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Cultural strength is key to suicide prevention

Aboriginal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice
Aboriginal man, Melbourne street art

The worst response to suicide within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is to ignore social disadvantage and instead attribute the loss of life to individual failure or weakness.

“Addressing the social disadvantage plaguing our communities is critical to solving many of the challenges facing our peoples, including suicide.

“Our nation must face up to the devastation that has been wrought upon our peoples and which overwhelms us today,” according to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, June Oscar.

“The colonisation of our country has come at a great cost for our peoples. We see it everyday in the health and wellbeing of our peoples, in the lack of jobs and in the trauma and disadvantage that surrounds us.

“We see the cost in the eyes of our children who have come to expect this life of pain, of interaction with the care and justice systems, drugs, alcohol and little hope that things will change. 

“We must work to challenge the view that somehow our position in society is simply because of our failure or weakness as individuals.

“It is essential that we find ways to ensure that suicide is the rarest of tragedies in our communities. At a time when our peoples are faced by so many challenges, when our life expectancy is already significantly shorter than the non-Indigenous population, we cannot afford to have it shortened even further by suicide.”

Addressing the National Suicide Prevention Conference on 27 July 2017, Commissioner Oscar said the words of colleague Richard Weston are helpful in this context.

“Richard said earlier this year that it's not about trying to have a debate in this country about blame or guilt for non-Aboriginal people, it's really just trying to understand how we got to where we are.

“If we understand how we got to where we are, we can create solutions that can change the situation.”

Commissioner Oscar said suicide prevention strategies should acknowledge and build on relationships, culture, resilience and respect.

“These are key to our existence as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Our culture is both an ancient and continuing source of resilience. And it is a necessary part of the solutions that we are forging in our communities right across this country.

“Research tells us that strong cultural connections are a necessary ingredient for good health and wellbeing. Of course we already know this but we need to build the evidence base around what works.

“Our culture is the inspiration behind the therapeutic economies giving hope to our women in the Kimberley.

“Similar initiatives exist across the country and we are finding new and innovative ways to broach this difficult subject. I want to acknowledge the work of Walpiri elders for trying to find a way to reach and reconnect with their young people through the development of the Kurdiji App. I look forward to seeing what other creative solutions our people come up with to tackle this important issue. This is the cultural medicine that our people need.

“We also know that bringing about change means moving away from discussions that are based in the ‘deficit’ and channelling our efforts into the strengths-based programs and services such as those that I have already mentioned.

“The language of strength, not deficit is what will keep our cultures and our communities alive.

“We need to shift how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are able to participate in Australian society.

“We need structures, schools, safe spaces where we see ourselves reflected back to us, where we are respected, where we have the same opportunities as others, but also where our voices are heard. I don’t mean having a separate society for our peoples but one where we clearly see a place for ourselves and our children in what exists around us. This is what cultural security looks like.”

Read the full speech here.

Photo: Flickr

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