ASHLEY HALL: Mental health researchers say the rate of suicide among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is twice the rate of the rest of the Australian population.
And they say culturally appropriate programs that connect people to land and culture must be at the heart of any effective solution.
Now, a new national Indigenous leadership group has been formed to help drive that change.
Anna Vidot reports from Perth.
ANNA VIDOT: The disturbingly high rate of suicide among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is bad enough, but according to psychologist and professor, Pat Dudgeon, from the University of Western Australia's School of Indigenous Studies, the reported figures probably don't tell the whole story.
PAT DUDGEON: The suicide rates for Indigenous Australians is twice, as least twice that of other Australians, possibly more. We think it is probably underreported. It's not just the event of suicide too, you know, we need to think of well, what sorts of self-harm behaviours. In a sense it's the tip of the iceberg for other psychological distress.
ANNA VIDOT: Now, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders in the field have formed a new group to try and reverse that history of poor government engagement with Indigenous people on health and mental health issues.
The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership Group in Mental Health brings together Indigenous leaders from the state and national mental health commissions to advise and lead government policy.
Pat Dudgeon is one of the new group's members.
PAT DUDGEON: All the commissions are totally committed to ensuring that Aboriginal social and emotional well-being and mental health need attention, but this group will offer them the guidance and advice on how to do that.
ANNA VIDOT: Also taking up a seat on the new leadership group is Gracelynn Smallwood, an Aboriginal elder and activist of 45 years on health and human rights issues.
GRACELYNN SMALLWOOD: This launching is very significant to me after advocating for a long time with many others that I believe that we're finally getting somewhere with everybody collaborating and not hiding data from each other.
ANNA VIDOT: Gracelynn Smallwood says the formation of the group, with the support of the mental health commissions, is a sign the penny has dropped for everyone in the mental health space.
GRACELYNN SMALLWOOD: For the last 230 years my people have been suffering incredible trans-generational trauma that's been unresolved. A lot of the programs from a bottoms up approach that's culturally appropriate and working, have received very little money or set up to fail where it's not ongoing, and every community has their own way of dealing with their culturally appropriate healing.
I believe that coming together and government hearing stories from the grassroots level, they could actually understand when people put in for money, it's not just about the money, it's about what KPIs (key performance indicators) or what performance indicators would be sustainable.
ANNA VIDOT: Programs that address Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and mental health through reconnecting to land and culture do exist, and are having good results. But the people who run those programs say they need more government support and funding to continue their work and reach more people.
Darryl Kickett is a facilitator for the Red Dust Healing program in Western Australia.
DARRYL KICKETT: Across Australia we've done about 8,000 people. Only 10 have failed to finish. They go back and they start to take responsibilities for their life. It's a way of reconnecting to culture. A lot of us begin to understand that what has happened to us as we were kids is not our fault.
So we learn then how not to pass on that hurt.
ASHLEY HALL: Darryl Kickett, a West Australian facilitator for Red Dust Healing, ending Anna Vidot's report.
And if this story has raised some issues for you, you can call Lifeline, 24 hours a day on 13 11 14.
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