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What kind of ancestor would you like to be?

In the post below, Dr Vanessa Lee of Suicide Prevention Australia, shares her thoughts following attendance at WeBelong: International Forum on Life Promotion and Indigenous Suicide Prevention, held in Vancouver from 17 to 19 November 2016.

In her July 2016 post I saw shocked faces in a state of inertia: calling on all Australians to embark on a journey of suicide prevention healing, Dr Lee described the atmosphere at the National Suicide Prevention Conference as the speakers outlined the sobering statistics on the high rates of suicide in Indigenous Australians. She noted that, while the task of healing this problem can sometimes feel overwhelming, the tools are available and there’s no time for inertia.

Last month saw the release of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project (ATSISPEP) Report, a report that makes recommendations for improvements to existing services and programs, and recommendations about alternative evidenced-based service and program delivery models, where indicated by evaluation.


Vanessa Lee writes:

“Are you moving towards the ancestor you would like to be?” This question, by Karina Waters at The Lowitja Institute International Indigenous Health and Wellbeing Conference this year, really resonated with me and is a question we should all ask ourselves.

Pause for a moment. Think about the question. Think about what this means for each of us right now. What does moving toward being the ancestor you would like to be look like today? Tomorrow? Next year? What type of ancestor will your children and your children’s, children see you as? What is the legacy that you are leaving for them?

Questions from Indigenous youth

This question stayed with me as I listened to the Indigenous youth at the WeBelong Forum share how our generation could help them:

“Young people don’t know how to connect with the system and how to ask for help from our generation” and, when asked “how can the older generations help them”, the response was “we don’t know how to ask you for help” and “because of child sexual assault we don’t know which adults we can trust anymore and we don’t know how to trust or protect ourselves”.

Let’s turn that on its head and look at it from the adult perspective. What are we doing or not doing that means our kids can’t come to us for help?

Changing our ways

We need to change the way we talk and change the way we act.

For Indigenous people including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people there is no language word for suicide. This makes it a challenging concept to articulate in community. Added to this is the knowledge that we as Indigenous people are mostly visual learners and the term suicide does not provide empowering visual images.

As discussed at WeBelong International Forum, we need to change our approach and focus on life promotion instead of prevention of suicide.  Or we will continue to lose those worst affected by continuous inequitable colonialist policies; our women, children, youth and the two spirited and sexuality and gender diverse or LGBTIQ who we know experience discrimination at a higher rate resulting in suicide or attempts.

Suggestions from the WeBelong Forum

Some suggestions that stood out for me from the WeBelong Forum include:

  • A call for Non-Indigenous organisations to work with Indigenous communities and organisations to improve access to services and to improve life promotion. Including continuous training and up skilling of staff towards being culturally competent to work effectively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
  • Due to the correlation between child sexual assault and suicide, funding for life promotion and suicide prevention should be directed to Indigenous community controlled organisations to work with culturally competent non-Indigenous specialists if there are no Indigenous sepcialists;
  • Programs targeting males and the incarcerated population about domestic violence and child sexual abuse (for example the Good Touch Bad Touch program) should have elderly Indigenous women involved in the delivery; this was a preference that came out very strongly in the Forum. These programs can then be rolled out to women, children and youth by women of various ages.

The cycle of abuse

The WeBelong Forum discussed the cycle of abuse in relation to the lives of Indigenous people worldwide, including our people.  A message echoed by Commissioner Milroy in her presentation of the devastating findings of the Child Abuse Royal Commission, and her reflections on report recommendations. Commissioner Milroy highlighted sexual assault as a contributor to child, youth and adult suicide for Indigenous communities.

Many of the learnings from Child Abuse Royal Commission are aligned to those set out in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project (ATSISPEP) Report, a report that sets out what we know works in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention and sets down suggested evaluation tools and frameworks that should be used in and by our communities.

Messages for all

We are yet to see implementation funds to progress the findings of that report but that shouldn’t stop all of us learning from it and putting its recommendations into practice. This report has value for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

It is not just an instruction manual for Government or organisations working on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide prevention. We all have an individual responsibility to learn from the personal experiences and pain that has been fed into these forums, reports and recommendations. We can all take positive action to contribute to life promotion.

What kind of ancestor would you like to be?

Dr Vanessa Lee is from the Wik and Meriam Nations, and has lived on the land of the Gadigal people for the past five years. She is a social epidemiologist, educator and public health/ health sciences researcher in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Sydney and a director of the board of Suicide Prevention Australia.

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