Friends, I trust you will indulge me if I start by sneaking in a quick family acknowledgement of my niece Dr Jenna Malone, who is an academic at this university’s Waite Research Institute and her great friend Judy Rathjen, who is an accomplished woman in her own right and, in a connected Adelaide kind of way, is our Vice Chancellor’s sister.
I also acknowledge Judy’s brother, Vice Chancellor, Mr Peter Rathjen, Professor Jenny Shaw, the Minister for Health, the Honourable Stephen Wade and the Shadow Minister for Health, the Honourable Chris Picton.
But most importantly of all, I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and in the spirit of reconciliation, pay my respects to Elders past and present. Yellaka, thank you for your warm Greeting to Country.
The is the second time I have had the privilege of being so welcomed by Yellaka. The first time was at the recent South Australian State dinner to celebrate 125 years of women’s suffrage in our State – a milestone to be inspired by.
In fact, that dinner was very important for me in preparing for this lecture.
It caused to me to reflect on the complexity of history; on our achievements and failings. In that speech I spoke about the need to erect a permanent monument to celebrate the fight for women’s suffrage and all that was gained here in South Australia in 1894.
But in doing so, I said care must be taken to tell the whole story, not part of it.
Despite Aboriginal men and, as a result of women’s suffrage, Aboriginal women having the right to vote, it was common for them neither be told about it nor supported to enrol. Sometimes this oppressive neglect morphed into a more active discouragement from participating.
This pernicious repudiation of a human right was compounded by a direct legal bar, when in the 1902 Commonwealth Franchise Act, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were excluded from voting in federal elections. It was not until 1962 that Indigenous Australians could have a say in who governed our nation.
We cannot tell the history of how our democracy developed without looking squarely at how equality was denied for so long.
This is just one example of the need to tell the deeper truths that lie beyond the surface. To quote the words of Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating in his famed Redfern Speech, we need:
‘Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing.
We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol.
We committed the murders.
We took the children from their mothers.
We practised discrimination and exclusion.
It was our ignorance and our prejudice.
And our failure to imagine these things being done to us.
With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds.
We failed to ask - how would I feel if this were done to me?’
Friends, this question is as profoundly challenging today as it was when Paul spoke those words almost thirty years ago. Trying to answer it requires honesty, empathy, intellectual understanding, spiritual depth.
Today, I am asking you to bring those characteristics with you as we discuss the tragic topic of suicide and Indigenous Australians.
First, with honesty, let’s confront the facts.
Since 2012, suicide has been the leading cause of death among young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15 to 34.
The suicide rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teenagers aged 15 to 19 of both genders is around four times that of their non-Indigenous peers.
Despite Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprising around three per cent of the Australian population, they account for thirty per cent of the suicide deaths among those under 18 years of age.
There are significant suicide or self-harming clusters that can occur within a single community or locale over a period of weeks or months.
For example, In February, Western Australia’s State Coroner handed down her report on a cluster of 13 deaths that occurred in less than four years in the Kimberley region and included five children aged 10 to 13.
The Coroner spoke of the deaths as profoundly tragic, individually and collectively, of dysfunction, alcohol, domestic violence and grief.
But she added:
‘to focus only upon the individual events that occurred shortly before their deaths would not adequately address the circumstances attending the deaths. These tragic individual events were shaped by the crushing effects of inter-generational trauma and poverty upon entire communities. That community-wide trauma, generated multiple and prolonged exposures to individual traumatic events for these children and young persons.’
The Coroner here is calling to our ability to show empathy. To walk alongside our First Peoples and try to understand how history and lived reality come together and can create circumstances of despair.
Great damage has been done to our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities through two centuries of discrimination, dislocation and cultural disruption.
Culture is a word that is often tangled up with nationality, but it entails much more.
Our culture determines so much of our identity; our values, the way we view the world, the way we interact with others, our sense of belonging.
And if the foundations of culture are systemically disrupted – connection to land, traditional places and practices, languages, spirituality, family and kinship ties – it causes devastation across generations.
But honesty also requires us to recognise that there is both deep lingering pain from our history, and new pain that arises in the present.
Imagine not getting the job you’re qualified for because of the colour of your skin; to know you are being followed by a store detective just for being you; to feel the stranger sitting beside you slip sideways to create greater distance.
These are everyday situations – the constant but subtle cues of difference – and where being racially different is nearly always positioned as a liability.
Put simply, racism, including these kinds of behaviours, is not only bad for mental health and wellbeing – it both causes and perpetuates high levels of social and emotional distress for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. In addition, there is a ‘dose’ effect for psychological distress caused by racism: the more a person is exposed to it, the greater the impact.
That was why Beyond Blue launched its Stop, Think, Respect invisible discriminator campaign in 2014 with a repeat run in 2016.
