Jobs Events Advertise

Rocked by a spate of suicides, Shepparton's Aboriginal community is using culture to turn the tide

Guest Author -

It began in October 2021 when a group of Shepparton's First Nations community members came together in a backyard to figure out how to change the situation on youth suicide rates in town.

"We had a cuppa and said, 'what are we going to do about this?'," Yorta Yorta woman and founding member of Dunguludja Dana Jean Miller said.

"Our kids have been exposed to way too much trauma here, and something needs to be done."

Shepparton is home to the largest Aboriginal community and one of the highest rates of suicide in regional Victoria.

Jean Miller said last year the community experienced about seven suicides by youth in just two months.

This is when Dunguludja Dana was formed with a purpose to change the numbers.

"It's a Yorta Yorta word for strong pathways or strengthening journeys, and that's what we want to do, that's our vision," Jean Miller said.

"It was just about trying to engage our youth and let them know that no matter what life path they're currently on, there's always someone that loves them and cares and wants to support them.

"It could be a friend, it could be a cousin, it could be someone they knew in their school, but the impact is a ripple effect."

Suicide is an issue close to home for Jean Miller, being a mother herself and knowing close family members who have taken their own lives.

She said there was a cultural obligation to pass culture on to young people, which would improve mental health and wellbeing.

"That connection to country and community, it's all a part of their identity, and if there's a lack of that, then that can really affect our youth, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally," Jean Miller said.

"We're very passionate about providing those resources so that our kids really do feel that sense of belonging and pride in their culture and identity."

Ameyshia Baksh and Aaliyah Atkinson. Picture: Youssef Saudie.

Yorta Yorta and Wiradjuri Elder Merle Miller said there was a lack of mental health support for Indigenous people in Shepparton.

Barriers to services in the regional town include difficulty booking appointments, and the cost of making one.

But Merle Miller said this did not stop Dunguludja Dana from aiming to break the cycle of youth suicide.

"We didn't have any money to start, and we didn't care, we just needed to do something," she said.

In the past few months, Dunguludja Dana has held events and worked with the likes of Surfing Victoria.

Now the group has began collaborating with the local high school in Shepparton on art therapy.

"As a committee we made this joint decision that it was time to stop asking our youth to come to us and do activities with us, and so we approached the school to see if we could come into their safe space," Jean Miller said.

Each Wednesday, the group run three sessions where First Nations students partake in painting, drawing, charcoal, and burning art - as well as creating possum skin cloaks.

Paintings by some of the Shepparton students. Picture: Youssef Saudie.

"We've got a couple of raw didges [didgeridoos] here as well, which is for the boys," Jean Miller said.

"They've been sanding them back and eventually will put some designs on them - whether it's painting or burning, but that's their choice because that's men's business."

Murphy Briggs is a Yorta Yorta, Bangerang, Latji Latji and Wiradjuri year 10 student.

"I try to put my background on the canvas, so it's good," he said.

"You don't really get many opportunities like this, some people are distant, and you've got family all around, but it's kind of hard to get everyone together at once."

Murphy said he was able to be connect with other young First Nations people in a safe space.

"When we're in here, everyone feels like they're there at home, like they can be themselves and don't have to put on an act for anyone else," he said.

"We can all relate to each other, once we're all together, if you see someone's off, it's pretty obvious.

"I just try to be a positive role model and leader in there and help out the kids."

Yorta Yorta, Bangerang and Wiradjuri year eight student Ameyshia Baksh said the sessions were a chance to learn culture and history that is not normally learnt at school.

"I've learned the symbols, what they mean, how to tell the story, and a bit more about our history and what our ancestors have gone through," she said.

"I feel real connected to history, and proud because it's my culture, and then I get to go home and tell my family and show them what I've learned.

"We've learned about what our people have done and sacrificed to get to where we are now, and how they've fought for our rights and equality."

Symbols used at workshops in Shepparton. Picture: Youssef Saudie.

Yorta Yorta, Bangerang and Wiradjuri year eight student Aaliyah Atkinson said the sessions helped to clear her mind.

"It relieves stress, like when you're just painting, you don't think about nothing else, you just worry about what you're putting on the canvas," she said.

"I feel really like connected to culture, they [other students] teach you what they know, you teach them what you know.

"The program has had guest speakers from Victoria Police and Headspace to build the relationship with the young people."

Jean Miller said they hoped to do more work for young people to connect to their culture and strengthen their mental health.

"Mental health is just so rough at the moment, two years of lockdown hasn't been easy for anyone," she said.

"We know kids that aren't turning up to class, but will come in here and say, 'hey aunty what session am I in here today?', And you can't beat that.

"We've got some big plans...I can't believe how much we've achieved in a small amount of time."

13 YARN - 13 92 76

Story by Youssef Saudie


Authorities drop case against Cree-Iroquois journalist
Canadian authorities have dropped their case against Cree and Iroquois journalist Brandi Morin.Ms Morin’s lawyer Richard Mirasty...
Giovanni Torre 2 Mar 2024
Janine Mohamed to stand down as Lowitja Institute CEO
Janine Mohamed has announced she will stand down as chief executive of the Lowitja Institute after five years in the role.  The...
Dechlan Brennan 2 Mar 2024
Debbie Kilroy slams Queensland's expansion of youth detention, and calls for community solutions
Queensland Premier Steven Miles and Youth Justice Minister Di Farmer initiated the construction of a new 80-bed youth detention...
Joseph Guenzler 1 Mar 2024
Canada's largest private sector union condemns arrest of First Nations journalist, warns of threat to democracy
Canada's largest private sector union has slammed the arrest and charging of an Indigenous journalist as a threat to "Canadian n...
Giovanni Torre 1 Mar 2024

   Guest Author   

Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service urges parties to back justice reforms in State Election
Victoria’s Aboriginal Legal Service has called on parties and candidates in the Victorian state election to embrace a suite of r...
Guest Author 16 Nov 2022
WA's youth justice crisis - a failure of leadership
It is with great disappointment that I am writing this opinion piece about the treatment of children in Banksia Hill Detention C...
Guest Author 16 Nov 2022
Traditional Owners should be able to speak for their own country - Mundine
Go out on country and get the consent of Traditional Owners: that’s the message government sends companies on major projects. Bu...
Guest Author 13 Nov 2022
Education plea ahead of Indigenous voice referendum
An architect of the Uluru Statement from the Heart has pleaded with Australians to educate themselves ahead of a referendum on e...
Guest Author 9 Nov 2022