Ex NRL player who attempted suicide has message for new government adviser


Scott Morrison appointed a national suicide prevention adviser to the government this week. Joe Williams says it's a step forward, but more needs to be done to address the issue in Indigenous communities.

An Indigenous mental health advocate has urged the federal government to better work with communities to curb the country's alarming Indigenous suicide rate.

Former NRL player and boxer Joe Williams welcomed this week's appointment of Christine Morgan as national suicide prevention advisor but said it will mean nothing for Indigenous people without a change in strategy.

"We are over-represented in a lot of [mental health] statistics, we have some of the highest suicide rates in the world ... Two people die per week in the Aboriginal community from suicide," the Wiradjuri man told SBS News.

Joe Williams talks to SBS News.
Joe Williams talks to SBS News.
SBS News

Mr Williams said "it's a real positive that some action is being shown" by the Morrison government but added that "first and foremost, there has to be community consultation" with Indigenous Australians.

"We want to see this special envoy in our communities," he said.

The ex-Rabbitohs player made a comparison of when Tony Abbott became Mr Morrison's special envoy on Indigenous affairs last year.

"We don't need another Tony Abbott, sitting back in an office, talking about being a special envoy and not doing anything about it," he said.

We don't need another Tony Abbott.

- Joe Williams

"We're spending a hell of a lot of money just speaking about issues that we're already aware of, [now] it's about empowering communities, handing the baton over to communities to heal themselves."

"People are dying. We need to be given the keys to empower ourselves."

Joe Williams
Williams playing for the the Rabbitohs in 2006.

Mr Williams knows the "darkness" of mental health issues, having turned to alcohol and drugs in an attempt to silence negative thoughts in the past. He attempted suicide in 2012.

"I know first hand, you can't just pick yourself up and get on with it, because the head tells you that no one cares, that you don't matter. The head convinces you that you're worthless."

Mr Williams said he drew on his Indigenous heritage and that played a role in his ongoing recovery.

"It was about connection – connection to people, connection to culture, connection to myself ... It was about connecting with things that have always worked in our community," he said.

"Our messages of healing have been working for 100,000 years."

Joe Williams wants the Morrison government to better engage with Indigenous communities.
Williams wants the Morrison government to better engage with Indigenous communities.


Nationally, the number of deaths by suicide is rising nine per cent every year to more than 3,100 people annually.

Suicide Prevention Australia CEO Nieves Murray said this rise was "predominantly men between 35 and 50 and Indigenous Australians".

"We also have a growing concern about the number of people who are younger," Ms Murray said.

She welcomed the appointment of Ms Morgan after groups like hers spent years calling for a dedicated government portfolio.

But, she said: "from coronial inquests we know that only 40 per cent of people who die by suicide have diagnosable depression". 

This year's federal budget made provisions for a national system to collect information on suicide and self-harm.

Advocates say it will go a long way in identifying who is at risk and how best to allocate resources.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said at the announcement of the suicide prevention adviser appointment on Tuesday: "I am committed to taking all necessary action to tackle this issue, ensuring Australian families, communities and those facing challenges get the support they need." 

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or a local Aboriginal Health ServiceSuicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 and Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 (up to age 25). Indigenous Australian psychologist services can be found here.

More information about mental health is available at Beyond Blue.

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