Q&A with Associate Professor Maree Toombs on the development of I-ASIST

Posted 18th November 2021 in General

LivingWorks Australia has recently launched the world’s first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide intervention training program, I-ASIST. It was developed in partnership with University of Queensland’s Associate Professor Maree Toombs, proud Euralie and Kooma woman, who led the co-design of the program with First Nation communities from all across Australia.

Suicide rates for Indigenous communities are currently twice that of non-Indigenous communities, with young Indigenous people at particularly high risk.

I-ASIST builds on the model of LivingWorks’ successful ASIST suicide training program, to provide suicide prevention first aid training that is culturally appropriate and supportive. This allows for these skills to be taught and embedded into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities so that they can better recognise and respond when they identify people experiencing suicidal thoughts or distress.

The Life in Mind team spoke with A/Prof. Toombs, about the importance of I-ASIST and the process of developing and co-designing the program with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.


What led to the development of I-ASIST and what gaps does it aim to fill?


In 2013 I did a big driving trip out to south-west Queensland and down across the NSW border as I wanted to get a feel from communities about where they saw their biggest health and community needs and what the gaps were. Overwhelmingly, it was all about youth suicide and mental health, and how they were contributing to other comorbidities as well. With the blessing of these communities, I sought grant funding in 2014 to develop and design an Aboriginal suicide intervention training program. That’s really how the journey commenced.


Can you tell us about the process of consultation and co-design of the program with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities?


I love yarning, I love to hear and learn through that age old process. What I found during that yarning was that instead of initially designing a program, it was about first identifying what was missing within communities in how to support them to reduce suicide. One Elder in particular said to me, “Our kids don’t attempt suicide between the hours of nine and five”. What she meant by that was that we couldn’t rely on services to be there to help us when we were worried about somebody with thoughts of suicide.

So this program was about designing something that sits in the community and gives them the skills to know what to do in that moment when they’re sitting with someone and see they’re thinking of suicide. That’s really what I-ASIST is.


What does the training program involve and how can organisations and communities access the program?


The I-ASIST training builds on the intuitive way that we as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples do things: we hear story, we ask questions, we yarn and we support each other.

Through our community engagement we landed on a model for I-ASIST where, in addition to the two-day training workshop, we wrap around additional community engagement and support before and after the workshop as a respectful approach to taking the program into community.

This involves community engagement for two to three months before the training to learn who that community is, what they want and whether they even want us there. Through consultation we also learnt community members wanted time prior to the training that connected them to each other and us as trainers, but is also a space to debrief, because I can’t name a single person I have trained or come across who is Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander who hasn’t been directly impacted by suicide.

The most exciting and innovative part of this is the ongoing support after the workshop. We’re working towards developing a network where our trainers and our participants can come together, debrief and share stories in a safe space to keep everybody safe.


How has the program been received by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities? How will you know it is achieving its aims?


Since its inception through an NHMRC research project back in 2014 we have really made some headway. We currently have 6,000 people trained in I-ASIST and more than 120 interventions have taken place during the pilot alone, keeping countless people safe from suicide.

The wonderful thing about this program is not just that it’s the first of its kind in the world that has developed a co-designed, Indigenous-led suicide intervention training program, but also because it’s a social enterprise model. What this means is that it gives communities the empowerment and the efficacy to set up their own sustainable businesses around suicide intervention as they become Indigenous I-ASIST trainers.

Our vision over the next three years is to build an Indigenous trainer network of 50+ trainers to educate more than 50,000 people in I-ASIST suicide intervention skills. In addition, we want to open a centre for suicide prevention training to ensure Indigenous sovereignty over the research, knowledge translation and data of the program.

LivingWorks I-ASIST is addressing trauma, it’s addressing the breakdown of kinship from colonisation and it provides a holistic way to approach suicide so that one day we can say that we have zero suicide in our communities.

The official launch of LivingWorks I-ASIST took place earlier this month with Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, via a virtual event. Watch the event recording, which includes an Indigenous Suicide Prevention expert panel discussion, via YouTube:

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