Content warning: This article contains reference to suicide. Please refer to the services at the bottom of this article for support.
Empowering choice and control, Aboriginal community-controlled suicide postvention service, Thirrili, is supporting Indigenous families and communities through grief and loss.
Meaning power and strength in Bunuba language, Thirrili was established in 2017 by Adele Cox — a proud Bunuba and Gija woman.
In July 2020, Jacqueline McGowan-Jones stepped into the role of CEO.
With cultural links to the Central Desert in the Northern Territory, Ms McGowan-Jones has an extensive career in government and has spent the last 25 years working with and for Indigenous people.
At 84 per cent Indigenous employment, Thirrili places Indigenous health in Indigenous hands.
The service operates from a strength-based approach and is the national provider of Indigenous specific postvention support and assistance.
“There are many Indigenous services funded to provide support for prevention,” Ms McGowan-Jones said.
“But we are an Indigenous service, who provide services and support to families that have had a loss to suicide, or other fatal traumatic incidents.”
With staff across the country, Thirrili provides postvention services through a “fly-in, fly-out styled model”.
“The thing that is really important for our service is that we must be asked or invited. We don’t just rock up and say ‘we’re here to help’,” Ms McGowan-Jones said.
“We know the importance of building those relationships and we are really focused on people knowing who we are.”
Communities and families can access Thirrili through referrals, which can be provided at any time after their loss. “We don’t have a service period, you can work with us for three years, or 10 years, whatever you need. There is no timeline,” Ms McGowan-Jones said.
“The grief cycle has no pattern to it — it isn’t a straight line. You don’t go through anger, frustration, blame, shame in a nice, neat pattern.”
“Some of our clients will become inactive, they’ll tell us they’re OK. We’ll do check-in phone calls. We may make their file inactive, but we never close them. That means that they’re able to come back to us when they need, perhaps on an anniversary. That door is always open.”
While many people may be familiar with the suicide prevention area, not many know of the work done in postvention.
“The first thing we do is sit down and talk with family, if we’re engaging to family quite close to the occurrence of death and before the funeral, a lot of our engagement is about how we advocate for them. It’s about practical support,” Ms McGowan-Jones said.
“Our families have a difficult enough time engaging with the service system. Trying to do that when you’re overwhelmed with grief is virtually impossible.”
In some cases, Thirrili will have to advocate with child protection to ensure children aren’t placed in out-of-home care.
After the funeral, the service works to help the family readjust to a new lifestyle. They connect family to counselling and financial support, along with ensuring extended family and community are involved in healing.
“Postvention is about preventing suicide in another generation. You are up to 10 times more likely to take your own life if you have lost a parent or a sibling or a child,” said Ms McGowan-Jones.
“That is even more complex in our families because of our cultural relationships.
“My brother’s children are my children, my sister’s children are my children.
“The scope of people affected by an Aboriginal person taking their own life is far greater.”
The Federal Government recently provided Thirrili $15 million across three years to continue its work. Ms McGowan-Jones said the funding came at the right time.
“The work now begins,” she said.
“How do we ensure that we are working with, not for people? How do we ensure we are working with families and communities to help them with what they believe they require as support? And how do we walk alongside our clients to bring them to a better place?
“We talk about restoring capacity, not building.”
Becoming an Aboriginal community-controlled organisation with six members, Thirrili has developed a national, grassroots voice.
The service prides itself on being built on the principle of self-determination for Indigenous people.
“It is all about choice and control,” she said.
“At the moment, there is a national voice for suicide prevention for our mob, but not for postvention.
“We need to be able to establish a national presence and voice to give primacy to the Indigenous postvention needs.”
If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental ill-health, call or visit the online resources below:
- Lifeline – 13 11 14, lifeline.org.au
- Beyond Blue – 1300 224 636, beyondblue.org.au/forums
- MensLine – 1300 789 978
- Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
- Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467
- Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet – healthinfonet.ecu.edu.au
By Rachael Knowles