Australia is once again shaking its collective head in disbelief, shock and outrage over the latest spate of young Aboriginal people taking their own lives. This time it’s suicides in my homeland, the Kimberly region of Western Australia, that have grabbed national attention. Last year it was Central Australia. The year before, Cape York.
For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the despair is heightened by the knowledge that these suicides can be stopped. Solutions do exist. They aren’t designed in Parliament House or the Department of Health in Canberra but, with the support and assistance of mental health professionals, they arise from the communities experiencing these tragedies themselves.
This story is one such example. It is the story of a small community taking control of its own health and addressing its own suicide crisis. I share it in the hope that our elected leaders pay attention to the long-term investment and trust that is needed to turn this crisis around. A shift in thinking is essential – improving mental health requires an ongoing commitment and a belief in Indigenous self-determination.
I’m a Bardi man mixed with Jaru and Bunaba from Broome in Western Australia. As a young man, I grew up without any constant male role models, facing discrimination as I tried to find my way in a country that largely expected me to remain poor and helpless. I was heavily into drugs and alcohol. I attempted suicide. These are experiences I share with too many of my people.
I came to the community of Yarrabah – Queensland’s largest Aboriginal settlement – in the 1980s. It belongs to the Gunggandji and coastal Yidinji peoples but is home to about three thousand Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders from around the country, most of them forcibly removed from their traditional homes, separated from family and country.
Yarri’s main claim to fame, for want of a better term, is that in the ‘80s and ‘90s it had one of the highest suicide rates in the world.
I didn’t come to Yarrabah for altruistic reasons but for the promise of fertile land to grow dope. Unexpectedly, my life took a major turn within my first week of arrival when I encountered Jesus Christ. Years later I became a priest at the Anglican Church and folks started calling me Rev Les.
I knew I wanted to help others who were struggling with grog and ganja so I trained as a drug and alcohol counsellor and worked at the rehab centre set up by the church.
Then 1995 happened; five people suicided in Yarrabah. The community was traumatised and we needed to reclaim our spirit. We held a community meeting with about four hundred people and decided to take action. This included closing down the alcohol canteen, forming a Men’s Group which, to this day, still meets on a weekly basis, and employing local life promotion officers as a crisis response team. Up until then, the Queensland Government had provided our health services and, while we needed their western medical expertise, something was missing. The system was unable to cater for our social and emotional wellbeing needs. We had to change this.
We enlisted the help of two health academics to get started: Fiona de Korte assisted with a health feasibility study to argue the need for community control, and Ernest Hunter lobbied for funding to kickstart the project. By 1999, we had the beginnings of our own health service and I became the first manager. We called it Gurriny Yealamucka, the Gunggandji name for good healing water.
Then, in 2000, another life-changing event happened. I met a man named Komla Tsey who was working with the University of Queensland in Cairns. Komla was from Africa and I was curious to find out what he was doing here. I invited him to talk to our men’s group and we told him about our struggles. Komla listened and then shared his own story. He had been conducting some research on a community empowerment education program in central Australia, developed by Aboriginal people, called Family Wellbeing. We were intrigued.
Much of our sense of disempowerment, individually and as a community, came from not being able to make critical decisions about our own lives. A course designed by people like us was what we needed. It spoke our language, it understood how we experienced empowerment and wellbeing.
The following year, we started a collaboration with Komla and a team of researchers to bring Family Wellbeing to Yarri and to develop a social, emotional and spiritual health program to complement Queensland Health’s medical services. Komla encouraged us to incorporate research and quality improvement into this journey. He was keen for us to share our experiences with other communities who were facing similar struggles. We agreed.
Around fifty of us completed the course in 2002 and 2003. It taught us about meeting our basic human needs like shelter, exercise, food, sleep, and also identity, sexual expression, respect for self and others, life-long learning and connection to something greater than ourselves. It gave us skills to better understand and manage relationships, emotions, conflicts, grief and loss. Learning to apply these problem-solving skills built resilience within us to deal with issues like self-harm, drug and alcohol misuse and other addictions such as gambling. Around ten of us from that initial cohort went on to complete the facilitator training. We then partnered with the researchers to deliver Family Wellbeing to a variety of community groups in Yarri.
This was the first part of the two-step Participatory Action Research process that would teach us to become researchers in our own right. In Step, 1 we learnt to empower ourselves in order to help others. If we were to deliver the program to members of our community we had to walk the talk. In Step 2, Komla and the team’s first task was to train us as researchers. They helped to demystify this thing called ‘research’ which had always been done to us by outsiders. We loved learning about it and it gave us ownership over our information. Through the Family Wellbeing workshops, we brought participants and community members together to talk about the issues that mattered most to them. We started tackling problems like the chronic housing shortage, poor school attendance, and boredom.
