The success of a local empowerment project designed to reduce the high rate of suicide among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has led a team of researchers from The University of Western Australia to hope it will be useful for Indigenous communities across the rest of the nation.
Professor Pat Dudgeon, director of the National Empowerment Project, said suicides and community distress continue to have a strong impact on the lives of many Indigenous people across Australia.
Australian Bureau of Statistics figures for 2001-2010 show the overall suicide rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was twice that of non-indigenous people - with the rate up to six times higher in specific age and gender brackets.
In 2011 a research team from UWA's School of Indigenous Studies began a community consultation program in response to the suicide crisis in the Kimberley region. The program aimed to develop an innovative, culturally responsive leadership, empowerment and healing program for Aboriginal people living in the region.
The aim was to enhance the capability and capacity of Aboriginal people to take charge of their lives and strengthen their communities, and to address the range of social determinants that impact upon Aboriginal social and emotional wellbeing and lead to suicide and community distress.
The project has been a great success, resulting in the Kimberly Empowerment and Healing Program, an eight-week program including two-day healing camps delivered to Broome, Beagle Bay¸ One Arm-Point, Fitzroy Crossing, Warmun¸ Wyndham, Kalumburu, and Gibb River.
The Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing went on to provide funds to develop and deliver a national suicide prevention program based on similar lines.
Since then, the National Empowerment Project has been working with nine Indigenous communities across Australia to address some of the issues relating to the high levels of suicide and community distress and, like the Kimberley project before it, to develop locally based empowerment, healing and leadership programs.
Researchers contributing to the project, directed by UWA Professor Pat Dudgeon, are working alongside local community consultants in Perth, Northam, Narrogin, Darwin, Kuranda, Cherbourg, Toomelah, Sydney and Mildura.
Professor Dudgeon said the program was about empowering communities to take ownership of identifying the problems and working with them to find solutions.
"Suicide rates in Aboriginal Australia are unacceptable and there is a clear need to look at different approaches to address these issues from the onset, taking into account, of course, our history of colonisation," Professor Dudgeon said.
The National Empowerment Project's local community consultants met in Fremantle last week to report on their community consultations and research findings.
The consultants provided a series of presentations to fellow members of the National Empowerment Project team and other invited guests, and underwent the first step in training to develop the empowerment, healing and leadership programs to be delivered in each location.
"The National Empowerment Project is one of many interventions required to address the high levels of suicides and community distress, and is a strong start as it aims to assist individuals, families and communities to make themselves stronger," Professor Dudgeon said.