Spate of suicides grips Aboriginal community

Bronwyn Herbert ABC Indigenous September 06, 2012 20:43:51

On a cool dry season day last year, 16-year-old Darren Ejai had been at school in Derby in Western Australia's Kimberley.

He spent the afternoon helping his brother get his car working, and as night fell the boys drove out to the Aboriginal community of Mowanjum to help celebrate their older brother's birthday.

At some stage during the evening Darren left the party and just before midnight his body was found. He had taken his own life.

Darren's brother Stephen Nulgitt had been with him the night of the party and was there when they found his body.

"In our culture, in spiritual way, the dogs howl when something's wrong, they moan and cry. I heard that and my blood ran cold," he said.

"There was another fella at the site now, just before me, I couldn't believe it was my little brother. I didn't believe it."

Mr Nulgitt says he does not know what triggered Darren to take his own life.

"I wouldn't have a clue. When you hold a lot of things in, and that's the worst thing about it, and you hold a lot of things in, you don't talk to anyone, it builds up into depression and anger," he said.

"The best thing to do is talk to someone you trust, talk to someone you know, close family, best friend, always good to let it out."

Over the next few months in Mowanjum, a community of just 300 people, four more people took their own lives.

One teenage boy killed himself after arguing with his brother over a mobile phone.

A 20-year-old man took his own life after his partner locked him out because he was drunk and violent.

A young woman fled from a party after a fight with her boyfriend then ended her life.

On top of the recent deaths, health workers in nearby Derby have confirmed that more than 40 people have been admitted to hospital in the past year for self harm or attempted suicide.

Michael Ogilvie is a stand-by suicide response worker who has been given funding for one year to work with Mowanjum's grieving families.

"A lot of them are just trying to work through what and why it happened and the problem at that time," he said.

"When we come in we are wholly focused on the family and supporting that young person or elderly, and making sure we are meeting their needs to support them, and get them all fixed up and better."

Lack of coordination

Mowanjum community's chief executive officer Steven Austin says there is no lack of support and resources from both state and federal government agencies, but there is no coordination between them.

"We probably have in the vicinity of 50 service providers come inside the community. It's all uncoordinated, each provider comes in doing their own thing, we are talking Centrelink, we are talking child protection, HAC, all these providers, health," he said.

"But everybody is doing their own thing, nothing is coordinated and when you look around and you see children still not going to school, surely there is an agency responsible for this, but in terms of reality nothing is happening."

The Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, has told the ABC's 7.30 the Government was deeply concerned about the rate of suicide in Mowanjum.

"We are working closely with the West Australian Government and the community to respond," she said.

"We are delivering services to help local people with mental health problems and to assist family and friends affected by suicide. We will continue to deliver these important services in the region."

But Mowanjum's leaders are taking their own step to try and end the despair that has gripped their community by getting more people into work.

They have spent $1 million transforming the dysfunctional community-owned pastoral lease into a commercial cattle operation.

Mr Austin says many in the community are from a cattle background and enjoy going back to work in the industry.

"We need to get them out bush, get them working, and when they start working, they'll want to keep doing it," he said.

A dozen Mowanjum men are now employed to build new stock yards and community leaders hope that by getting people out working and giving them goals, there may be hope for the next generation.

Remote community highlights Indigenous youth suicide concerns

ABC 7:30 Report Transcript

Source; ABC 7:30 Report

LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Spending on Indigenous Australia has recently topped $25 billion-a-year, yet in some Aboriginal communities there's a profound sense of despair.

It's reflected in a suicide rate that's reaching epidemic proportions.

In Western Australia's Kimberley Region, 35 people have taken their own lives since January last year.

The tiny community of Mowanjum with a population just 300 lost five of its residents in a matter of months.

As such, our story contains references to people who've died which may disturb some Indigenous viewers.

Reporter Bronwyn Herbert travelled to Mowanjum and she found community leaders haven't given up hope and believe jobs may be the answer.

BRONWYN HERBERT, REPORTER: It's rodeo time in Derby and ringers from Kimberley cattle stations and Aboriginal outstations are on show.

Stephen Nulgitt from the nearby Indigenous community of Mowanjum isn't riding bulls this year. Instead he's helping the next generation of rodeo hopefuls and encouraging new skills into young lives.

But some of Mowanjum's teenagers are missing from the crowd. Five people from the small community died by suicide last year, including Stephen Nulgitt's brother.

STEPHEN NULGITT: He was a happy little boy. He always had a beautiful smile. I'll never forget that smile. Yeah.

BRONWYN HERBERT: On a cool, dry season day, 16-year-old Darren Ejai had been at school in Derby. He then spent the afternoon helping his brother get his car working.

As night fell, the boys drove from town out to Mowanjum to help celebrate their older brother's birthday. Darren left party and was found just before midnight hanging from a nearby tree.

STEPHEN NULGITT: In our culture, in spiritual way, the dogs howl when something's wrong, like they moan and cry. When I heard that then like my blood run cold. And I can't believe it, it was my little brother. So, didn't believe it.

BRONWYN HERBERT: What triggered him, do you think?

STEPHEN NULGITT: I wouldn't have a clue. You know, I just - I think when you a hold a lot of things in - and that's the worst thing about it - you a hold a lot of things in and you don't talk to anyone, it just builds up into depression and anger.

The best thing to do is talk to someone you trust, talk to someone you know.

BRONWYN HERBERT: The stump of the tree where he was found hanging is a tragic reminder.

