• "The answer to this suicide crisis is in our families and communities" Richard Weston, Healing Foundation. (chameleonseye iStock / Getty Images Plus)
OPINION: Reversing the high rate of suicide is not beyond us. Richard Weston of the Healing Foundation explains, the crisis can be arrested.
By
Richard Weston

29 Mar 2019 - 3:37 PM  UPDATED 3 Apr 2019 - 10:42 AM

We have a national crisis on our hands – our young people are taking their lives in record numbers – but we also have a solution within reach.

To get to the solution, it’s important to recognise and understand the negative impact that intergenerational trauma has on the health and wellbeing of our families and communities across the country.

Intergenerational Trauma and Suicide

In a recent report, WA Coroner, Ms Ros Fogliani drew attention to intergenerational trauma as 'the primary common factor' which 'made them vulnerable to suicide', after investigating a cluster of youth suicides in Western Australia’s Kimberley region.  

In the past half century, suicide has emerged as a major cause of premature mortality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. It is a contributor to the overall health and life expectancy gap experienced by our people.

Considering their likelihood of exposure to traumatic life events – and subsequent effects such as loss of cultural identity, alcohol and drug addiction – our young men are most vulnerable.

And while young males make up the majority of the statistics, the increasing number of suicides and self harm among young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander females is an ongoing concern.

As the WA Coroner quite rightly suggests, this current crisis is the unresolved consequence of intergenerational trauma.

The traumatic disruption colonisation caused to communities, cultures and families is known to be the primary factor, and is the source of poor social and emotional wellbeing in communities.

Without the necessary skills, many children grow into young people and adults who struggle with self-destructive, pain based behaviours.

Trauma has also become dangerously embedded in the collective, cultural memory. It is passing through the generations using the same mechanisms by which culture is generally transmitted.

How community-based solutions can lead to success

The answer to this crisis is in our families and communities.

They need to be at the centre of designing, developing and driving healing solutions to strengthen their capacity to lead their own healing.

It is only when cultural knowledge and frameworks are used alongside self-determination that healing can take place, even through trauma and grief.

We’ve seen the evidence of this. The Healing Foundation recently worked alongside the communities of Yarrabah, Qld and Tiwi Islands, N.T to produce a suicide prevention framework that was both unique and community led.

In the past two decades, both communities have seen suicide rates fall dramatically from the very high rates experienced in the 1990s.

In the past two decades, both communities have seen suicide rates fall dramatically from the very high rates experienced in the 1990s. 

The stories from Yarrabah and Tiwi Islands are the beginning of a process of healing from the cultural genocide of colonisation along with past and present government policy.

They are stories where the communities themselves address the effects of intergenerational trauma.

They are also stories that provide evidence that strong families and communities are the best protection from suicide ideation and attempts.

The case studies show that sport, art, music and social media are being used to communicate strong messages around suicide awareness and education...

The case studies show that sport, art, music and social media are being used to communicate strong messages around suicide awareness and education, so that intervention and prevention can be used as part of a holistic healing approach.

Despite this, we can’t simply service our way out of the devastating impact of trauma to create healing.

The examples above are local responses embedded in local culture, language and traditions.

They demonstrate the power that self-determination can have on the effects of trauma and have much broader implications across the Indigenous policy landscape.

They are relevant to strategic work like the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan, the National Strategic Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ mental health and social and emotional wellbeing, and to conversations about how we establish a new Closing the Gap framework.

While understanding suicide in remote communities has been challenging, Yarrabah and the Tiwi Islands have a story that, when told from their perspective, can demonstrate how trauma and healing can shift suicide rates. These stories demonstrate how community-based solutions can lead to successful long term change.

 

Richard Weston is a descendant of the Meriam people of the Torres Strait. He has worked in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs for more than 20 years. As CEO of the Healing Foundation since September 2010, Richard has overseen the strategic development of the organisation, which has supported more than 170 culturally strong, community led Indigenous healing projects around Australia.

Richard sits on a number of forums and committees that address critical Indigenous policy issues including the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project.