2nd World Indigenous Suicide Prevention Conference Speech

In West Australian Noongar language, I say “Kaya wangju” – hello and welcome.

I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we’re meeting, the Whadjuk people of the Noongar nation, and pay my respects to Elders past and present. 

I acknowledge the many distinguished speakers here, particularly those who have travelled long distances from Canada and New Zealand.

I also thank the Centre of Best Practice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention at the University of Western Australia, for bringing together this importance event.

Unfortunately, high rates of suicide are an issue for First Nations people across the world.

In 2016, the Turamarama Declaration was endorsed at the inaugural World Indigenous Suicide Prevention Conference in Rotorua in New Zealand.

Since then, this Declaration has travelled the globe.


The Turamarama Declaration acknowledges the grief associated with suicide, and challenges local, national, and international authorities to take action to reduce Indigenous suicide.

But it also encourages Indigenous people to work together.

This conference provides a unique opportunity for us to do just that, and to focus on finding positive responses to a tragic issue.

Here in Australia, the high rate of Indigenous suicide is one of the gravest and most heartbreaking challenges we face – and it’s one to which I am deeply personally committed.

None of our families are unaffected, in some way.

I don’t want to focus on numbers today - but unfortunately, the numbers do underline the story.

In 2017, more than 3,100 Australians died from intentional self-harm[1].

This was a rise of 9.1 per cent from 2016.

A disproportionate number of these were young First Australians - mainly young men - who had many years of life ahead of them.

Overall, our national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide death rate is more than double the rate for other sections of Australian society[2].

But among 15 to 34 year olds, it’s even worse —three times as high.

Last year, intentional self-harm was the leading cause of death for First Australians in this age group.

Every preventable death has a harrowing story, and devastating ramifications for families and communities.

How can we explain this heartbreaking statistic — 358 Australian children under 17 took their own lives between 2013 and 2017, and more than one quarter of these were Aboriginal and Torres Islander children.

It’s painful to think that children, with their lives ahead of them, feel such desperation.


The reasons behind those feelings and their tragic consequences are, of course, deep and complex—cultural, social and personal.

There is no doubt this will remain challenging, while people – particularly children and youths – feel they do not have purposeful lives or hope for the future.

It’s only through working together to tackle the influence of social and cultural factors, that we will see significant change in the mental health states that lead to these deaths.

To do this, we need to listen, especially to the young people who are living with these challenges, which have often become intergenerational.

It has to be handled with great understanding and sensitivity.

That is why our Government is working with families and communities first and foremost—as well as state and territory governments, researchers, and health and community services.

Three of the 12 sites chosen for Australia’s National Suicide Prevention Trial are focused on First Nations people.

One is the Kimberley region of Western Australia, which[3] has the highest suicide rate of any part of Australia.

As one recent news report said, if it was a nation it would have the highest suicide rate in the world.

I am co-chair of a new steering committee working with local Aboriginal communities, which reports to the Kimberley Suicide Prevention Working Group.

My co-chair is Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Service deputy chief executive Rob McPhee.

The steering committee is working with the leaders and elders to establish suitable programs for First People’s communities, especially younger people.

As part of this, I have been inspired by some of the incredible young people involved.

I was particular impressed by a presentation by two members of the Kimberley Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Forum —Jacob Corpus, of Broome, and  Montana Ahwon from Kununurra.

They said that during the forum, they had stuck on a helium balloon, stickers that listed all the problems that local young people encountered.

As they discussed and arrived at potential solutions, they removed a sticker – and finally, the balloon was able to soar, unencumbered.

Montana and Jacob detailed the key factors that Kimberley youth raised, which the working group is now considering.

But I suspect their ideas are relevant to many First Nations communities.

They include:

·         Support for emerging young leaders, through positive role models and mentoring;

·         Teaching in schools about local culture and country traditions, as well as the dangers of drugs and alcohol; and

·         Strong youth engagement and networking through sports, arts and local cultural activities.

They believe that giving young people resilience, a sense of pride and access to education and work prospects will go a long way to reducing the social issues which often culminate in self-harm.[4]

I certainly encourage organisations to ensure they include young First Nations people on advisory groups, to help empower them to take up future leadership roles.


As I have said at a variety of events across Australia, our First Nations societies were - for tens of thousands of years - family-centred, child-centred and community centred.


Centred around a woman, with her key roles as the mother and protector of each family, and equally, around a man, the father and protector, with his firm responsibilities as a warrior.


We need to support and focus on warriors for wellbeing, on Elders and local heroes, particularly where there is family dysfunction.


Culture must be at the forefront of those early years of protection, learning and acquiring knowledge.


Our mothers and fathers, uncles, aunts and grandparents – our families - are the first protectors of our children and young people, the warriors for their welfare and their future.


I’d like to quote from Maori author Alan Duff. He said: “Every tribe throughout history has its own heroes. They represent us, the ordinary people, the people who have yet to realise their own potential.”


Looking for and finding local heroes - this echoes the messages we are hearing from young people in Western Australia’s Kimberley, who are targeting solutions.


A disturbing theme emerging from prevention roundtables is that suicide has become normalised in some areas.


Changing this tragic mindset is crucial, working with our Elders and community warriors, to help build resilience among our young people.  


The National Suicide Prevention Trial was initially funded to mid-2019, but has now been extended into 2020.

An evaluation of its results so far is underway, and this is important because we need to know what works and what doesn’t.

At the same time, our Government has committed $10 million to roll out the National Indigenous Critical Response Service.

It was successfully trialled in Western Australia and has now been extended to other states.

This culturally sensitive service contacts individuals, families and communities affected by suicide or other trauma, especially communities with high levels of suicide.

As well as helping people to become more resilient, it helps to improve the response of local services, to critical incidents that can trigger a suicide.

Australia has a range of national projects designed to reduce suicide and suicidal behaviour, particularly in at-risk groups, such as First Nations people.

These include research, anti- stigma and awareness campaigns, face to face support for individuals in need, training for frontline services, and support for communities experiencing specific difficulties.

For example, we support the Centre of Best Practice in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention, for its important work.

I am pleased we have also provided sponsorship funding to the University of WA to convene both the National and the World Indigenous Suicide Prevention Conferences.

There are many links to suicide, and we are working with First Australians on a variety of solutions to complete a strong chain of prevention measures.


Part of this is being highlighted at another significant conference running in Perth this week – with the launch of a Strategic Action Plan and significant funding to further tackle Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, a significant factor in suicide prevention.


Sharing ideas and evidence is critical in finding better ways forward.

Suicide is probably the most poignant reflection of the trauma suffered by First Nations people around the world - and the journey we face in repairing that damage.

The solution is not simple, because it links in to the same complex factors and historic disadvantage that has confronted many of our people.

But solutions will - and are - being found, through genuine goodwill and a commitment to work together.

This conference is about every one of us working towards a better outcome for our peoples.

I wish you well in your deliberations – as we focus on the many ways forward, to ensure a more positive future for all generations, particularly young people, like Montana and Jacob.

Thank you.


[1] http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/3303.0~2017~Main%20Features~Intentional%20self-harm,%20key%20characteristics~3

[2] Ibidem

[3] https://www.watoday.com.au/national/western-australia/if-the-kimberley-was-a-country-it-would-have-the-worst-suicide-rate-in-the-world-20180802-p4zv3s.html

[4] See comments by Gerry Georgatos  https://www.watoday.com.au/national/western-australia/if-the-kimberley-was-a-country-it-would-have-the-worst-suicide-rate-in-the-world-20180802-p4zv3s.html