We also learnt about critical reflection and quality improvement – reviewing what worked well in the community and what didn’t. We asked who was benefiting from our actions and who was missing out, which gave us practical skills in addressing equity. We tried to work out how we could improve the situation and how we could measure any changes. Measurement was important. Dealing with community issues with complex historical and political aspects was overwhelming but we learnt to note and appreciate the small incremental improvements. We were ordinary people who had been unemployed most of our lives, living off CDEP. Family Wellbeing gave us the confidence to start working and studying and to mobilise groups for action.
By 2007, suicides had decreased dramatically. By 2011, sixteen per cent of the community – or about 463 people – had attended Family Wellbeing sessions. From this critical mass we built a local workforce of health workers at Gurriny Yealamucka Health Service. We only had two staff at Gurriny when Family Wellbeing started in 2001. By 2014, eighty per cent of the 70 odd staff were locals.
Australians are bombarded with a deficit view of Aboriginal people, so much so that we often become complacent, and doubt that solutions can be found. Rarely do we listen to the solutions that Aboriginal people find for themselves. Like most Aboriginal communities, Yarri has seen its fair share of health programs come, show promise, lose funding and disappear. What was different about Family Wellbeing was the long-term commitment we made with Komla’s team.
Usually, in a suicide crisis, there is an immediate critical response to deal with the incident – something to stabilise the situation, like bringing in counsellors. Time goes by and the outside assistance wanes, but in Yarri we found Family Wellbeing, a trauma-informed empowerment program, and learnt to take charge of our lives, no matter what had happened in the past. We changed our mindset from victimhood to taking control and responsibility for ourselves. The community is changing as a result, with the impact spreading from one household to another and far beyond.
Over the eighteen years since Family Wellbeing started in Yarri, word has spread. This has been helped along by the forty-eight papers we have published with Komla’s team on the journey of Family Wellbeing across Australia. As people hear about its impact, they want to sign up to the program for their communities. A remarkable momentum has seen Family Wellbeing delivered in over sixty sites around the country and overseas. There is evidence that people elsewhere have found Family Wellbeing provides a powerful model for change.
The reliance on short-term government funding has been a huge obstacle, as community-based organisations are forced to apply every year for small grants to cover the costs of the training. We know this only too well.
In Yarrabah, too, funding has been a constant struggle. We secured eighteen short-term grants over a period of fifteen years, and unsuccessfully applied for many more. That’s a lot of hard work for even a team to manage and the uncertainty it caused made planning and secure employment very difficult. While Medicare now funds biomedical clinical services at Gurriny, the social and emotional wellbeing program and other preventative programs still depend on short-term funding. Staff have to rewrite their resumes every year to justify their positions to funders. Plans for the future become tricky when they are subject to the uncertainty of funding rounds. Dedicated workers in the community, forming relationships with young people as part of suicide prevention, are unable to say how long they will be there. We need to be able to establish confidence and security in these positions.
Family Wellbeing works, and the demand for it is increasing. In 2017 we opened up the National Centre for Family Wellbeing, based at James Cook University in Cairns. Our aim is to be a coordination site, to support the sustainable implementation of the program and to document the evidence of its impact using participatory quality improvement processes. The centre shares knowledge and resources about what works. We train and mentor those working with children, youth and families to embed Family Wellbeing into their services and programs.
Despite our successes, our latest short-term funding has expired. My work there is voluntary. I do it to assist my people to empower ourselves and manage our own affairs.
If you’ve been around the Indigenous affairs scene for a while you would have heard the terms ‘empowerment’ and ‘capacity building’ being thrown around, for the most part, in a way that lacks meaning. This Family Wellbeing journey is a way to turn that rhetoric into a reality. We need longer-term funding rather than the current stop-start way of ad hoc, short-term grant rounds. How about this for a proposal? Those with the purse strings give five to ten years’ assurance of continued funding to community organisations. In return, these organisations deliver short, medium and long-term outcomes and document the incremental changes that occur as a result of Family Wellbeing.
We must keep the momentum going.
The more we believe in ourselves, the more we need funders to hear what we can do.
Written with Niru Perera. Rev Les wishes to acknowledge the Lowitja Institute and the NHMRC-funded Centre for Research Excellence in Integrated Quality Improvement for supporting the sharing of this story.
Image: Alby Headrick