The campaign – the most viewed and shared in Beyond Blue’s history – highlights the routine everyday impact of subtle racism on the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
The campaign aimed to change behaviour by encouraging non-Indigenous Australians to think about their often, unconscious behaviours and to think again before they act.
- To think before they laughed along – even uncomfortably – at a racist joke in the pub.
- To challenge why they may not sit beside an Aboriginal person on a crowded bus.
But it was the reaction from Indigenous people that was most revealing.
They told us they loved the campaign because finally somebody had noticed that, for them, every day could be a little tougher than it should be.
Over half of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who experience racial discrimination report feelings of psychological distress, meaning they are at elevated risk of anxiety and depression, substance use and contemplating or attempting suicide.
Empathy requires us to recognise that the threads of the past and the attitudes shown in the present day are woven together. For non-Indigenous Australians, our collective failure to face up to all of the brutal truth of our history and its ongoing effects holds us back from full understanding today.
For Indigenous Australians, the interconnected issues of cultural dislocation, personal trauma and the ongoing stresses of disadvantage, racism and exclusion are absolutely contributing to the heightened risk of mental health problems, substance misuse and suicide.
All this was acknowledged by the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody. That report was tabled in 1991.
Driven by empathy, we also need to engage intellectually on the best ways to provide culturally appropriate services and supports to prevent Indigenous suicide.
Nothing less than profound systemic reform is needed to improve social and emotion wellbeing.
Such major change must be culturally informed and co-designed. As many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to remind us, Indigenous policies and responses must be led by Indigenous people, which might mean solutions that look different to anything that has been implemented before.
Innovation and new efforts are needed nationally and locally.
In 2009 the Rudd Government launched the ‘Closing the Gap’ response as a measurable account of Indigenous disadvantage that would be reported to parliament annually on progress.
In the 10 years since launch most of the indicators of disadvantaged have remained stubbornly unmoved. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can expect to live 10 to 17 years less than other Australians.
While there have been some improvements against some performance indicators, these have been small and incremental.
And babies born to Indigenous mothers still die at more than twice the rate of other Australian babies.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience higher rates of preventable illness such as heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes.
And a major contributing factor to the life expectancy gap is suicide.
There are no mental health or suicide prevention targets in Australia’s Closing the Gap strategy despite the alarming statistics on Indigenous suicide and psychological distress, but as a member of the steering committee, Beyond Blue is adding our voice to rectifying this.
At the same time, we are calling for this act of national leadership, as an organisation we are trying to be a good partner in locally led change models.
In November 2018, Beyond Blue launched Be You: a Commonwealth-funded national initiative that aims to strengthen the mental health literacy, resilience, self-care and help-seeking of every member of Australia’s school communities and early childhood settings.
In January, Minister Wyatt announced $2.3 million over two years to pilot and evaluate a culturally appropriate, place-based adaptation of Be You for schools in the Kimberley and Pilbara regions of WA, in partnership with Aboriginal communities.
That work is now underway. And we are taking a very different approach to this work than what we would normally.
Local stakeholder engagement has confirmed that we must be guided by local communities to genuinely co-design the project; to employ people with community relationships and credibility; and to engage Aboriginal community-controlled organisations to support implementation and delivery of the program.
It’s still very early days, but we are gaining much from partnering with Indigenous communities.
Spiritual depth - Uluru Statement from the Heart
Honesty, empathy, intellectual understanding, all are necessary in the cause of tackling the rate of Indigenous suicide.
But so is spiritual depth, the ability to transcend a divided past, address the dispiriting inequalities of the present and embrace a united future.
Just over two years ago, 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders endorsed by standing ovation the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
In burning prose it describes that the sovereignty of this nation’s First peoples is ‘a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty.’
It goes on to say:
‘Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.
These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness.
We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.
We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.’
As we all know, changing our constitution is difficult in every sense. Conducting and carrying a referendum by a special majority is hard to do. Our history books are littered with the stories of failed referendums. Nineteen referendums proposing 44 changes to the Constitution have been held since Federation but the Australian people have agreed to only eight changes with the last ‘yes’ vote occurring in 1977.
Of course, the Indigenous leaders who gave us the Uluru statement from the heart know this history. They neither underestimate how hard it is to have voters accept change, nor the joy that can come when they do. Many of them were alive when more than 90 percent of Australians voted in the 1967 referendum to allow First Nations people to be included in the census and for the Federal Parliament to have the power to legislate for an improved future.
In the Uluru statement, Indigenous leaders are specifically calling for a comparable act of national unity. There is some reason to believe that voting Australians in their millions are prepared to answer that call.
The Australian Reconciliation Barometer is a national research study conducted every two years to measure and compare attitudes and perceptions towards reconciliation.
