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Indigenous 'Shield' to Prevent Youth Suicide

4 April 2017 at 3:53 pm
Wendy Williams
Indigenous elders have teamed up with cultural historians, technologists and a clinical psychologist to crowdfund a “groundbreaking” new app that aims to tackle youth suicide by combining traditional knowledge with mobile technology.

Wendy Williams | 4 April 2017 at 3:53 pm


Indigenous 'Shield' to Prevent Youth Suicide
4 April 2017 at 3:53 pm

Indigenous elders have teamed up with cultural historians, technologists and a clinical psychologist to crowdfund a “groundbreaking” new app that aims to tackle youth suicide by combining traditional knowledge with mobile technology.

The project led by the Walpiri elders from the Northern Territory community of Lajamanu draws on the traditional concept of Kurdiji, meaning “shield” in Warlpiri language.

It marks the first time that a traditional Indigenous community has created a mental health app, using their own knowledge to fight against rising suicide rates.

Project patron Jack Charles said the idea of Kurdiji had been used to empower young people and prevent suicide for thousands of years.

“Lajamanu wants to bring Kurdiji into the digital age, with a community created app based on these stories, ceremonies and law,” Charles said.

“[It is] designed to support young people build and maintain resilience and self worth.”

The Kurdiji 1.0 project will take it’s guidance from community elders, but is designed to engage young people in the local community who will work with an expert team to create the app, learn new skills and learn from their elders.

Cultural historian Dr Judith Crispin told Pro Bono News the project came out of a deep history.

“In about 2005, there was a young person in Lajamanu who committed suicide and in response to this suicide, the elders got together and discussed whether or not they could make the ideas of Kurdiji, which are normally only transmitted through an initiation ceremony, available to the public to try to reduce suicide,” Crispin said.

“There was a pretty big discussion about it and they made the decision that Indigenous lives were more important than those old laws which may have prevented them from sharing the information.

“So they established a festival called Milpirri which conveyed the ideas of Kurdiji to anybody who could get to the festival in Lajamanu. Since that day in 2005 there hasn’t been a single suicide in Lajamanu so we know the principle works.”

Kurdiji appCrispin said the latest app wanted to build on that foundation to reach more people.

“A few months ago I was in Lajamanu, I spend several months a year up there, and during the time I was there there was a suicide in a neighbouring community in Kalkarindji and everybody was very upset and the elders said to me, ‘the problem is one of reach’,” she said.

“Because if you can physically get to Lajamanu which is 22 hours northwest of Alice Springs then you could encounter these ideas of Kurdiji but Indigenous people all over the country can’t get that far.

“So the elders then proposed to me that we might try to build this app to put these ideas in the hands of Indigenous people wherever they are.”

Kurdiji is centred on the four pillars of language, skin name, ceremony, and law. The idea is that by understanding these things a person is given dignity and a known place in community.

Warlpiri elder Steve Patrick (Wanta Jampijinpa) said the initiative would bring hope to the communities.

“Been working with these kardiya fellas on this app. It’s called Kurdiji, and Kurdiji means ‘shield’ for us Warlpiri, it’s initiation ceremony as well,” Patrick said.

“It’s meant to teach people to look at life and really protect life – shield them off from all the elements of negative things of the world. This app will give hope through the way Kurdiji brings out the best in challenging life and in challenging ourselves too.

“This app would try to challenge something like suicide within young people in Indigenous communities. It will do really good things and bring hope to the communities.”

Crispin said the app, which is hosted by the Black Dog Institute, Australia’s peak body on depression and suicide, was the first time the community had come together to convey their ideas around suicide prevention.

“There has been a precursor app that was made by one of the people on our research team, Dr Fiona Shand from Black Dog Institute, who created an app with colleagues called iBobbly. It is an app which conveys ideas from Western psychology about suicide prevention, but it uses Indigenous stories to convey them. So it is a very good thing however this is the first time the community has come together and has said, ‘let’s look at our ideas around suicide prevention and increasing resilience and convey those’,” Crispin said.

“What’s really significant about that is that those ideas were developed over thousands and thousands of years and they were developed specifically for Indigenous people…so it is a far more appropriate way in many ways of treating depression and those feelings of isolation than the ideas that we have from western psychology.

“We’re hoping it will blaze a trail and that Indigenous communities will feel confident both about the use of new technology to convey their ideas but also about turning to traditional ideas that have come through their own culture and that have worked very well to build up their people.”

The latest app aims to provide access to many cultural assets that can’t normally be experienced outside remote communities and will include 3D motion capture of dance and traditional hand signals, audio recordings of language, representations of song-lines and story.

The pilot Kurdiji app will also form the basis of positive psychology research, evaluating the effectiveness of this kind of community-led approach to suicide prevention.

The team will work closely with the Aboriginal Medical Service and community medical centres to make the project as responsive and relevant as possible.

Researcher and clinical psychologist Dr Fiona Shand, from the Black Dog Institute, said the app was about starting from a place of strength.

“One of the things that struck me when listening to Wanta Jampijinpa Patrick speak about Warlpiri ways was the complex systems of connection – between people, with country, with spirit,” Shand said.

“A strong sense of connection or belonging is very clearly protective against suicide.

“Kurdiji 1.0 also aims to build a stronger sense of identity, which we expect will also be protective for young people. It’s starting from a place of strength and building on that.”

To help fund the project they launched a crowdfunding campaign on Tuesday via GoFundMe.

Crispin said they were hoping to raise $280,000 to develop the app and run clinical trials that could show the method works and allow them to apply for NHMRC funding to roll out a more sophisticated app in every Indigenous language.

“So it is going to be an expensive app in terms of the size of a lot of funding campaigns but our reach is going to be national and we hope that it is going to start the ball rolling on a lot of similar projects,” she said.

She said the scale of the issue was one of an “epidemic”.

“If you consider that we have at the moment a little over half a million people in this country who identify as Indigenous, which isn’t an enormous population, we are losing three a week to suicide, which is huge,” she said.

“An Indigenous person is four times more likely to take their own life than a non-Indigenous person. In fact the bureau of statistics came up with some figures a couple of years ago that said young Indigenous men…are now the most endangered group on the planet, in terms of taking their lives through suicide.

“I think one thing that we really want to do with this [app] is to make the problem visible but at the same time we don’t want to do it with a spirit of condemnation…what we want to do it to provide this positive thing, and say there is this problem but Indigenous people also have the solution.”

If you or anyone you know needs help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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