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Outreach program reducing 'horrific' suicide rate in First Nation communities

Intensive outreach program in WA addressing suicid
Photo: Outreach program reducing 'horrific' suicide rate in First Nation communities
In January 2019, five indigenous girls aged between 12 and 15 years committed suicide. This was the catalyst for outreach worker and suicide prevention worker, Gerry Georgatos, to self-fund and establish the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project (NSPTRP) in Western Australia.

“Suicide among First Nations people has always been a humanitarian crisis, and it’s as serious as it’s ever been right now.”

“In Australia, 1 in 50 deaths are from suicide, but 1 in 17 deaths among First Nations people is due to suicide – this is horrific and that alone should galvanise the need for action”, Mr Georgatos told HealthTimes.

“I fought long and hard for the last decade to raise the issue of suicide among First Nations communities as a pressing crisis. What I've learned in my experience in working with people exposed to poverty and various forms of abuse, is that
when there’s a cry for help, you take it seriously.”

“We do live in one of the wealthiest nations on the planet, with the 12th largest economy. Yet we are losing children.”

“The youngest suicide that I've responded to in terms of postvention was nine years of age. I worked to support the family through that tragedy, and it broke my heart. The youngest suicide attempt I’ve responded to was by a six year old child.”

“Suicide is the leading cause of death in children aged 10 to 17 years. And it's so much more pronounced among First Nations children.”

In setting up the NSPTRP, Mr Georgatos brought together 12 outreach responders, who have worked right across the country, but predominantly in Western Australia.

“The vital missing link which we provide is outreach. And we are 100% outreach. It’s assertive outreach that is relentless in nature.”

“We’re not turning up and spending a half-hour with someone; it can often be three, four, five hours that we’re there for.”

“And it can mean going back again and again until we're satisfied that a person is steady and stable, and that means being on call. This is what we've been doing for the last few years.”

“We don't give up on people. We support them through the multifactorial issues they face, which are a huge and distinctive array.”

In 2019, the suicide toll among First Nations communities increased by 15% at a national level. Yet in the same year in Western Australia, since the NSPTRP was introduced, suicides among First Nations people decreased by 20% - from 39 to
30.

“This is not coincidental – there’s a correlation there”, said Mr Georgatos.

“What we need now is this rolled out across the country. Whether it's NSPTRP or another similar program, outreach must become part of all services if we want to really work with First Nations families.”

“If you don't have outreach, you're not going to be responding to around three quarters of the most at-risk populations. No way.”

Mr Georgatos said that a key ingredient to outreach programs is that they directly bring the care to people who need it, at the time they need it, and this can help prevent a crisis from escalating in the first instance.

He recalls one story – that of a 21 year old mother with two children.

“Within three days, she had attempted suicide twice. She was discharged from hospital that very same day.”

“Unfortunately, hospitals will sometimes discharge on the same day. At best, they’ll keep a person in for a day or two, but they then go straight back to the same circumstances that brought them there.”

“The majority of the critically vulnerable are living in such crushing poverty and disadvantage that they're not going to just walk up to us for help – we need to go to them”, said Mr Georgatos.

In order to reduce the suicide rate among Indigenous people by half at a national level, he said that 300 outreach workers would be needed.

“We need quite a few [outreach networks] in places like Townsville and Sydney, the Hunter region, far north Queensland and the Kimberley, but we've shown with the NSPTRP in Western Australia that we can do it, and it does work.”

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Charlotte Mitchell

Charlotte is a published journalist and editor, with 10 years of experience in developing high-quality content for national and international publications.

With an academic background in both science and communications, she specialises in medical and science writing. Charlotte is passionate about creating engaging, evidence-based content that equips the community with important information on issues around healthcare, medicine and research.

Over the years, she has partnered with organisations including the Medical Journal of Australia, Cancer Council NSW, Bupa, the Australasian Medical Publishing Company, Dementia Australia, MDA National, pharmaceutical companies, and state and federal government agencies, to produce high-impact news and clinical content  for different audiences.