Fighting For Life

Our researchers traverse the country to speak to communities about preventing Indigenous suicide. 

“Our mob don’t like asking for help. We are proud. It takes a lot of courage to ask for help,” advises a plain-speaking Indigenous community representative.

He’s talking with researchers from the Menzies Centre for Child Development and Education (CCDE) who are in his region to collect information and stories about Indigenous suicide.

“It can take a fair amount of courage for Indigenous people from regional or remote communities to stand up and talk in this environment,” says lead researcher, Associate Professor Gary Robinson. “Communities can go into denial about suicide and become too ashamed or frightened to talk about it openly.”

Battling against the horrors of Indigenous suicide sounds like a grim task. However this recent series of consultations were characterised more by determination to make things better, than they were by any sense of despair.

Researchers criss-crossed the country during August and September conducting public consultations in 16 capital cities and regional centres in points as far distant as Thursday Island, Hobart, Perth and Broome.

Their ultimate task was to seek the information that may help to reduce the distressingly high rates of suicide in Indigenous communities around Australia.

The team, lead by A/Prof Robinson, has been charged with capturing material to feed into the development of a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Indigenous Suicide Prevention Plan. It has spoken to more than 500 people and received over 50 submissions to the consultation website

There was a steely resolve on the part of the Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who attended the sessions to apply themselves to the problem and work hard to develop answers to the scourge of Indigenous suicide.

“There was a sense of hope on the part of people who want to be heard,” said A/Prof Robinson. “They want to know what the options are, and have input into the strategies that reflect the views of their communities.”

There were some expressions of grief from community members present who referred to their direct personal experience of losing loved ones to suicide. The consultations provided a supportive environment and it seemed that people drew strength from being able to recount their own stories in a safe space. 

A healthy representation of Indigenous people was present at all the consultations. As Robinson noted, there can be no suggestion that Aboriginal people are unwilling to take responsibility for developing solutions to the thorny problems they face. 

This was not an occasion for navel gazing, he added. People were focussed on the distinctly concrete task of developing a strategy that will help save lives. They were animated by a sense that something could be done – and that something would be done to prevent suicide.

“I was blown away by how much people knew and how willing they were to talk about things,” recalls Bernard Leckning, a research team member who attended a number of the consultations.

“You are talking about people who are pretty determined to get something done. People were animated by a belief that something needs to be done about the situation.”

Despite the nature of the subject matter, there were moments of humour. A video that featured Tiwi Islands crooners B2M warning against the misuse of social media, for instance, generated more than a few laughs.

An Indigenous representatives at one consultation also regaled those present with a tale of A/Prof Robinson being chased by a feral donkey – apparently unimpressed by academic standing – during an earlier visit to Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands of South Australia. 

Although the consultations have finished, the team still has an enormous task ahead to distil the wealth of material they have collected and synthesise it into a cohesive response for government by the end of October. 

They will also be acutely aware of the importance of honouring the contributions of the many Australians – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – who gave up their time and contributed their expertise at locations all across the country.

“Tough topics often bring the biggest rewards in terms of working with people and finding common ground,” notes A/Prof Robinson.

The work of his team isn’t easy, he said, but it is critically important to grapple with the reality of suicide if governments and research organisations are to partner with Indigenous communities in finding a way forward.

“This bleak toll of misery must be stemmed,” said A/Prof Robinson.