Far north Queensland Indigenous community reflects on two decades of tackling suicide crisis
The Men’s Group has been a key factor in helping to reduce the prevalence of suicide in Yarrabah. (ABC Far North: Anna Hartley)
When a 12-year-old boy died in Yarrabah during a spate of suicides in the mid-1990s, the far north Queensland community decided enough was enough.
Hundreds of residents held an emergency meeting led by Les Baird, who tried to take his own life at age 19.
He said that meeting was the catalyst for life-saving change in the coastal Indigenous community.
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“Around 1995 there was at least five suicides in one year and the youngest being a 12-year-old boy,” he said.
“The meeting was a turning point, and 1998 was when the community set up a suicide crisis committee.
“Most of the suicides were committed by men. So in 1998 the Men’s Group was started.
“Community people became the eyes and ears to watch and listen for suicide talk, and to swing into action.”
Les Baird has spent more than two decades working in suicide prevention after trying to take his own life as a young man. (ABC Far North: Anna Hartley)
Exactly two decades later, programs like the Men’s Group are still helping reduce the suicide rate in Yarrabah today.
The simple meeting was a catalyst for the Yarrabah Family Life Promotion Program which is still run out of the community’s own dedicated health service today.
Mary Kyle works in suicide prevention at Gurriny Yealamucka Health Service and lived in Yarrabah during the suicide crisis.
“Before, every month, there was a suicide. Now it’s changed massively,” Ms Kyle said.
“When the funerals were on, Yarrabah just was at a standstill.
“When we used to yarn to people they’d say ‘I wonder who’s next, who going to be the next one?’ It was really solemn because they had this idea that it was going to happen, they knew it.”
Yarrabah’s success inspiring next generation
Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows suicide accounted for 5.5 per cent of all registered Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in 2016, compared with 1.7 per cent for all Australians.
Mr Baird now runs a course in Indigenous mental health, based on the lessons learned at Yarrabah, to help close the gap in suicide deaths.
“I believe it’s saving lives,” he said.
Kraig Hixton, who travelled from Mount Morgan to Cairns to study under Mr Baird, said seeing the success in Yarrabah gave him hope.
“In my community we’ve been touched by a few suicides in the last few decades of young men, young Indigenous men,” he said.
“I have relatives that have taken their own lives. It’s touched me very personally.
“That’s why I’d like to gain some skills and knowledge of how to better prevent suicide.
“I think, widely, Indigenous people are sick of having things done to them. We want to do things for ourselves and that’s why we’re here — so we can learn how to go back into our own communities and employ the skills we’ve gained here in fixing this deep, very big problem.
“When you think about the widening gap that’s still widening between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, [suicide prevention programs] are just imperative.”
‘Communities have the answers’
Mr Baird said issues that impacted many Indigenous communities across Australia today such as racism, family violence, oppression and intergenerational trauma, as well as heavy drug and alcohol abuse, contributed to the spike in Yarrabah.
He said the most vital message he taught was the importance of community responsibility and leadership.
“Those in the communities have the answers, they just need to be listened to,” he said.
Suicide in Yarrabah:
- There were 17 suicides between 1990 and 1996 sparking a ‘crisis’ in the community
- Residents met to tackle the issue in 1998, setting up a suicide prevention group
- There were no suicides in Yarrabah between 1998 and 2000
- Between 2001 and 2008 there were seven suicides, but fewer than before the implementation of the program
- Health workers say rates remain low today and credit community-led programs
Source: Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention/ABS
“To me the key to success was when the community came together, they made the decisions of what they wanted, and I got into the driver’s seat and drove their vision.”
Mr Baird said communities across Australia needed to be empowered to find their own solutions.
“I don’t believe there is enough funding coming to Indigenous programs,” Mr Baird said.
“There’s enough documented evidence about the success of the program in Yarrabah and maybe the [Federal] Government needs to read about the impact this has had and begin to think about working closely with people in the field, like myself.
“They need to look at what programs are successful and inject more funding into those — not only for [those today], but so our kids and grandkids in the future can get the help they need.”