Warlpiri Youth Development Aboriginal Corporation (WYDAC) began in 1993 due to the efforts of Elders from the Yuendumu Community in the Warlpiri region of Central Australia. Their program, Warra-Warra Kanyi (WWK) is a counselling and mentoring service that combines formal, tertiary counselling skills with a local Warlpiri approach to target high-risk behaviours in Warlpiri people aged from 12-25 years. It targets a variety of risks, most notably relationship issues, family violence, substance misuse (alcohol and cannabis) and suicidal and other self-harming behaviours. Members of the WWK team have one of four roles: the WWK Coordinator/Counsellor, the WWK Youth Mentor, a team of Trainee Mentors, and the WWK Senior Cultural Advisor.
Trainee Mentors are young people who had participated in the Youth Development Project and who had demonstrated a clear interest and capacity for helping at-risk peers. They are casually employed and operate under the close supervision of the WWK Counsellor (and sometimes a WWK Youth Mentor). Trainees are matched with clients according to important local and cultural factors such as gender, family group and skin name. This ensures that trainee mentors are well-placed and in frequent contact with their at-risk peers. Trainee mentors sometimes report ‘early warning’ signs and represent the crucial link between a developing crisis and professional assistance. Usually, trainee mentors have struggled with and resolved their own issues. Hence, their mentorship is relevant and effective.
Senior Jaru Pirrjirdi members are employed as WWK youth mentors to work with a WWK Counsellor to target critical youth issues. These mentors are young Warlpiri people who have demonstrated strength, skill and capacity in caring for their at-risk peers. The WWK youth mentors work very closely with and report to the WWK counsellor, who in turn supervises them and supports their development. The WWK youth mentors are active collaborators in the care of their clients. Youth mentors will often have genuine, direct, honest and insightful advice on preventative behaviours, coping strategies and positive pathways. The Counsellor is always available to community members. Clear on-call protocols ensure that during periods of annual leave, gaps are covered by other WYDAC staff members. The WWK team engage with youth issues such as alcohol or other substance abuse, sexual health, relationship breakdown, domestic violence, depression and grief, and suicidal behaviours.
The WWK Project has five main elements:
- Prevention and education
- Early intervention
- Peer mentoring and counselling
- Community and family engagement
- Re-engagement with the youth development project
This is a significant underlying factor in reducing suicide risk for Warlpiri young people. This aspect of the program utilises the Mt Theo Outstation. The physical site of Mt Theo has enormous significance as a cultural site for Warlpiri people. Any young person who is misusing cannabis has the opportunity of cultural rehabilitation and detoxification supported by experienced Warlpiri carers at Mt Theo. This assists Warlpiri youth to deal with cannabis misuse through respite from community life. Mt Theo fosters a strong link with Warlpiri culture and with all the inherent benefits embedded in that culture for at-risk Warlpiri youth. Hence, a strong, positive, healthy Warlpiri identity is forged, promoted, practised and imparted.
Counselling and mentoring services take place in the bush and out of community, perhaps while hunting or sitting together waiting for the kangaroo to cook. Weekly young men’s mentoring trips in the bush to hunt are regular events that involve the youth mentors, trainee mentors and at-risk young men.
Elders are involved, provide support and are Senior Cultural Advisors, particularly for the non-Warlpiri staff of WWK, other WYDAC and external agency staff. A Senior Cultural Advisor plays an important outreach and support role to the Mt Theo Outstation and to other Warlpiri communities requesting support. Finally, Senior Cultural Advisors play an important supervisory role in the development of culturally relevant Warlpiri mentoring and counselling resources.
Experience enables the WWK team to identify critical periods or situations when a risk is likely to develop. This ability is crucial in developing a ‘local calendar’ which highlights high-risk nights, weeks or periods of the year. This allows preparation of resources, and early preventative work by staff with families and peers and external agencies such as the police.
The WWK is a clinical and culturally safe program that provides extensive wrap-around services and rapid, local crisis responses to prevent suicide attempts from becoming completed suicides. The WWK is an accepted support for youth who have had suicidal issues over a sustained period. It also deals with the problems underlying these issues and moves young people forward towards positive and meaningful pathways.
The program is now a comprehensive program of youth diversion, development, leadership and rehabilitation throughout the Warlpiri region. Most critically Warlpiri people themselves created the program, and its ownership, design and growth remain under the control of the governing committee of Warlpiri people.
The factors crucial to the program’s success are:
- The employment of a permanent, locally based, tertiary qualified counsellor and a second qualified person to provide relief, ensuring a 24 hour on-call service
- The peer mentoring system which is critical in raising awareness during a crisis
- Its local nature in the developing of responses to local needs under the direction of local people, employing local people and relying on Elders to ensure cultural safety and to provide cultural direction
- Addressing suicidal behaviour by working to address cannabis misuse
- Having a holistic view of youth development which includes education, development, well-being and diversion.
- Having responsive, local and informed people available in the community on a permanent basis to successfully address suicide attempts