A nation is shamed when a child sees suicide as the solution

Remote Australia is in the grip of a suicide epidemic that is taking the lives of children as young as eight years old, with Aboriginal towns in the Kimberley now suffering the highest rates of suicide in the world.

Children playing at a homeland settlement near Alice Springs
Children playing at a homeland settlement near Alice Springs

Natasha Robinson & Andrew Burrell The Australian 8 November, 2014

As the West Australian port city of Geraldton buried 11 year old Peter Little, who was found hanging from a tree in nearby bush by another child, indigenous leaders called for urgent action to address a growing crisis that will see as many as one in 12 Aboriginal deaths caused by suicide.

Figures compiled by the Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project reveal the rate of Aboriginal suicide in the Kimberley is as high as 70 deaths per 100,000 people, more than six times the national rate. The latest World Health Organisation data shows Guyana, in South America, has the highest country rate of 44 deaths per 100,000 people. Though the official rate of Aboriginal suicide in Australia is one in every 24 deaths, a researcher at the evaluation project, Gerry Georgatos, has put the figure at between one in 12 and one in 16 deaths, given the high number of suicides that are put down to other causes.

"What we have is a rising crisis and the Kimberley is sadly beginning to reach the numbers it reached in 2007, 2008 and 2009," Mr Georgatos told The Weekend Australian. "The impoverishment of remote communities has increased, we have tough sentencing regimes and mandatory jailing. One in 13 adult Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males in WA is in prison: that's the world's highest jailing rate."

As the suicide rate grows, Aboriginal leaders in the Kimberley are growing increasingly frustrated at the millions of dollars in funding for mental health research and service delivery that is being wasted on the ground.

The West Australian government has been accused of gross complacency on indigenous suicide despite the rising number of deaths and the heavy focus on the issue that sprang from the inquiries of coroner Alistair Hope, who delivered a major report in 2008 into a string of deaths in the Kimberley. Numerous summits have been held following suicide spates in remote communities in the years since.

Community leaders such as Wes Morris, who runs the award-winning Yirimam Project in the Kimberley, are labelling the state government's response to the Aboriginal suicide crisis "pathetic". Mr Morris said state governments of both political persuasions had failed to understand that "cultural wounds require cultural healing" and had continued with poorly targeted polices devised by "white fellas" that only exacerbated the problem.

The Yiriman Project was initiated by Aboriginal elders in 1997 through the Kimberley Aboriginal law and Cultural Centre. Elders take young people into the bush to help them develop a sense of their cultural heritage, which builds self-esteem and identity.

In his report on Aboriginal suicides in 2008, Mr Hope hailed the success of Yiriman in saving lives and recommended it be expanded to the entire Kimberley.

Mr Morris said yesterday this had proved impossible because the state government had refused to provide funding, despite the group's repeated applications. He said the program survived on modest funding of about $350,000 a year from the commonwealth government and private donors.

Mr Hope also recommended the government put in place a leadership structure in the Department of Indigenous Affairs "which will command the respect of other government agencies and Aboriginal people". The department's budget has only increased from $28 million to $34m in the past six years.

WA Mental Health Minister Helen Morton said the government had "demonstrated its commitment to work with Aboriginal communities" to address the issue of suicide and said the Aboriginal youth suicide rate had "significantly declined" since 2011. Ms Morton said a new suicide-prevention strategy was being developed after the expiration of the prevention strategy that ran from 2009 until last year.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda called for more to be done. "It seems to me we've almost become immune to the shock," he said. "We need to be shocked out of our complacency. We've become desensitised where we need to be outraged. I find it hard to comprehend what life must be like for a child where suicide is the only option available to them."

Aboriginal senator Nova Peris said indigenous youth suicide required urgent action. "Support programs are being slashed, child abuse reports are up 30 per cent but child abuse investigations have been cut," she said. "The juvenile justice system is in crisis and only 1 per cent of child sexual abuse reports are being substantiated. All these factors contribute to increased risks of youth suicide. The problem is being ignored."

"We are talking about an epidemic," said Tony Abbott's chief indigenous adviser, Warren Mundine. "Quite frankly, you are looking at a society in collapse. I am a father and I just cannot get it through my head that at the age of eight or nine a child can't see a future for themselves. It's unimaginable."

