Aboriginal Australians Offered National Suicide Prevention Program

By Shae Courtney

By Shae Courtney.

In 2008 the State Coroner for Western Australia, Alastair Hope, released his report into the deaths of 22 Aboriginal Australians in the Kimberley region of Western Australia since 2000.

The Hope Report outlined some 27 recommendations to the state government and highlighted the urgent need for accountability in the state’s provisions to protect and provide for Aboriginal Australians living in WA. Despite spending some $1.2 billion per annum on Aboriginal healthcare, housing, education, infrastructure and young people, Mr Hope criticised the state government in what he said were “appallingly bad” living conditions of Aboriginal Western Australians.

The report found no meaningful accountability or leadership at either state or federal level because the budget ring-fenced for Aboriginal Australians in the state was distributed between 22 agencies with no single person responsible for delivering outcomes. “The inquest revealed that at present there is an almost complete lack of leadership in the response by government to the disaster of Aboriginal living conditions,” Mr Hope said.

In the aftermath of the Hope Report, the WA Department of Indigenous Affairs released its response welcoming the findings of Mr Hope. They committed to implement change in the key areas of housing, infrastructure, education, young people, health and leadership.

Four years later, Right Now felt it was time to revisit the issue to investigate whether real change had occurred in WA.

In May 2012, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) released an audit report consisting of 10 years of Aboriginal medical data. In the report, the AMA offered a mixed review of WA’s provision and handling of Aboriginal medical affairs: “the government track record over the last decade has been variable, and in some cases disappointing.”

According to the report, more effort is needed to build a suitable health and medical workforce, and priority needs to be given to the creation of Aboriginal community-controlled health. The rate of Indigenous incarceration, which is referred to as “a national disgrace”, must also be addressed and current health funding levels must be maintained. The AMA explained:

The health needs of Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders are significantly greater than those of other [non-Aboriginal] Australians. The AMA believes that changing this requires primary health care that is funded at a level, and focused in a way, that is commensurate with this differential burden of poor health.

The training of specialised Aboriginal medical professionals has been highly successful, said Ms Jeffries-Stokes, Associate Professor at the University of Western Australia (UWA). “There needs to be more emphasis placed on getting more Aboriginal people into the health workforce. These are the people who know what their communities need so education should be taken to them,” she said.

Dr Richard Choong, Vice President of the AMA in WA, said: “the report clearly enunciates the ongoing plight of the Aboriginal people. There has been a lot of talk about ‘closing the gap’, but this is not significantly occurring.”

As per the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Australia is party, the Right to Health is clearly identified in Article 25:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

WA and other states and territories have clearly failed or provided inconsistent provision to Aboriginal Australians in breach of Article 25. There is hope, however, in the form of a federal government initiative to create a national suicide prevention strategy for Indigenous Australians.

One of the ways the federal government is responding to the AMA report and concerns of the wider community is by allocating $2.4 million to five Indigenous suicide-prevention organisations, one of which is at UWA.

UWA will receive approximately $1 million to expand its Empowerment initiative. First pioneered in the Kimberley region in 2011, the strategy has achieved relative success and will be expanded with the extra funding to eight areas nationally.

The allocation of funds by the federal government emblematises a crucial progression in striving for equality and dignity for Aboriginal Australians. The new national strategy should assist in achieving dignity and affording appropriate protection for Aboriginal Australians, something that has been particularly lacking in the past.

The collaboration between the Menzies School of Health Research, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Advisory Group and the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation will see national continuity in policy and approach, and aim to deliver true accountability.

Mark Butler, Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, commented on the scheme: “We are determined to tackle the high rate of Indigenous suicide in Australia and this announcement is a further tangible step we are taking to do just that.”

Shae Courtney is a British undergraduate student of The University of Melbourne, majoring in English, and has previously studied at Queen Mary, University of London. He is an aspiring journalist and a research associate at The New Zealand Centre for Human Rights Law, Policy and Practice at The University of Auckland. Shae has a particularly interest in current affairs, human rights legislation and international diplomacy.

Further reading:

Empowering Indigenous Communities to Tackle Suicide

Indigenous Services Australia

Australian Indigenous Health Information