Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Aboriginal Initiatives to Combating Suicide

(a) Empowering themselves
What does it mean when researchers and strategy-devisers talk of the need for ‘indigenous’ communities to ‘empower themselves’, or to ‘engage in self-determination’? For example, a Strategy Bulletin states: ‘It is
crucial that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are empowered to develop and implement their own ways of supporting and guiding their young people’. ‘It will be a major challenge to find creative ways of ensuring self-determination for particular communities ...’These are shibboleths and catch cries, phrases that sound good but are never accompanied by any specificity as to their meaning in theory or practice.

For close on 40 years now I have watched, alongside Aborigines, as policy slogans of this kind were invented, barely implemented, replaced, only to be discarded when a different slogan was suggested. We would do well to revisit Deloria’s philosophies of ‘leave-us-alone’ and self-help, together with a commitment to respond promptly to calls for assistance, but only when asked.

(b) Corporation/incorporation power
By forming corporations or legal associations, Aborigines have a viable powerbase in mainstream society. The artificial legal persona of such bodies is a greater force than the separate legal personalities of the individuals who comprise them. These bodies have been the agencies through which governments have sought to achieve their aims and objectives; however, like Indian corporations in the United States and band councils in Canada, they are capable of proactive, even aggressive assertions of a local will. Land councils, legal aid corporations, housing associations, and educational incorporations can band together to innovate, monitor, adjudicate, or ameliorate youth behaviour.

‘Nothing happens in human affairs without the creation of new power or there distribution of old power.’ Denis Oliver, who helped establish a ‘National Awareness Campaign’ to reduce suicide among Western Samoan youth, based this premise on the helper’s belief that ‘the people in the villages could solve the problem and it was therefore their right and responsibility to dig for the causes and remedies’. The essence of the strategy was to
•‘inform the people that they had a problem’,
•‘educate them of the facts of the problem’,
•‘create a vacuum for them to move on the problem’, and
•‘facilitate and encourage their action on the problem’.
It was, in large measure, successful.

Aborigines know only too well that they have a problem. Some groups need briefing on ostensible causes and related issues. What they lack—given their struggles for survival on budgets which are forever endangered or cut—is the space, the ‘vacuum in which to move’. Corporations have the base not only to bring suicide ‘in-house’, but also to tackle such matters as institutional racism, discriminatory practices by real estate agents, unilateral dismissal of students from schools. The mechanism for adversarial action, both legal and political, is there: they have to find the best ways to act.

In sum, corporations may need some assistance in establishing the monitoring programs, but this has to be on Aboriginal terms.

(c) Domestic violence, sexual assaults, and the cannabis problem
Domestic violence has for long been the subject of anguish and attempted resolution in communities. Ernest Hunter believes that suicide is the ‘flip-side of domestic violence’. In the period between 1989–90 (when I did my earlier fieldwork in New South Wales) and the 1997–99 field research, I saw an increased willingness of women to report such violence to the police. In response, police promoted awareness of, and the need to report, domestic violence. Reporting is an important first stage: the next battle is to convince the women concerned to testify in court hearings against their abusers.

Much has been written, and nothing done, about community justice mechanisms. An outstanding report by the Australian Law Reform Commission in 1986, on the Recognition of Aboriginal Customary Laws, chaired initially by the Honourable Justice Michael Kirby and later by Professor James Crawford, dealt with such mechanisms. That report has simply been ignored. It needs urgent resurrection.

It lies within the structural power inherent in the corporation to put an end to the now rampant sexual abuse of children. These abuses must be reported as police matters, and the consequences borne by both the offender and the affected family; or the behaviour can be dealt with in-house. Traditionally it was, and most severely. Deloria’s concept of Indian revivalism could include this scenario.

Cannabis is a relatively new phenomenon in Aboriginal communities. As alcoholis celebrated in the Australian ethos, it can hardly be denied to Aborigines; cannabis is rampant in the non-Aboriginal society and well on the way to being decriminalised. However, ‘educating people about the facts’ must include a strong message that many Aboriginal youth suicides have had an obsessive association with the substance. There is a difference between ‘light recreational party’ use and leaving home to live on riverbanks where private plantations can be nurtured. Many of these harmful behaviours, as Hillman would argue, are interior to communities.

