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A self-described grassroots Aboriginal researcher, Professor Maree Toombs is responsible for developing the first Indigenous-led and designed suicide intervention training program in Australia, creating space for connection to traditional lands and culture as part of life-saving support.
Before applying for a research grant in 2014, Professor Toombs asked her supervisor, “How about I go and yarn with mob and see what their interests are in terms of making a difference?”
“And that’s what I did,” she says.
Photo: Professor Maree Toombs
Professor Toombs visited eight communities in south-east Queensland to listen to their needs. She heard consistent feedback - the crucial areas requiring research were mental health, suicide and chronic diseases. These conversations informed Professor Toombs’ application to the Targeted Call for Research (TCR) into Suicide Prevention in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Youth.
In 2018, suicide was the leading cause of death for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, accounting for more than a quarter (26.5%) of child deaths.1
Upon receiving NHMRC funding, Professor Toombs began investigating suicide intervention models in Australia, finding most programs were aimed at prevention rather than intervention.
In 2014, Professor Toombs attended the five-day LivingWorks Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) training for trainers, which was the only workshop of its kind in Australia. She was inspired by the model of suicide intervention.
Suicide intervention training gives people the skills to help their families, friends or a member of their community who is/may be having thoughts of ending their own life.
The training immediately made a difference in Professor Toombs’ life.
“On the second day of the ASIST training, I knew without a doubt that my brother was at risk of suicide.”
Professor Toombs used the skills she had learnt during the ASIST workshop to speak to her brother, help him in his time of crisis and save his life.
The framework inspired Professor Toombs to take this back to the people facing high rates of suicide in their communities.
With the help of people from 94 communities across Australia, and under the leadership of proud Euralie and Kooma woman Professor Toombs, the research team spent the next four years carefully developing the Indigenous Suicide Intervention Skills Training (I-ASIST) protocol.
“I-ASIST is for Indigenous workforces, people who work with Indigenous communities, as well as schools, community groups, and sports clubs.”
“Virtually anyone age 16 or older, regardless of prior experience or training, can become an I-ASIST trained helper.”
Elders and service providers are engaged before a workshop, to ensure the training is shaped to suit the community’s needs and to ensure delivery is culturally appropriate and emphasise the importance of community engagement before training begins.
I-ASIST also provides a peer support network for ongoing training and support.
Over 8000 people have attended this training. During the first three months, 120 life-saving interventions were reported by participants.
“This training belongs to the community.”
I-ASIST is a social enterprise model that has grown exponentially since its creation, including being implemented across schools in NSW and public health networks in Victoria. Over the next three years, I-ASIST will be used to deliver 50 “train the trainer” workshops across Australia. These trainers will provide suicide intervention training to an estimated 50,000 Indigenous Australians.
Professor Toombs will use her NHMRC funding to continue to develop an I-ASIST mobile application designed to support participants and collect data to inform programs and policies in suicide intervention.
1Australian Bureau of Statistics (25 September 2019), Intentional self-harm in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, ABS Website.