Mixed signals

Deadly Vibe caught up with National Mental Health Commissioner and Bardi woman Professor Pat Dudgeon in Alice Springs during national consultations on mental health, social and emotional wellbeing, and suicide prevention.

The consultations in Alice are part of the National Mental Health Commission’s development of the first annual National Report Card on Mental Health and Suicide Prevention and are dedicated solely to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health issues.

“The visit to Alice Springs is part of the Commission’s commitment to holding one meeting a year dedicated to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues and to engage with community leaders,” Professor Dudgeon says.

“It’s also a chance for the Commissioners to hear firsthand from the local community about their mental health concerns and develop relationships with existing community organisations.”

Professor Dudgeon is well known for her work on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social and emotional wellbeing. She was Australia’s first Indigenous psychologist and one of 10 commissioners appointed to National Mental Health Commission by the Prime Minister in January this year.

The meeting in Alice is part of a series of consultations held across Australia since the Commission’s formation to gather information and identify gaps for the nation’s first National Report Card on Mental Health and Suicide Prevention.

“The suicide rates in our communities are appalling and we are asking the big questions in Alice. This will then feed into the National Report Card,” Professor Dudgeon says.

“It is critical that the Commission sees and hear things. Each and every Commissioner is a good one and we are all on the right page – they know Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social and emotional wellbeing and suicide prevention is a big issue and they want to meet with our people.

“The response to the Commission’s visit in Alice has been good. People are happy to talk to the Commission and speak directly to us because most of our communities have been affected by suicide.”

Professor Dudgeon and a team of researchers have recently finished work on suicide prevention in the Kimberleys.

“We went in asking: ‘what can we do to make things better’,” she says.

“We heard the same message we’ve been hearing for a long time, that our people are disillusioned with government and the lack of genuine partnerships when issues are addressed and action is implemented. There is genuine despair and cynicism.

“A lot of times our strength and brilliance as a people is overlooked and the focus is put onto drugs and alcohol issues in communities. Our people care deeply about suicide prevention and want programs that address the issues, but programs that are culturally appropriate.”

The programs also need to be done in true consultation and partnership with communities, Professor Dudgeon says.

“There does need to be reforms in how government does business with our communities and how they consult. Resources need to be used wisely. However, it is positive to see the acknowledgement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social and Emotional Wellbeing and other paradigms, in government.”

Social and emotional wellbeing frameworks are important in distinguishing the types of initiatives and programs that are needed for communities, but there are also other initiatives to consider.

“The work of Professor Michael Chandler, internationally recognised academic in the field of Indigenous social and emotional wellbeing and suicide prevention, identified the value of developing programs and initiatives from a strengths based model,” she says.

“He looked at Indigenous communities in Canada that had little or no suicide and found they were the communities that engaged in cultural maintenance activities. They were also communities that had control over their civic services and also had women on councils.”

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