Mabu liyan – I hope you feel good in your heart
The coronial inquest into 13 suicides in the Kimberley
Far too often my phone rings in the middle of the night and on the other end of the line is a relation to tell me that another young person has taken their own life.
Suicide rates of Indigenous people are double that of non-Indigenous people.
We have a crisis in the Kimberley. Our young people are prematurely ending their own lives at seven times the national average, said to be the highest suicide rate in the world.
The current suicide inquest in the Kimberley is investigating the deaths of five young adults and eight children, the youngest a 10 year old girl who lost her own sister to suicide a year earlier.
Suicide has become such a frequent tragedy that our communities are in a constant state of sorrow and despair.
Last week, Coroner Ros Fogliani heard testimony in my home town, Broome. While I was not present in the court room, I am aware of the familiar frustrations expressed by the community.
There have been 42 reports into Aboriginal wellbeing and 700 recommendations made over the past 15 years. Ten years ago in the Kimberley we had the Hope Coronial Inquiry . It identified a lack of leadership, accountability and coordination of institutions as contributors to the shockingly high rate of suicide. These issues still plague our communities. It is likely that recommendations coming from this inquiry will repeat those from the last inquiry. The solutions still elude us.
So much effort has gone into understanding the context and causes of suicide among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; racism, past trauma, being disconnected from culture and family, being overrepresented in juvenile detention and out-of-home care, alcohol and drug use, child neglect and abuse, family and relationship breakdown, unemployment, high rates of undiagnosed physical and mental disabilities and access to mental health suicide prevention services. The factors that give rise to suicide are well documented.
And yet, when I get the phone call to say that a young person in my community has taken their own life, I am at a loss to understand.
It is hard to remain positive.
It is hard to remain positive when we see inquiries come and go, reports tabled, and year after year the situation worsens. The cynicism and lack of engagement amongst our youth is a symptom of profound alienation and complicated grief.
But I know I have a responsibility to my community. I am a Yawuru native title holder with responsibilities for our traditional lands and laws. It is my belief, that our traditional beliefs and systems should form the basis of the institutional responses to suicide.
It begins with Liyan.
When I am at home in Broome, and I see a group of children on the street, they greet me in our Yawuru language. ‘Ngaji gurrjin,’ they say. And I reply ‘Mabu liyan’ —(I hope you feel)well in your heart.
So what is Liyan?
Liyan is a Yawuru concept and hard to explain in English. It describes the interconnectedness between the self, the wider community and the land. For Yawuru people, mabu liyan is at the heart of what it is to have and to know a good life. The closest English translation would perhaps be ‘wellbeing’, but mabu liyan is different from the Western concept of wellbeing.
Liyan is individual spiritual wellbeing. But it is more than that. Liyan recognizes the continuous connection between the mind, body, spirit, culture and the land.
Liyan is about relationships, family, community and what gives meaning to people’s lives. Yawuru people’s strong connection to country and joy in celebrating our culture and society is fundamental to having good liyan. When we feel disrespected or abused our liyan is bad, which can be insidious and corrosive for both the individual and the community. When our liyan is good our wellbeing and everything else is in a good space.
Mabu liyan was once at the centre of Yawuru society and culture. It informed our obligations to family, community and country. The impact of colonisation has been traumatic for our people. It has contributed to a loss of connectedness through the destruction of culture and respect. This has resulted in harmful behaviors and dysfunctional relationships, substance abuse, family violence, and ultimately the loss of hope and the loss of the will to live.
The policies and service delivery systems for dealing with suicide in our communities are failing. Many NGO’s and agencies are well-intentioned and have laudable functions and goals around protection, safety and intervention. But there is very little focus on restoring the strength and well-being of the family and community.
External service providers and delivery systems can have good intentions but as long as they look at us from over the hill and come up with ideas to fix our problems from the outside, they will always fail. They fail because the solutions do not come from within the culture. They do not fully understand mabu liyan.
Current public sector arrangements that promote service delivery by non-indigenous NGO’s with no regard for the liyan of their clients essentially remain assimilationist, utilitarian and risk averse.
There are people from within our community who are exercising their powers of responsibility and taking steps to prevent suicide. Just this week, a group of young Aboriginal Kimberley leaders handed down their report into suicide prevention. The Kimberley Aboriginal Youth Suicide Prevention Report made four key recommendations:
• The need for positive role models and mentoring
• The need for a broadened approach to education that provides access to cultural learning as well as resiliance training and drug and alcohol awareness
• The need to engage youth in sporting activities and cultural activities
• And critically, the need to provide greater support to emerging young leaders
I am proud of the young people who have taken it upon themselves to speak to governments.
In many ways, these young people are already implementing the recommendations of the report.
They are positive role models and mentors, they hold their language and culture close and share it with others, they demonstrate great maturity in understanding the impacts of drugs and alcohol and they are engaged.
Young people at the very heart of the suicide crisis play a vital role and we can learn a lot from them. But no one has the upper hand when it comes to dealing with these issues. There is a need for greater reciprocity between youth, older generations, service providers and governments.
Today’s coronial inquiry will no doubt come up with another, new list of recommendations. But there is a risk they will also be recommendations made from the outside.
I call on the Coroner to be open to considering a new form of engagement with Aboriginal communities. Such an approach must involve a critical analysis of the values underpinning the way mainstream services are currently being delivered.
Programs that value cultural imperatives like connection to country, and initiatives controlled by Aboriginal people must be been given priority. We should be listening to Aboriginal organisations such as Aarnja, KALACC (Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre) or Nyamba Buru Yawuru, organisations that are actively engaged in promoting mabu liyan.
As a people, we live with the trauma of violence, racism, the incarceration of our people, the removal of our children, our land and the dismissal of our culture.
But we cannot be waiting for a magic solution from government.
If we are to deal with this tsunami of suicide and self-harm in our communities, Aboriginal people need to develop our own responses based on our strength and beliefs.
Aboriginal people must lead the way in ensuring that the institutional responses that are set up to deal with suicide are based in cultural understanding; and that Governments, communities and NGO’s collectively work towards ensuring mabu liyan in our communities.
We must seek to heal and work toward building “mabu ngarrungu”, strong community and “Mabu buru”, strong country.
I hope you feel good in your heart.
Senator Patrick Dodson
Senior Yawuru native title holder