We're going to keep surviving, sometimes it takes a bit of hard work, but we do it and we do it usually with joy and humour and love.
Story by Natalie Croxon, Photo supplied, Illawarra Mercury.
The suicide rate among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is more than double that of the Australian population overall, a terrible legacy of the dispossession and trauma wrought by colonisation.
But those supporting Aboriginal people in the Illawarra say First Nations people have a lot of strengths to focus on as work continues to drive down the tragic toll.
In 2022, the suicide rate for Indigenous Australians was 29.9 per 100,000 people (compared to 12.5 per 100,000 generally), an increase of 33 per cent on the previous year and the highest rate in at least a decade.
Suicide rates were especially high among males, and suicide was the leading cause of death for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
Kim Reid works with Thirrili, a postvention service that supports Indigenous people and communities after a suicide or traumatic death.
Mr Reid said he believed the high suicide rates were the result of generational trauma stemming from colonisation, leading to lower socio-economic status, lower employment rates and poorer health.
Racism also takes its toll.
"People have lost their culture," the Wiradjuri man said.
Sharlene Cruickshank, Aboriginal mental health clinical lead with the Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District, works with a team of Aboriginal clinicians and mental health workers who ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the region are supported in a culturally safe and sensitive way.
"They can share sometimes really difficult, distressing issues that impact on their wellbeing.
"I think without trust and without connection, there really isn't any way way forward."
She said it was important for Aboriginal people to find connection with their community and their identity, and to know what support they needed and our to get it.
"I think also doing things that you love that connect you to your community and your culture as well," Ms Cruickshank said.
For her, learning the Dhurga language with her Aboriginal women's choir is a way of reclaiming the culture that has previously been stripped from her community, which "brings great pride".
"It is about that connection, it's about friendships, it's about joy and, you know, like things like music, dance, getting involved in those sort of things," she said.
'Have a yarn'
As well as finding their place in the community, it is vital for wellbeing that people talk: both when they feel they are struggling, and when they believe someone else is having a hard time.
Ms Cruickshank said people should not be scared to ask someone if they were alright.
"It's so important to listen and listen without judgement, try to be as supportive as you can and without dismissing how they're feeling," she said.
Online training is available for those who want to learn how to identify if someone is thinking about suicide, ask them if they are having suicidal thoughts
QPR (question, persuade, refer) takes one hour to complete, and is available free under a partnership between the Mercury and the Illawarra Shoalhaven Suicide Prevention Collaborative.
To access the training, visit suicidepreventioncollaborative.org.au/QPR.
It was important for people to reach out to those they suspected were in distress, Ms Cruickshank said, because sometimes they did not have the energy to seek help.
She said someone no longer seeming themselves was a sign something might be wrong; stressful events such as the loss of a job or the breakdown of a relationship could also diminish a person's wellbeing.
Ms Cruickshank said it was also vital that carers and family members looked after themselves.
She urged those who felt able to talk to someone in their life if they were struggling.
"Don't be ashamed. Don't let shame or fear stop you," she said.
There are support services available specifically for Aboriginal people, such as 13YARN, a support hotline staffed by Indigenous people that also has resources online; WellMob, a website with resources to support social, emotional and cultural wellbeing; and Heal Our Way, a suicide prevention campaign.
"But there is so much joy, and I think that's the thing that we do need to really focus on, is the strengths in our communities because we're the most adaptable people on this planet," Ms Cruickshank said.
"We've survived 65,000 years... We're going to keep surviving."
Support for the bereaved
Mr Reid said postvention was important in suicide prevention because "good postvention is good prevention".
People who lose someone to suicide are more likely to experience suicidal thoughts themselves.
"And just to show them that there are people out there who care... and we just want to help where we can," Mr Reid said.
He said it was culturally appropriate to have a specialised Indigenous service supporting Aboriginal people when they were bereaved.
"It could be as simple as just going and talking to the family... just seeing what their kind of immediate stresses and needs are, it could be a funeral to organise," he said of the support Thirrili provided.
The support is broad - it can range from counselling to actions aiming to uplift the community - and can continue for up to two years.
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