrepreneur and innovator.
An editor’s call to mainstream media: lift your game
Rudi Maxwell writes:
On the whole, I think the mainstream media handled the recent story on the 10-year old girl very poorly.
There were many breaches of journalistic protocols, including the Mindframe guidelines on responsible reporting of suicide and also numerous transgressions of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) Code of Ethics.
I think, in the rush to publish first, that important principles of responsible reporting and journalistic ethics were ignored. The suicide of a child is, of course, shocking – but that doesn’t negate the importance of responsible reporting.
The Mindframe resources relating to reporting social and emotional wellbeing and suicide in Indigenous communities were developed over a decade ago in consultation with Indigenous suicide prevention and mental health experts, journalists and with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
And they matter.
They’ve been developed to try and stop already difficult and highly emotive situations being made worse. In addition, the MEAA Code of Ethics urges extreme caution when writing stories about children.
I read stories in which the child was named, as were some of her relatives, the method that she’d used was detailed and there was a hell of a lot of blaming of Aboriginal communities.
In one of my interviews for this story I spoke with Adele Cox, a senior project consultant for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Project.
“When the media goes down that road it adds to and very much sensationalises the actual incident and creates further distress for the community, particularly when people are named,” she said.
“In this particular case, we’re not happy with the fact that news reports went down that route and named her. Journalists and editors need to abide by the Mindframe guidelines.”
In my view, rather than heedlessly barrel down the ghoulish route of tragedy as click bait, media outlets should first consider the old question of ‘how’ to approach a story, instead of ‘how many’ people will read it quickly.
There are sensitive and responsible ways to report on difficult issues – but they require a thoughtful and considered approach.
As always, speak with experts.
Do your research.
Don’t publish half-baked theories with wild speculation.
Read the Mindframe guidelines and the MEAA code of ethics.
• Rudi Maxwell is editor of the Koori Mail, the fortnightly national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander newspaper, and a member of the Mindframe Media advisory group
Help and support services
Lifeline: 13 11 14 www.lifeline.org.au
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467 www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au
beyondblue: 1300 22 4636 www.beyondblue.org.au
MensLine Australia: 1300 78 99 78 www.mensline.org.au
Youth Support Services
Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800 (24/7 crisis support) www.kidshelp.com.au
headspace: 1800 650 890 www.headspace.org.au (online and direct clinical services)
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander support services