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Aboriginal Suicide Prevention Services



IPS and particularly, Adjunct Professor Tracy Westerman have received significant recognition in the field generally, but most particularly in the area of suicide prevention. The following are of particular note:

  • In 2005, the Canadian government sent a delegation to Australia specifically to explore the innovative approaches to suicide prevention that IPS have developed in Aboriginal Australian communities and recommended the replication of this approach to address high rates of Inuit suicides in Canada. WASC-Yfeasibilitystudy
  • The Suicide Prevention Australia LiFE award as “Emerging Researcher” for contributions to Indigenous suicide prevention in 2006,
  • The Canadian Health Report (2009) reviewed mental health programs across New Zealand, Canada and Australia named the Westerman Aboriginal Symptom Checklist – Youth, aged 13-17 (WASC-Y: Westerman, 2003) as the only uniquely developed and scientifically validated mental health screening tool for Aboriginal youth worldwide. It was recognised as a “significant contribution” to the field of Indigenous suicide internationally,
  • International Keynote Speaker specifically on Indigenous Suicide Prevention to the following international audiences:
    • Inaugral Circumpolar Suicide Prevention Conference, Nunuvut, Canada in 2003
    • Suicide Prevention Conference, Nome, Alasksa, United States, 2004
    • The Suicide Prevention New Zealand (SPINZ) Conference, Wellington, New Zealand in 2009. View a video interview with Adjunct Professor Westerman and SPINZ organisers here.
  • Adjunct Professor Westerman’s PhD research focused upon whether the risk factors associated with suicidal behaviour and protective factors that moderated suicidal risk were different for Aboriginal compared with non-Aboriginal people. It expanded to issues such as depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug use as well as the development of a number of unique Aboriginal mental health assessment models and finally, the development and validation of the world’s first UNIQUE psychological test for Aboriginal youth at risk of suicide (the Westerman Aboriginal Symptom Checklist – Youth:  WASC-Y) resulting in a number of important FIRSTS including:
    • The development of population level risk and protective factors known to increase and moderate the risk of suicidal behaviours in Aboriginal people. This enables practitioners to develop case planning and treatment intervention based upon these differences
    • The development of UNIQUE mental health and suicide intervention programs – with the content able to be designed around the different risk indicators and protective factors evident for Aboriginal people
    • The ability to screen Aboriginal youth for EARLY stages of risk and proactively address this risk prior to youth developing entrenched suicidal behaviours,
  • The development, delivery and evaluation of a Whole of Aboriginal Community Suicide Intervention Program into 16 distinct Aboriginal communities across Western Australia, the Northern Territory, New South Wales and Victoria. This means that the programs have determined their relevance and impact across numerous Aboriginal cultural and language groups. Download the 2007 Summary Report of the results of IPS’ Whole of Aboriginal Community Suicide Prevention Forums. This report is to be updated shortly. It doesn’t include evaluations from the significant number of communities that IPS has provided its program into from 2007 onwards,
  • Over 2,000 Aboriginal community members and youth have participated in these programs,
  • The development of THREE training packages for Aboriginal community; service providers and Aboriginal youth – the only program that has content that is delivered across these different groups. The focus is to skill up and mobilise ‘whole communities’ to deal with any issues that present themselves,
  • Demonstrated evidence base of success in the delivery of suicide intervention programs into these communities. All programs are evaluated at pre and post-intervention across all three groups.

The success of IPS Aboriginal Suicide Intervention Programs is mostly due to the significant research that IPS has undertaken to understand the unique individual and community factors that contribute to suicide risk, but importantly offer an opportunity to reduce the potential for the development of these behaviours. The prevailing view has always been that Aboriginal people have the SAME risk and protective factors as non-Aboriginal people. Undertaking population level sampling via the WASC-Y has enabled a determination of the importance of certain risk factors and to also determine whether cultural resilience can also act as a buffer to suicide risk. Refer to the Westerman Aboriginal Symptom Checklist- Youth page for more details on this screening tool.