(d) Expansion of CDEP occupations
Few Aborigines have an independent source of income. The great majority live on the income generated by social service benefits, paid either directly to the recipients or worked for to the level of the CDEP benefit. The new federal budget allocations in1999 for Aboriginal employment provide for more CDEP positions.

(i) CDEP and suicide
One aspect of CDEP is that it does allow for important innovation in the context of suicide. Aboriginal corporations which run CDEP have few restrictions on the work undertaken. It ranges from sophisticated landscaping services in Forster, to vegetable-growing in Tingha, to house-building in Woodenbong and Narrabri. CDEP could well create positions, some of which would require special training and guidance in,
•remand cell visits,
•prison visits for those sentenced and, more important,
•being ‘friend in court’ when the youth appears in court.

Parents are often not around: possibly an end-of-the-road, had-a-gutful kind of reaction. Too often it is an abdication of parental responsibility. ‘Court liaison officer’ is an official category now: but only four Aborigines have been appointed in New South Wales! The presence of a friend in court, and friend at the cells, and friend as visitor, is an essential strategy for Aboriginal youth. North American literature reports on the lack of training and on the inability of custodial officers to handle at-risk youth. So, too, with their Australian counterparts.

(ii) Incarceration, places and processes
In New South Wales, the majority of police station cells have been decommissioned, even those with an A rating for surveillance. Youth are transported great distances from home to towns with ‘super’ surveillance systems: cells where it is impossible to attach a cord or cloth; television cameras that run round the clock; sometimes small perspex cages, located so that desk staff can see the person at all times. These facilities were shown to us, with pride. In many centres, police have been replaced by custody officers from the Department of Corrective Services, who receive some training. It is important to separate policing duties from those of minder or carer. However, the basis for these procedures, is to ensure that there are no deaths in custody. Given the increasing incarceration of Aboriginal youth, even for petty offences, I question the logic of a system which daily increases the rates of arrest while taking more and more evasive action to avoid any further Royal Commission-type enquiry.

During my fieldwork in the Kimberley in 1990, at Fitzroy Crossing, the then officer-in-charge undertook to drive me around the town. Before leaving the police station, he told a number of young men, and several elders who were sitting in the grounds, at tables, under shade umbrellas, that they were not to go to town, and were to keep away from the local nearby hotel pub. He said he would be back shortly. I asked him who those people were. My prisoners, he explained. I asked why are were outdoors and unsupervised (knowing there was absolutely nowhere for anyone to abscond to).‘I’m buggered if any black fella is going to kill himself in my cells’, he replied, as the shadow of the Royal Commission loomed over everyone. (I endorsed his handling of his prisoners but had a lesser regard for his motive.)

(iii) The alternatives
Warrakoo is a large property about 85 km west of Wentworth, near the South Australian border. It is a two-hour drive from Mildura, the furthermost northern Victorian town, and is situated near Lake Victoria. Physically, it is a long walk to nowhere, and of the approximately 80 Aboriginal residents there since 1991, only one person has absconded. There are no walls and no restraints.

Warrakoo is an impressive, Aboriginal-run alternative to the juvenile and criminal justice system—preferable, in my view, to the 30-bed detention centres in Dubbo and Grafton. When an offender is brought before a magistrate, the legal aid service and/or the medical service can ask that the person be brought before the Warrakoo management board for assessment as to suitability for the ‘straightening out’ program. Instead of sentencing, the magistrate can remand for an assessment of suitability for the Warrakoo program. Following rehabilitation, the offender may be considered for release from criminal charge.

The place and the personnel are impressive. There is no sense of incarceration, no shadow of warders. The manager commands loyalty and respect. The chairman of the board is an Aborigine. On her assessing board is the former Dareton police sergeant who is committed to alternative systems of rehabilitation, particularly for those who appear to be at high risk of suicide. A recent assessment, in 1999, included a Wilcannia prisoner facing a long sentence in Geelong, Victoria. He believed that he had turned a corner and was assessed, by television link-up with the Warrakoo board, which recommended his acceptance. He may now be able to complete part of his sentence in this program.

Warrakoo has enabled many youth, mostly in their 20s, to rehabilitate and to give up alcohol. The board sees alcohol, not drugs, as the key issue. Almost all of their residents have been sexually abused in childhood.