In 2018 the Barometer found:
- 90 per cent of Australians believe the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is important;
- 95 per cent believe that it is important for our First Peoples to have a say in matters that affect them;
- and 80 per cent support a formal truth telling process.
That there is a public mood for change is further confirmed by the Australian Constitutional Values Survey of 2017 released by the Centre for Governance and Public Policy at Griffith University.
It found 61 per cent of respondents would vote "yes" in a referendum to add an Indigenous voice to Parliament.
So, we increasingly desire a richer understanding of our shared history and some form of national reconciliation, but change can be hard to achieve, even when the majority is willing.
Successive Prime Ministers and governments, Indigenous leaders and organisations have tried to advance this cause.
The government I led set out to bring a referendum on constitutional recognition to the people by the 2013 election. I appointed an Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians to advise on the wording.
On that panel were some of our most persuasive and respected Indigenous leaders, including The Hon. Ken Wyatt AM, the first Indigenous Australian to serve in the House of Representatives.
The panel’s recommendations were sensible and smart.
But before we could proceed, we needed to diagnose the prospects of success at a referendum. The very worst thing we could do would be to put a referendum proposal forward only to have it fail.
The consensus was we did not have time to build momentum for change ahead of a 2013 election.
That need for certainty remains a critical issue for today’s leaders as they move towards a proposal to put to the people.
But much has changed since 2013 and we can all be heartened by that. I am especially heartened that we have, for the first time, extremely talented and respected Aboriginal people from both sides of politics leading Indigenous policy and discussion on this issue.
With bi-partisan support, shared commitment and collaboration, change is achievable.
We know wellbeing is intrinsically linked to a strong sense of self, connections to community, and recognition of culture.
That is why I and my Beyond Blue Board colleagues recently approved a comprehensive Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Strategy to guide our contribution for the next five years. Through the Strategy, we have resolved to continue to advocate on national issues of importance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
We are particularly determined to raise our voice in support of an openhearted and respectful response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
Beyond Blue acknowledges that there are still community and political discussions occurring about constitutional change and recognition. As that conversation continues, Beyond Blue advocacy will be aimed at our nation adopting the kind of far-sighted change that can bring a new era of healing and unity.
This isn’t a mental health organisation dabbling in politics. We do it because structural discrimination has a profound and proven negative impact on individual and community wellbeing and mental health.
This is absolutely about ‘sticking to our knitting’.
This is about the Board of Beyond Blue supporting action on the basis there will be significant benefit to a population group at higher risk of mental health conditions and suicide, and who experience discrimination and disadvantage.
The Board of Beyond Blue also accepts the invitation issued in the Uluru Statement from the Heart to walk with you in ‘a movement of the Australian people for a better future’.
To our federal parliamentarians who are working through how best to respond to the Uluru statement my personal message is this; I know what it is like to be beset with doubts about the best way to respond to a call to address trauma and despair. To worry about making the wrong decision, one that risks more damage.
I went through every painful permutation of that in my head when I worked through whether to call a Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse in Institutional Settings. I am not ashamed to say here that in the face of such a major decision, I was afraid.
Specifically, I was afraid that holding a Royal Commission would retraumatise, rather than heal.
As history records, I worked through those fears and called the Commission. I know now from my own observations of the impact of the Royal Commission that great healing can come from heeding the call, truth-telling and acknowledgement of past trauma.
I ask our current leaders on all sides of the parliamentary chamber to work through their fears and concerns. I ask our current leaders to heed the call of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
Suicide in our Indigenous communities is one of the greatest challenges of our times and its causes are complex.
Beyond Blue cannot claim or seek to be a specialist or comprehensive provider of social and emotional wellbeing or suicide prevention services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
That is a role which is more appropriately the domain of Aboriginal-led and community-controlled organisations.
But we can apply what we have learnt so far through our Reconciliation Action Plan, our growing cultural competencies, and strong relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, leaders and organisations.
We can complement the work of the Aboriginal organisations and others by ensuring our major interventions are suitable for, and accessible to, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people wherever possible, and use our well-known brand and strength in communications to fight racism and discrimination.
We will recognise those inherent protective factors of Indigenous cultures and communities – those powerful forces of resilience, humour, spirituality and connectedness – that can and should be utilised as sources of strength and healing.
We are ready to work alongside Indigenous people and communities in co-designing solutions to provide better outcomes for health and wellbeing.
We intend to be the best ally we can be, lend our voice when required and listen to learn.
We need to educate ourselves and ask questions when we need to; to commit, to support, to ally.
We pledge to be a positive force for change as the nation addresses the issue of constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have always resisted actions designed to destroy their culture, disperse their families and sever their connections to Country.
The day will come when we look with pride upon that determination, and indeed celebrate it as a complete history.
I look forward with hope to that day and I thank you.