By taking a ‘Whole of Community Approach’ IPS have demonstrated that skills relevant to addressing risk longer term are able applied via the development of a different ‘culture’ within communities associated with suicide, self-harm and depression. Additionally, the program has as its primary focus the sustainability of skills development over time through the delivery of an optimum three phases of forums to the community. In this way, the program takes a community reinforcement methodology. IPS have shown through its evaluations that it is at this third stage of delivery that community have demonstrated a capacity to be able to respond to risk with minimal external support from IPS. The forums occur as follows:
1. Delivery of Introductory Aboriginal Mental Health Intervention Program (PHASE I). The Phase I program is delivered to all key groups (service providers, community members and youth, aged 15-25 separately). The equivalent of six days of training is provided to each group concurrently due to the range of consultants that are able to deliver these programs to the separate groups. It also ensures IPS has all of its personnel (resources) in the community at one time. The introductory forums all include:
• Service Providers Forums: delivery of Indigenous specific suicide intervention package focused on adequacy of counselling, assessment and intervention skills over 2 days,
• Community Members Forums: This training has a greater focus on practical application of skills through role modelling and demonstration of tasks. The workshops are psycho-educative in that they work with participants to identify risk in self and others and provide specific coping strategies to address this risk. It also incorporates work on grief and loss, trauma management and identification, suicide risk assessment and gatekeeper responses, and recognising your limitations as community members in suicide intervention. IPS has delivered to Indigenous people with non-English speaking backgrounds via interpreters to great success. This forum takes two days and is often delivered separately to men and women.
• Young People’s Forums: The forums have a selected intervention focus and are based on building resiliency to address risk factors in depression and suicidal behaviours. The training enhances young people’s coping skills to address high risk situations and factors. This program has been developed through Adjunct Professor Westerman’s research into the nature of Aboriginal suicide and mental health is the only Indigenous specific indicated intervention program for Aboriginal youth at risk in Australia,
• Counselling, referrals and advocacy: This is provided for community and youth. People identified at risk or who need further assistance is linked in with local services,
2. Evaluation: IPS focus heavily on evaluation of all of its work due to absence of evidence related to effective practice in mental health service provision in Aboriginal communities. The current program is evaluated via; (i) two structured questionnaires which have since been validated with over 6,000 people over the ten years. These assess; (1) overall knowledge and skills in depression and suicidal behaviours; (2) skills related to working with depressed and suicidal Aboriginal people; (3) intentions to help an Aboriginal person who is suicidal; including beliefs about whether suicide is preventable. The youth questionnaire evaluates shifts in; (1) suicide and depression knowledge; (2) internal coping skills; (3) external coping skills, and (4) intentions to help; (4) beliefs that suicide is preventable. IPS tests participants before training phase (pre-test) and after training (post-test). IPS also provides process (how well the delivery and methodology is working) and impact (qualitative feedback from participants).
3. Phase 2 forums are the same as Phase 2 in terms of delivery to service providers, community and youth, it is just the content that changes. IPS delivers FOLLOW UP content which takes participants through more applied skills training and also gauges retention and application of skills learnt in previous forums. There is also additional content that is taught in relation to applying this knowledge in a community based context and with practical scenarios of the sorts of issues that can arise in communities regarding suicidal behaviours,
4. Phase 3 is delivered to all three groups again but only as a ONE day program for each group. There is also an additional ONE day of community action planning in which all THREE groups get together to formulate the strategies for the community based upon their different experiences and views.
Optimally the different stages are delivered between 3-6 months apart. IPS is also able to deliver “one off” forums or forums in any configuration (i.e. only service providers and community; only community and youth etc)

Unfortunately due to the absence of funding for any of our programs, communities must identify funds to enable IPS to deliver their programs. IPS has addressed this issue over many years via (1) providing this work for FREE or significantly reduced costs into communities (usually profit-neutral), and (2) by lobbying for funding for its programs over the past fourteen years of operations on behalf of these communities. For those services or communities who wish to engage IPS to deliver a Whole of Community Intervention Program they should undertake the following steps:

  1. Identify need – the community or service must identify that there is a need for the IPS forums. This is either through the committee or elders and/or through existing local data on suicidal behaviours. It is crucial to the success of IPS’ programs that the community identify the need themselves,
  2. Identify a working group. This involves the identification of representatives from the different language, skin and/or family groups in the communities in which the forums will be delivered. This is particularly vital to ensure the distribution of promotional flyers (often this involves
    converting IPS’ existing flyers into the local dialect) and ensuring high rates of participation,
  3. Determine the mix of forums – IPS is able to deliver its forums to service providers, community members and Aboriginal youth (generally aged 14 and above). The community must determine whether the forums should target any or all of these groups,
    Whether there is capacity to engage IPS for future forums. Our considerable experience in this field combined with the analysis of our programs over phases indicates that the OPTIMUM shifts in skills development occurs at PHASE THREE of intervention. This provides IPS with the opportunity to not only teach and reinforce complex theory, but allow for participants to apply this theory between forums and then have skills practice and reinforcement in subsequent forums.
  4. Identify potential funding sources. IPS can assist with lobbying on behalf of communities.

Once the above has been established IPS will then formulate a proposal and costing for the forums. Contact IPS for a proposal.

The NSPS funding which ceased in 2010 enabled a THREE stage whole of community intervention program into the communities of Mowanjum, Mullewa and Laverton. Each stage targetted the ‘whole community’ which is essentially focused upon; (1) Aboriginal youth suicide intervention; (2) Aboriginal community (separate men’s and women’s programs) psycho-educative program, and (3) service provider skills training which focuses on the development of Aboriginal mental health cultural competencies in its implementation. The NSPS funding resulted in the following broad results being achieved by IPS:

  • NINE distinct interventions achieved over a nine month period into Mullewa, Laverton and Mowanjum communities to service providers, Aboriginal community members and Aboriginal youth
  • A combined total of 377 individuals were provided with direct intervention services as a result of IPS programs. This included a combined total of 113 participants for the Mowanjum community; 161 participants from the Mullewa community and 103 from the Laverton community.
  • Importantly, there were consistent large improvements in skills, attitudes and beliefs attached to the management and intervention of programs into Aboriginal communities based on pre and post-test measures. Suicide Intervention Program Outcomes.

IPS also received significant support from the Mullewa community and service providers via letters of support which have been used to lobby for further funding of IPS’ work into Mullewa. IPS has to date been unsuccessful in these attempts. We do however continue to receive regular calls from the Mullewa community for an extension of IPS’ programs. Mullewa letters of support.

IPS had the privilege of being invited by the Maningrida and Gove communities to deliver our Aboriginal Specific Whole of Community Mental Health Intervention Programs in Gove in November, 2010. The delivery of these programs was made possible by the Malabam Health Board (Maningrida) and Miwatj (Nhulumbuy) who identified funding for the forums. Their work to ensure the success of the forums cannot be expressed sufficiently. The work in these communities was made all the more significant due to two of our consultants, Steve Raymond and Daniel Mullholland originally being from this community (Steven) and starting their early training in mental health (Daniel & Steven). Their grass roots training in mental health began as a result of a number of extraordinary individuals who had effectively decided to develop their own mental health service without government funding or any recognition outside of that of their own communities. The pride that was evident for Daniel and Steven to be able to ‘give back’ to the communities who had given them so much was truly a humbling experience for the whole team!