Keeping Hope

Mark Coles Smith lends a bit of star power for a crisis in his community and shares a deeply personal journey in the process.

It’s taken Mark Coles Smith a decade to try and reconcile the death of his best friend who was in his early 20s when he took his own life.

The Kimberley, where Coles Smith’s hometown of Broome is located, has one of the highest suicide rates in the country, with the vast majority being young Indigenous men.

Now in a documentary special for NITV / SBS, he returns to the region to learn more about the problem and to give back. After all, having a Gold Logie nominee lend his name to an important cause will help shine further light on the emergency.

Coles Smith reveals he doesn’t know “a single Indigenous family that wasn’t affected” by suicide, either directly or indirectly, in his hometown. Governments have thrown money at the crisis, but he is keen to see first hand what outcomes have been achieved.

“I want to try and understand why suicide is so prevalent in the country I grew up in.”

The doco directed by Tyson Mowarin serves as a road trip as Coles Smith visits Djugun, Yawuru, Bunuba, Goonyiandi, Nyikina, Walmajarri, Wangkatjunka and Kija communities.

They include Fitzroy Crossing where in 2007 thirteen young locals were lost in the one year, prompting a WA state inquest. But Coles Smith, in referring to the impact of drugs and alcohol as being problematic, tells us “I don’t think that’s the whole story.”

He meets local leader Joe Ross who believes the terms of reference were too narrow for the inquest. Colonisation, high unemployment, and a loss of identity have contributed to young people being ill-equipped to deal with the problems they face.

In Halls Creek he learns of more suicide tragedies in 2010, including a girl as young as 10.

Brenda Garstone, CEO of Yura Yungi Medical Service, asks Coles Smith, “What could we have done to make her feel that her whole life was ahead of her?”

Guilt and feelings of helplessness for loved ones is a big part of the suicide story, and one that Coles Smith readily identifies with.

It’s a sentiment also expressed by Rowena, a mother who lost her son Barry, in 2012.

“I blame myself. What could I have done differently? Could I have been more aware?” she asks.

However she has channeled her sorrow into a local football program for young men, where the camaraderie withing Lil’ Man’s Saints Footy Club, in honour of her son, may hopefully change lives.

“If I can save one young person, you know, I’m happy.”

Further along his road trip, Coles Smith learns about other programs involving art therapy and equine assisted learning are finding success. But there is an underlying message that such programs need financial support, which he discovers dries up too quickly. Self-help programs still need support to achieve outcomes.

A final chapter sees the Mystery Road: Origin star immersed in Yiriman camps, which have been operating for over two decades, where elders share traditional medicine and help young men to reconnect to the country. To this white fella observer, it’s a kind of men’s camp where bonding and sharing of experiences -including from our host- helps foster inner strength. Males staying silent on their feelings is a problem across cultures, it seems.

“Young mob just don’t get something like that in their towns,” Coles Smith reveals.

Despite the merits of such programs, I’m reminded that suicide also transcends gender. You’d hope First Nations women are also extending such care to young women, given what we learned earlier.

Special mention must go to Director of Photography Torstein Dyrting who has captured evocative shots and landscape across the Kimberley, filmed in such beauty it belies the brutality of the subject at hand.

It’s great to see Coles Smith giving back, having achieved broad success as actor and lending his voice to an important subject.

That can only inspire young First Nations mob who follow in his footsteps, or admire from afar, and hopefully those in a position to do more to effect real change.

Sunday 10 September at 8.40pm on NITV
Wednesday September 13 at 8.30pm on SBS

Lifeline 13 11 14
Beyond Blue 1300 22 46 36
13YARN: 13 92 76

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