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Megan Krakouer’s initial response to the Voice proposal was a ‘hard No’. It seemed too mediocre to tackle the trauma she sees every day.
“I just went to town on it at first: it’s not going to do anything, there’s no power attached to it,” the Menang woman of the Noongar nation said.
Krakouer – the younger sister of Phil and Jim Krakouer of the famous AFL dynasty – spends her time supporting thousands of Aboriginal people and their families affected by or at risk of suicide: visiting them in youth prisons, accompanying families to inquests, or providing food and social assistance through day and night.
Megan Krakouer, a proud Menang Woman of the Noongar Nation, changed her mind and decided to vote Yes after attending the funerals of youths who had taken their own lives.Credit: Steven Siewert
But over the last two months, she has changed her mind. The trigger was when another two young Indigenous men she knew lost their lives to suicide.
“I’ve seen so much death, I’m so desensitised,” she said. “But it really hurt.”
One 23-year-old – who she described as “the most beautiful, kind young man” – left behind two young children. He had been taken into child protection aged 5, and lost his own brother to suicide at age 10. Krakouer went to his funeral. The other was a young man who had come out of prison 18 months earlier, returning to a crowded house and no job.
“His trauma hadn’t been addressed. And he’s no longer here. At the funeral, one young beautiful girl drops to her knees. And she cries and she cries and she cries. I just thought: This is thematic right across our country. The mental health crisis is well and truly out of control. Those who have taken their lives predominantly fall below the poverty line. They need hope.
“That’s what the Voice can do. Something central, unified, that can bring brothers and sisters from all circumstances together to provide that representation.
“And in terms of the nonsense to say we’re dividing a nation: the nation is already divided. Look at the Closing the Gap report.”
Krakouer and Professor Maree Toombs, the two Aboriginal winners of this year’s Australian Mental Health Prize, have urged a Yes vote in this weekend’s referendum, warning that Indigenous people face suicide and mental illness at a higher rate than the rest of the country and need community-led solutions to turn those figures around.
Professor Maree Toombs, a proud Euahlayi and Kooma woman, won this year’s Mental Health Prize for her work on suicide prevention within Indigenous communities, which uses culturally attuned practices.Credit: Steven Siewert
They are also deeply concerned about the impact the Voice debate is having on their community’s mental health, and said they were astounded by comments from Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price – who claimed colonisation has been good for Indigenous Australians in her advocacy for a ‘No’ vote – that they characterised as profoundly disappointing and untrue.
“It’s dreadful, and it’s so short-sighted. I’m astounded they would say things like that. Rates of suicide are just one clear indicator of the impact colonisation has had,” said Toombs, an Euahlayi and Kooma woman who won the professional prize for her work in suicide prevention within Indigenous communities.
“We know there’s no word for suicide in any Aboriginal language in Australia. But the rates of suicide for Aboriginal people are at least 2.5 times higher than the national average.”
Toombs said she had found the referendum to be a very difficult experience. The national helpline for First Nations people has also fielded a record number of calls, with many who reach out telling crisis counsellors that they are experiencing racism and abuse.
“Personally, the gaze I feel on me at the moment, I haven’t felt that gaze since I was a little girl in a small country town in NSW: that I’m being judged, someone to be suspicious of,” Toombs said.
“It’s an awful feeling, and I’m a very strong person in my identity. I can’t imagine how others are feeling.”
Toombs has spent the last six years building tools to teach local communities how they can respond to suicide in their own environments. She said tailoring protocols to their specific circumstances was essential, as each community had different experiences and requests.
Early in her work, she met an elder who had lost two of her children, as well as two grandchildren, to suicide.
“She was languishing in the fact she didn’t know what to do. She said to me: we need to know how to do suicide intervention in real time. Our children don’t kill themselves between the hours of 9 and 5. We can’t rely on services; we need the skills in the community to do something about it at 2 in the morning.”
Toombs’ project now focuses on picking away at the stigma so that there can be identification and intervention.
“Explaining it’s a consequence of the impact of colonisation in this country helps to have these safe conversations about it. There’s a lot of shame. When you’ve got eight-year-olds taking their lives, it’s this hopelessness and deep layer of guilt,” she said.
Toombs said a Voice advisory group would have a positive impact on decisions made about mental health in Indigenous communities because, despite funding towards closing the gap targets, there were still massive inequities.
The call has been backed by more than 125 health and medical organisations that have signed an open letter outlining their collective support for the Voice. Health Minister Mark Butler has said he can’t imagine a policy area where listening to the Voice would be more valuable.
“Every year, we’re reminded of the awful gap in health outcomes and life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. We have to be honest, with the best of intentions and very substantial investment, the current approach is not working,” he said.
Crisis support can be found at Lifeline: (13 11 14), the Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467) and beyondblue (1300 22 4636).
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