Geraldton community grieves as Aboriginal boy's suicide highlights prevention failures

Paige Taylor & Andrew Burrell The Australian 7 November 2014
Additional reporting: Victoria Laurie

The suicide of an 11-year-old Aboriginal boy in the West Australian port of Geraldton has plunged the local indigenous community deep into grief, six months after the state's Mental Health Commissioner warned suicide victims were getting younger and prevention strategies were not working.

Peter Little was playing with other children outside his grandparents' home on October 19 before he left the group and was found hanging from a tree soon after in a nearby patch of bush.

The Australian understands he was found by another child.

An inter-agency briefing note seen by The Australian says the boy "had a number of previously reported suicide attempts".

The West Australian Department for Child Protection would not comment on the matter yesterday, saying only that it was providing support to the family.

People who know the Little family say Peter was being raised by loving grandparents and had been living with them since around the time his parents separated. His mother and father have travelled to Geraldton to grieve with the rest of the family. Peter had been living in an inland regional town before recently moving to Geraldton. He had struggled with numeracy and literacy at school but, according to one person who knows the family, he did not seem tormented or troubled and enjoyed being with his young relatives.

Peter's funeral will be held today.

Gordon Gray, chairman of the Midwest Aboriginal Organisation Alliance and a friend of the Little family, told The Australian the community was in deep shock.

"People are just stunned and in so much pain," he said.

He said no matter what government inquiries found, the situation only worsened. "For this to happen to a little kid breaks all our hearts. We don't know where it's going to come from next," he said.

Authorities remained silent on Peter's death for more than two weeks but indigenous leaders told The Australian yesterday that it was a matter that must be discussed publicly.

"It's like the biggest secret in the world this poor kid is gone and it's all hush," one elder said.

Geraldton Mayor Ian Carpenter was not aware yesterday of Peter's death. "Oh my God, that is so terrible," he said when contacted by The Australian.

Labor's state Aboriginal affairs spokesman Ben Wyatt said areas of regional Western Australia were facing a growing youth suicide crisis.

"It's almost at the ludicrous situation where the sheer numbers are normalising young Aboriginal kids suiciding," he said.

"There is a fundamental failure at a community level where kids feel as if the only coping mechanism they have is to end their life."

In 2008, Western Australia's then coroner, Alastair Hope, criticised state government policy and a lack of leadership in indigenous affairs in his report on a spate of Aboriginal suicides in the Kimberley, including that of an 11-year-old boy.

Mr Hope recommended the government put in place a leadership structure in the Department of Indigenous Affairs "which will command the respect of other government agencies and Aboriginal people". He also recommended better co-ordination among government agencies to stem the rate of Aboriginal suicide.

In June, Mental Health Commissioner Tim Marney said suicide rates in Western Australia continued to rise and warned that victims were getting younger.

Mr Marney said it was essential to address a "steady rate" of suicides, which claimed 336 lives in Western Australia in 2012. "For the current year, the trends are showing there has been further increase in the actual number of suicides," he said. "The upward trend we've seen since 2006 is unfortunately continuing."

A suicide prevention roundtable of indigenous leaders in Perth the same month was told 45 community action plans in 250 locations had been rolled out under the state's suicide prevention strategy.

Derby based elder Lorna Hudson, who was awarded an Order of Australia in 2012 for community health work, said funerals of young people were a regular occurrence. Hot spots included Fitzroy Crossing, Derby and Halls Creek. "It's getting worse with drugs and we'll be left with no future leaders," she said. "It wasn't like that before."

Suicide awareness workshops and mental health training have been focused on the Kimberley and in a number of southwest towns where indigenous youth suicide has reached six times the national level.

Mr Marney said a network of new psychiatrists, nurses and mental health workers, many of them Aboriginal, had let to a 120 per cent increase in Aborigines accessing mental health services, a 144 per cent increase in face-to-face clinical consultations and a 44 per cent increase in those accessing community health services. But he said a worrying trend was that even younger people were seeking to take their own lives. "Anecdotal evidence that I'm getting from clinicians is that there are younger people presenting," he said.

A recent suicide case study by the Ombudsman's Office of 36 deceased children, aged between 13 and 17, found that indigenous children were over-represented. Thirteen, or 36 per cent, of the suicides were Aboriginal, although they make up only 6 per cent of the total child population.

Pat Dudgeon, chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership in Mental Health, said indigenous communities needed a "smorgasbord" of suicide prevention programs and declining suicide rates would take time. "It won't happen overnight," she said.