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This traditional smoking ceremony was part of the filming for the music video ‘Our Country, Our Life’ in April 2021. It was a collaboration between Desert Pea Media, Coomealla Health Aboriginal Corporation and students at Coomealla Hight School. Image: Desert Pea Media

​Storytelling has been at the core of Aboriginal culture since the Dreamtime, connecting people to their mob, their country and ancestry, and it can be particularly powerful when instilling a message of suicide prevention in the case of Building on Aboriginal Communities’ Resilience.

As the name suggests, the initiative embraces the resilience embodied by Aboriginal people, at a time when suicide rates are more than twice as high among young Indigenous Australians compared to non-Indigenous Australians. Activities include community-based health promotion, engagement of Elders and support for Aboriginal people to access culturally appropriate mental health services.

A dozen Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHOs) across eight Local Health Districts (LHDs) were commissioned by the NSW Government to implement various co-designed social and emotional wellbeing activities based upon ‘culture as treatment’ – a concept discussed by Dr Vanessa Lee from the University of Sydney at the 2018 National Suicide Prevention Conference.

Each ACCHO received funding for two years, via an Expression of Interest process. The initiative has allowed them to hold events and develop resources based on the needs of their surrounding community, aligning with the NSW Government’s commitment to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership and self-determination.

The ACCHOs have full agency over the funding, with community Elders advising on how they implement the various programs into their communities. Art is one component, however there is a broader cultural connection with community and country that includes Yarn Ups, community gardens, exercise programs, camping in the bush and so on.

While COVID-19 has impeded the progress in some instances, other benefits have arisen that capture a wider sense of social and emotional wellbeing. Teams were able to transition during lockdowns to help the health outcomes of other areas of their organisations, whether it was supporting vaccine rollouts or being a bridge between clinical teams and their communities.

All of the 12 ACCHOs have programs up and running. Some continued throughout lockdowns in different capacities, such as via telehealth and social media. It’s deliberately diverse. Some have clinical aspects to their programs, others offer community outreach programs that are centred around Country, for example.

An example is Coomealla’s Kumpa Kiira Suicide Prevention Project that integrates suicide prevention within a whole-of-community perspective, targeting young people and elders in Balranald and Wentworth Shires of NSW, as well as providing training and support to local GPs.

These can have a powerful influence on the healing journey and provide those going through a tough time with a sense of hope. In addition, an Aboriginal artist is currently developing an artwork that encapsulates the overall initiative and spans suicide prevention efforts across the State.

The initial funding package ends 30 June 2022. At the same time, The NSW Government has also announced funding for 18 Aboriginal Mental Health Care Navigators and 18 Aboriginal Mental Health & Wellbeing Peer Workers who will have a support and advocacy role within every LHD and SHN in NSW– a large part of their work will be connecting with the ACCHOs and other service providers.


Girl reading Jacks FUNtastic Day Book
High school leaders from the Coomealla community at the Coomealla Ladership Camp, held in April 2021 over three days at Lake Cullullleraine, VIC. Image: Desert Pea Media

Working collectively to build upon resilience

Coonamble Aboriginal Health Service (CAHS), one of the 12 Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHOs) funded under the Towards Zero Suicides Building on Aboriginal Communities’ Resilience initiative, has been running activities during testing times for the region.

“We’ve had quite a few cases of COVID-19 so it has been a busy time for health services out here,” says CEO Phil Naden. “It has also had a mental health impact because everything around here relies on social activity.

“In Coonamble we have a group called the Together Partnership Group (TPG), where you have multiple organisations sitting around, yarning, and we take a strong lead in that. Everyone’s pretty active in building resilience collectively, rather than doing things in silos.

“If people know that a Yarn-up, or an art class or an Elders day is running, they’ll jump aboard.”

In another example, CAHS held a birth certificate day that attracted 240 people who didn’t have certificates, which made it difficult for them to get a formal ID. “When they’re here we start yarning about other stuff, part of which may be harm minimisation,” Phil adds.

“We’ve also got counsellors here who ring someone and yarn to them, one to one. Actually talk about their lived experience. I think that personal contact has been lost a bit with all the social media and technology.”

Building on Aboriginal Communities’ Resilience is a NSW Heath Towards Zero Suicides initiative.

Current as at: Tuesday 8 March 2022
Contact page owner: Mental Health