Listen: Sabrina-Ann Stevens in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.
The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC) is focusing on finding new ways to support rural and regional communities to prevent youth suicide.
A major issue
The tragedy of youth suicide was a major subject of discussions at the recent NATSICC assembly in Perth, where more than 300 delegates gathered from throughout Australia to explore the theme “Strong Faith – Strong Youth – Strong Future”.
NATSICC national youth councillor Sabrina-Ann Stevens, from Cairns in Far North Queensland, said youth suicide was a major issue within regional and remote communities.
The suicide rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is more than twice that of non-Indigenous Australians. National statistics also show that Indigenous people tend to take their own lives at a younger age, with the majority of deaths occurring before 35.
“The delegation at the assembly shared the view that the issue of youth suicide is one of the most important challenges facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Australia today,” 27-year-old Miss Stevens said.
“There are many other organisations such as Headspace and Centacare that offer excellent programs, along with Mental Health Services run by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups outside of the Catholic sphere.
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Sense of belonging
“But many elders are asking me for ideas on how we can get our young people involved in the Church so that they have a sense of belonging and to create a greater sense of community.
“Unemployment and the general high expense of living outside of a major city or regional town isolates many youths. There’s a sense of hopelessness if there’s limited jobs.
“Within the youth section of NATSICC, we already have a national connection between different communities and we can help to empower other youths, especially from our talks at the assembly.
Spirituality and faith
“I think if young people had a greater connection with their spirituality and their faith, then I think they can overcome whatever struggles they’re facing because they’re meant for more — a higher purpose within their Indigenous communities, as well as in their faith community.”
Broome Bishop Christopher Saunders, who is a consultant to the Bishops Commission for Relations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, has been a part of the Kimberley community for more than 40 years. He has seen the rise of youth suicide.
“We have had a considerable problem. As to why there is such a terrible rate of youth suicide in Australia and in remote Australia, this is extremely complex,” he said.
Bishop Saunders said contributing factors include: a loss of identity; Aboriginal youth being subject to a post-colonial society; the devaluing of the worth of the family, with personal trauma adding to the instability of youths; a high rate of drug and alcohol abuse; and resultant psychological illness and depression.
“In the midst of that depression … that’s when suicide becomes a real alternative. I can remember when we didn’t have youth suicide. I remember the first one in 1984, and we were all in such a state of shock.”
Building spiritual and faith-based connections in communities was one part of the answer to breaking the cycle, Bishop Saunders said.
“The Gospels are all about love and prayer and forgiveness. It’s these three things that everyone needs,” he said.
Miss Stevens has recently been elected for a further three years as national NATSICC ambassador and is keen to highlight the issue.
Remote and rural need
“We’d like to find ways to work closer with existing services and support services to improve youth mental health and wellbeing throughout Australia, but focus on remote and regional Aboriginal communities where there is real need for help,” she said.
“At the assembly in Perth, we heard from communities where there are a lot of young people taking their lives and they are getting younger and younger – the youngest person affected by youth suicide was only 12 years old. We really need to act now, to give young people the hope and community they need.
Faith and culture together
“NATSICC was the only place that I found I could live out my faith through my culture and that has kept me on the path that I have now.
“The 2018 NATSICC council will be meeting to form a strategic plan for the next three years and this issue will form an important and crucial aspect of this planning.
“It’s clear that Catholic and traditional approaches to healing need to work together with trained professionals and services and this is the approach that NATSICC will be taking in planning any response to the issue.”
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