Suicide intervention program trains Aboriginal communities to ‘ask the question’
Kay Lutch is raising her granddaughter Dolli-Mae after her daughter took her own life nine months ago. (ABC News: Isabella Higgins)
In quiet country towns, families, police and community leaders are being trained to hold suicide interventions in a bid to reduce the tragically high rate of Indigenous people who take their own lives.
- Aboriginal communities are being trained in suicide prevention in new direct approach
- Of the 100 people already trained, all report having had to use it
- Communities devastated by suicide feel empowered to help prevent it
Aboriginal adults are more than twice as likely than non-Indigenous Australians to commit suicide.
It is the biggest killer of Indigenous children, accounting for 40 per cent of all deaths of Aboriginal youth.
Robyn Martin knows the pain caused by suicide. Her 23-year-old son ended his life about seven years ago.
“Our chain is broken now because he’s gone … it’s something you learn to live with as the years go on, but the pain just never goes away,” she said.
“As a parent that’s probably the hardest thing, as a mother. I mean I couldn’t see the signs, and if I couldn’t how could anyone actually see the signs?”
Robyn and Alan Martin lost their 23-year-old son seven years ago. (ABC News: Isabella Higgins)
She is hopeful the new program being rolled out in her community might stop other young lives from being cut short.
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After a number of tragic deaths, Aboriginal researcher Maree Toombs said community members came to her asking if she would create an Indigenous-tailored suicide prevention program.
She consulted the community for several months before rolling out the INSIST program in Toowoomba, west of Brisbane.
Now, the program is being launched in other towns around south-west and central Queensland and Ms Toombs said the demand was “huge”.
“It’s really sad. Of all the 100 people we’ve trained, all of them have already used the training to help someone who is thinking of suicide,” she said.
“I have used it myself on a family member. I’ve used it today to be honest.”
Hundreds trained to ‘ask the question’
The program trains community members to be able to spot the signs someone is struggling and then hold an immediate intervention.
Those trained in the program are taught to be direct and ask: “Are you considering suicide?”
“The whole model is asking the question, listening to the story, listening for a life voice and then working with the person to create their own life plan,” Ms Toombs said.
Kay Lutch is one of the 110 people who has been trained in the last year. She too has an intimate understanding of the deep grief caused by suicide.
Ms Lutch and her husband are raising their two-year-old granddaughter after their daughter Pia ended her life.
“It’s so devastating, you can’t really fathom, the emotion and the trauma that travels with a suicide,” she said.
Kay Lutch and her husband Bruce lost their daughter nine months ago. (ABC News: Isabella Higgins)
She is a big supporter of the INSIST program and hopes it might help other families avoid the trauma theirs has gone through.
“I was able to use it right from the first lessons that I had,” Ms Lutch said.
“It’s really amazing. You wouldn’t generally realise when you’re in conversations that there are some key things to hear and you can ask the question if they’re thinking of suicide.
“I often wonder if the [suicide] rate belonged to the non-Indigenous community, would [there] be much more education and non-acceptance?”
‘Empowering’ regional communities to take control
The program is being rolled out in regional and rural locations where access to mental health services is often limited.
Since 2013, funding cuts have led to a reduction in mental health jobs and programs being delivered by Aboriginal community controlled health organisations, a federal Senate inquiry was told this year.
The INSIST program is being funded by a one-off grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council and run of out the University of Queensland’s Rural Clinical School where Dr Toombs is the Director Of Indigenous Health.
Maree Tombs worked with Indigenous communities to create the INSIST program. (ABC News: Isabella Higgins)
She said the program “empowered” communities to take on the problem themselves.
“What it does is it takes away that reliance on government services,” Dr Toombs said.
“We know we have the solutions to the problems in our communities, we just need the skills to manage that and that’s what this training is about.”
Susie Klein is another community member around south-west Queensland now trained to hold suicide interventions.
She supported her sister Kay Lutch through the loss of her daughter and now works all around the region using art to start conversations about mental health.
“Using art as a therapy just allows so many people to participate,” Ms Klein said.
“I’ve used the training quite a lot in my role at work and also personally — very much personally.”
Students are encouraged to think about how colours and shapes link to feelings in Susie Klein’s workshop. (ABC News: Isabella Higgins)
Ms Klein said suicide was a big problem in their region and this program could be the circuit breaker the community was looking for.
“Early intervention is just key. To have confidence [in] what we do and how we can help each other in those first moments,” she said.
“You just have to have that belief that whatever you do is going to help.”
Susie Klein uses art to start conversations around mental health. (ABC News: Isabella Higgins)
Police join fight
In Toowoomba, local police liaison officers have undertaken the training in a hope to divert people from the justice system.
Local officers are often called in when mental health issues reach crisis point to “keep people safe”, Sergeant Tony Rehn said.
At that point, someone “that’s not actually committing a criminal act” may need to be restrained.
“If it’s just a social and health issue such as mental health, to not put them into some sort of custody is our aim,” Sergeant Rehn said.
Suicide clusters have been identified in Indigenous communities in recent years and the rates of Aboriginal people taking their own lives have continually climbed during the last decade.
Dr Toombs said she hoped hundreds more people would be trained in interventions and the program would make a generational change.
“We are working with communities in the Northern Territory, Western Australia, Broken Hill and South Australia, so we are really committed to rolling this out around the nation. And it’s starting to gain momentum,” she said.
Families touched by suicide around south-west Queensland work together to create a sand art mural. (ABC News: Isabella Higgins)