How a community came together to combat the scourge of suicide and self-harm
Nauiyu is an Indigenous town in Australia’s Northern Territory. It is home to some 450 people, and is located on the Eastern bank of the Daly River, 220km by road from Darwin.
Nauiyu was established by the Catholic Church as a mission in 1955. This was the Church’s second attempt to develop a presence in the area; Austrian Jesuits served near the Daly River from 1886 to 1899.
For many years Nauiyu has been recognised as a progressive community and a leader in many areas of Indigenous development.
The community government council at Nauiyu was one of the most dynamic and economically sound in the Northern Territory, before being absorbed into the Victoria Daly Council as part of local government reforms.
Furthermore, the Nauiyu community operated the most successful housing association in the Northern Territory, building and managing its own housing for nearly 30 years until a government policy change took this away from them.
While things may have looked good on the surface, there has always been a hidden side to the Nauiyu story: the scourge of suicide and self-harm. In 2008, the clinic manager reported 40 attempted suicides; in 2009 there were 36 reported attempts.
In response, the Nauiyu clinic staff developed the Strong Spirit Strong Body youth program. This program dramatically reduced the number of self-harm episodes and gave full-time employment to four young local people. These youths were trained in mental health first aid and delivered courses and workshops for people in Nauiyu.
Unfortunately funding for this program ceased and the trained staff were let go.
By 2013, self-harm attempts were on the rise again, with some 10 attempts in a six-week period, the majority being made by young females.
The community was in crisis and something had to be done.
In December 2013, senior elder Miriam Rose Baumann, the Katherine Red Cross and the local Government Engagement Coordinator met to discuss how to tackle the problem and identify resources available in government and non-government organisations.
One of the first decisions they made was to establish the Nauiyu Action Group. Like its acronym suggests, the group was determined to nag and nag until things began to happen.
NAG would become the official voice of concerned residents and service providers, although it was never a legal entity and receives no funding from the government or non-government sector.
In 2013, suicide and self-harm were subjects that were not discussed openly at Nauiyu. The prevailing belief was that talking about suicide led to copycat behaviour. This was about to change.
The first Nauiyu suicide prevention meeting was held on 18 December, 2013. The media was invited to attend, and interviewed several Nauiyu residents about the epidemic of self-harm. The story was later broadcast on ABC Television News.
The people of Nauiyu were no longer hiding the issue of suicide and self-harm, they were shining a spotlight on it.
The inaugural meeting was held in the local park, and was attended by representatives from the Nauiyu community, the Nauiyu Health Clinic, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Catholic Care, the Northern Territory Government’s Suicide Prevention Unit, the Red Cross, Lifeline Top End, Anglicare’s Standby Response and NT Medicare Local.
The meeting demonstrated that the resources were available. The issue was how to identify what each agency had to offer, and whether these services were needed by the community.
In February 2014, Nauiyu residents listed what they required from government:
Local initiatives included:
The founding members of NAG were not certain of the group’s direction or operation.
As the group evolved, so too did its ambitions.
One year after the group was formed, it listed its terms of reference:
NAG established that the professional support required to help alleviate suicide and self-harm was available in the Northern Territory.
However, this support was dispersed across the Territory, distributed within three spheres of government, and located within a multitude of NGOs.
NAG’s task was to try to bring the support together. It succeeded over time, and the community began to change as a consequence.
Agencies that support NAG and the local residents of Nauiyu include:
Incidents of self-harm at Nauiyu have dropped steadily since NAG was established.
The group has succeeded as a facilitator because it works closely with the local health practitioners who are on the front line and face the trauma of suicide and self-harm and suicide.
NAG has taken some of the burden off the local health staff, especially in the preventative realm. It has encouraged other support services to move into this space.
NAG believes that each and every agency has contributed something to the reduction of self-harm at Nauiyu.
It is difficult if not impossible to identify and measure each contribution.
However, NAG believes that talking openly about suicide and self-harm, publicising events and producing culturally relevant material - with information that can be used and understood by clients - has contributed to a major reduction in the number of these devastating events.