STEPHEN NULGITT: And we chopped this tree down just with an axe, (inaudible) down. And my uncle came with a chainsaw and just cleaned it all up, because, like, it kept affecting my mother.

BRONWYN HERBERT: Over the next few months, more people took their own lives. One teenage boy killed himself after arguing with his brother over a mobile phone. A 20-year-old man took his own life after his partner locked him out because he was drunk and violent.

And a young woman fled from a party after a fight with her boyfriend, then ended her life.

MICHAEL OGILVIE, SUICIDE RESPONSE WORKER: Girlfriends and boyfriends fighting. Yeah, it's just that sort of stuff that affects them and just in the capacity where they aren't able to cope at that time.

BRONWYN HERBERT: A stand-by suicide response worker has funding for a year to work with Mowanjum's grieving families.

MICHAEL OGILVIE: A lot of 'em are just there trying to work through what and why it happened and the problem at that time. When we come in, we're just wholly focused on the family and supporting that young person.

BRONWYN HERBERT: On top of the recent deaths, there have been plenty of close calls. Health workers in Derby have confirmed that more than 40 people have been admitted into hospital in the past year for self-harm, attempting hanging and overdose.

Community director Eddie Bear invited 7.30 to visit Mowanjum to try and understand why there's been so much tragedy in such a small place. He wants to rid his community from the scourge of suicide and for the nation to take notice.

EDDIE BEAR, MOWANJUM DIRECTOR: Everybody's more or less related, you know. And as soon as we lose somebody, everybody feel the hurt and feel the pain. We all go through it.

BRONWYN HERBERT: He says he only just saved his grandson from taking his own life.

EDDIE BEAR: I got a grandson, you know, he take off into the scrub, but I follow him and have a talk with him, sit with him right there.

You don't sorta fdo that, he just go there, sit there. And you sorta talk to him and tell him, "You got a life, you know? Life to live yet.

You're only young bloke." Keep talking to him, you know. And he just sat and the (inaudible) was hangin' already on the tree but was just sittin' down.

BRONWYN HERBERT: Like many remote communities, poverty, a lack of work and children not attending school are big issues.

EDDIE BEAR: Angelo. Come here. Why are you not in school? Don't you like school?

ANGELO: No.

EDDIE BEAR: No? Why? You gotta be in school. That's how you learn. You learn to read and write.

BRONWYN HERBERT: We find Austin Nandoo, a sixth grade student with not a lot to do.

AUSTIN NANDOO, STUDENT: I only miss out today 'cause I got up late and I might go tomorrow.

BRONWYN HERBERT: It's clear school isn't on his mind, but the 13-year-old has been thinking about his future.

AUSTIN NANDOO: I want to get a job to work, um, in the police station. ... 'Cause stop people for drinking and help take care of your kids and take care of your culture and your families.

BRONWYN HERBERT: Do you think drinking's a big problem?

AUSTIN NANDOO: Yes. Yes, it causes lots of problem.

BRONWYN HERBERT: What do you mean by that?

AUSTIN NANDOO: Like, when you're drunk, you talk silly, smart, and other person, they talk back and they say, "You want a fight?," and they say, "Yeah?," and they start fighting and then next day they carry the fight on. On and on.

BRONWYN HERBERT: No work prospects have left many with more time for drinking. Leaders say cuts to the Community Development Employment Program three years ago left 100 people doing nothing.

EDDIE BEAR: We sorta had people working and all that, you know, and, yeah. And when that thing left, we had more drinking and all that, more alcohol involved.

BRONWYN HERBERT: There's no lack of support or resources from both state and federal government agencies, but community leaders say there's no co-ordination between them.

STEVE AUSTIN, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, MOWANJUM COMMUNITY: We probably have somewhere in the vicinity of 50 service providers come inside the community. Now, it's all uncoordinated. There's no uniform about it.

Each provider comes in doing their own thing. And, you know, when you look around and you see, you know, children still not going to school and that, you know, surely there's an agency that's responsible for this.

BRONWYN HERBERT: Isn't it the parents that are accountable for the kids not going to school, not a government agency?

STEVE AUSTIN: Well, you know, if that family structure's breaking down, though, isn't there a government agency to help 'em out?

Children not going to school, there could be a wide range of issues like they may not have got to sleep that night, they may not have clean clothes to wear to school.

BRONWYN HERBERT: Mowanjum's leaders are taking one step to try an end the despair that's gripped their community by getting more people into work.

They've spent a million dollars transforming the dysfunctional community-owned pastoral lease into a commercial cattle operation. A dozen Mowanjum men are now employed to build new stockyards.

JASON RUSS, MOWANJUM STATION: If we can save one life, that's our goal. Away from what's been happening, the alcohol. The - it's a cycle that they're in. They need to get out of it.

BRONWYN HERBERT: Trying to create hope for the next generation and for teenagers like Austin Nandoo.

AUSTIN NANDOO: I just want everybody to be nice and kind and happy.

BRONWYN HERBERT: Are you happy?

AUSTIN NANDOO: Yeah.

LEIGH SALES: A lovely boy. Today the Western Australian Government announced half a million dollars in funding for community-led suicide prevention in Derby and Mowanjum.

Read the WA Health Minister's statement, and you can also read responses to our story from the office of the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, the WA Mental Health Commission, the WA Country Health Service, and Boab Health Services.

And if you need help with depression or mental illness, you can contact Lifeline (13 11 14) or the Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800) on the numbers on our screen.

You can also see Bronwyn Herbert's photos of the country around Mowanjum on our Facebook page.