The high rate of suicide among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people is one of the gravest and most heartbreaking challenges we face, one I am deeply and personally committed to confronting.

All of our families are affected in some way.

Overall, our people are taking their own lives at more than double the rate of the rest of Australian society. Among 15-34 year olds, it is triple, and for those aged 5-17, the disparity is five-fold.

Statistics serve to highlight the tragedy but the true picture of loss is a vast canvas of trauma stretching across the nation.

This month, a 14 year old Perth girl took her life amid concerns over racism and bullying. In Townsville, a 15 year old girl, also from Perth, died after repeated self-harm.

In Western Australia’s north, a 12-year old girl died in Port Hedland, followed by a 14 year old in the Kimberley community of Warmun.

Days later, a 15-year-old died in Perth and, near Adelaide, a 12 year old decided to end her life.

Two other children have been reportedly treated for attempted suicide. 

It’s agonising to think that young people, with their lives ahead of them, feel such desperation.

A disturbing theme emerging is that suicide has become normalised in some places.

Responding to the recent losses by listening to and supporting our children, young people, families and communities to save lives is now even more critical.

I suspect if these were non-Aboriginal kids dying in affluent suburbs, the public outrage and media coverage would be far greater.

But the scale of this tragedy will not be found in those areas because it is born of many factors far less common in average Australia.

So what is driving our youth to take such desperate actions?

In 2017, a group of 30 young people met to face the suicide challenge at a special forum, convened to inform the ongoing Kimberley Suicide Prevention Trial.

The region was chosen for the trial because its age-adjusted rate of suicide is more than three times the national average. As has been noted, if the Kimberley was a country, it would have the highest suicide rate in the world. 

Kimberley Youth Forum participants identified and wrote down 44 issues on notes, symbolically sticking them onto a helium balloon, that was soon weighed down with the problems and could no longer float.

Lack of a support and education accounted for 34 per cent of the challenges, followed by poor living and environmental conditions (23 per cent), violence (16 per cent), inter-generational trauma (16 per cent) and disconnection from traditional culture (7 per cent).

They said too often, young Aboriginal people feel voiceless and that it is vital to involve them in decision making.

The formation of Local Young Aboriginal Action Committees is important, while promoting role models and emerging young leaders.

Education and support is critical, with three priorities:

  • • Lore and culture

  • • The impact of alcohol and drugs

  • • Resilience training for all children

Engagement through sport, arts and culture is a safe path forward, with almost half the forum participants rating sporting events as their favourite.

Community run "safe houses" - to protect young people from violence and predation - should be established, along with pairs of youth coordinators employed by Aboriginal community groups in towns.

And what about the massive impact of social media? While no doubt it is used as a platform for bullying and shame, some young people believe it also has potential for good.

Kimberley youth forum participants favoured face to face contact to get young people thinking and talking about themselves and their feelings but also considered social media had a significant role.

The youth forum asked Broome’s Jacob Corpus and Kununurra’s Montana Ahwon to be their voices in the continuing Kimberley Suicide Prevention Trial, one of 12 Government funded trial sites across the country. 

Today, their voices will again be heard at a special meeting in Perth, aiming to fast-track practical solutions to save young lives.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies have been - for tens of thousands of years - child, family 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.

When there are challenges to these traditions, we need to support warriors for well-being – the young, the Elders and the local heroes.

While the Commonwealth has committed $1.45 billion for Primary Health Networks to commission regionally and culturally appropriate mental health and suicide prevention services, listening to locals – especially the young – must be the first step towards overcoming the sense of futility that too often culminates in death.