The Victorian institutions have been willing supporters of the program, but not the NSW Police. Most of the residents are South Australian and Victorian. A second large property, in northern Victoria, is being purchased, to be run as a cultural revival centre for, among others, Aboriginal youth at risk.

In earlier research, I observed similar schemes, especially the Wildman Rivercamp in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, an open but much less free arrangement than Warrakoo. There had been a short-lived experiment in Western Australia in which youth were sent to their tribal elders in the Port Hedland region. Many of the youth emerged as ‘changed people’.

The reality is that unless bureaucrats in police and corrective services begin to use, or even to help establish, such Aboriginal-run exercises, increasing numbers of Aboriginal youth will crowd the jails, uprisings will take place, as in Casuarina in Western Australia, and increasing suicides in custody will bedevil those in charge.

(e) Painting
The Hunter-Reser study includes nine examples of symbolic representations of suicide by hanging. While they may well be symptomatic of grief, or the pervasiveness of suicide ‘ideation’ in the three communities in their study, there could well be value in the deliberate encouragement of painting and sculpture as ‘purgation’ of suicidal feelings. The front cover of my report is an example of such art. In Nowra, health workers have been reasonably successful in suicide education by showing the paintings, or photographs of them, to young people at risk. Community organisations could consider a ‘paint-your-feelings’ program.

(f) Sport
Enough has been said to date about the role and value of sport in giving young people a sense of belonging, coherence, loyalty—and purpose in life.

What remains is for Aboriginal communities to make strong representations to sporting associations, and to national and State sport and recreation bodies,
•to allow Aborigines into competitions;
•to provide sports administrators in each community; and
•to fund teams for equipment and travel.

In other written pieces, I have shown that the Australian Sports Commission and the NSW Department of Sport and Recreation are overly concerned with sport at the elite level. No attention is paid to sport as therapy or as a physical or mental focus for youth, as a substitute for group cohesion, as ‘medication’ for circulatory and metabolic disease (such as diabetes), as an answer to boredom, as leisure and therefore as a possible alternative to the togetherness of the pub.

Of all ‘group therapies’ available, sport is the most logical in our armoury, and the one most likely to succeed.

Where Aborigines have been expelled, rejected or frozen out of competitions, or teams disbanded—as at Coomealla and Moree in the first instances, and Wilcanniaand Menindee in the latter—corporations need to use their power to fight for
•inclusion,
•mediation of disputes,
•funds to travel and buy equipment, and
•capital grants to enhance what few playing fields they have, such as the grassing of ovals and the installation of lights.

(g) Mentors and enlightened witnesses
Throughout this study, discussion with Aborigines focused on the need for ‘gurus’, ‘respect’ figures, mentors, tutors, guides in the community, individuals to turn to when life betrays them. The American literature makes constant references to ‘gatekeepers’, almost always assuming they will be the tribal elders (of yore). Ideally, there should be someone within the community group, who becomes a first port of call for the youth at risk. There are different roles for those assuming real responsibility:
•a guru figure, seen as a voice of wisdom;
•a mentor, such as a sporting hero or role model;
•an enlightened witness, one who gives verity to what the individual has experienced and suffered and cannot talk about, thus enabling victims to retain some belief in themselves.

There are no training courses for such figures. It is a matter of personality, repute, what the Maori call mana. However, a starting point for consideration is that Aboriginal(and Maori) men and women train as grief counsellors. If they can be seen to mediate grief, they may well come to be seen as people who can counsel, or be able to refer the victim to more specialised personnel.


Aboriginal Community Liaison Officers (ACLOs) come closer than anyone else to performing this function, but their association with the police is often a barrier. However, ACLO training, to date informal and learned on the job, would benefit from formal training and from some specialised youth work, including an understanding of the whole suicide canvas.

Key Messages:
Aboriginal initiatives are now increasingly possible within the new framework of corporations:
• to introduce community justice mechanisms;
• to expand CDEP tasks to include positions as ‘friends in court’, court liaison officers and custody visitors;
• to work towards alternative juvenile facilities, such as the successful Warrakoo ‘redirection’ centre;
• to organise (cathartic) painting classes for youth at risk of suicide;
• to campaign for greater access to sport, and the provision of equipment and funding;
• to find, or ‘produce’, mentor figures to whom youth can turn for help.

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