WA suicides: Touch of hope as state mourns lost children

Andrew Burrell and Victoria Laurie The Australian 22 November 2014

Steve Williams, 14, who was buried yesterday after committing suicide

Philinka Powdrill, 18, who took her life in Fitzroy Crossing two weeks ago

At either end of Western Australia, two indigenous families buried their teenage sons yesterday.

In the Kimberley town of Kununurra, the Gerrard and Webster clans said goodbye to Owen, 15, a talented hunter who took his life in his bedroom after returning from school early and apparently showing no signs of distress.

At the same time in Wagin Town Hall, in the wheatbelt, the Williams family and friends bid farewell to Steve, 14. His teammates at the Brookton-Pingelly Panthers footy club conducted a guard of honour for the fit, slight boy they described as "a fine young player and member of our club, taken away too soon".

As the funerals took place, an investigation by The Weekend Australian revealed Western Australia was again a suicide hotspot, with at least 12 young Aborigines having committed suicide in the state this year, twice the number shown in state government data.

This month, after the suicide of 11-year-old Yamatji boy Peter Little on October 18, the West Australian government released figures that claimed to show a downturn in the number of young Aborigines taking their lives: six in the state this year compared with a high of 18 in 2011. The Barnett government's figures, said to be current to the end of September, understate the scale of the crisis. The Weekend Australian has evidence of nine suicides in the state by Aborigines under 25 since the start of September, including 18-year-old Bunuba woman Philinka Powdrill. Five were kids.

Everyone wants answers. In Geraldton where Little's death shocked the nation, Aboriginal researcher Juli Coffin's quest has led to Solid Kids, Solid Schools, an award-winning program used to counter bullying. She is seeking funding for a scientific trial on alternative forms of therapy.

An accomplished equestrian, Dr Coffin has been amazed by the impact of equine psychotherapy on Aboriginal children of Little's age or with difficult backgrounds. Even for teens who showed no signs of struggle, there were visible benefits. Just being with the horses is something Shantae Thorne, 15, looks forward to. "I noticed an amazing transformation after several sessions with one young boy who came with a lot of anger," Dr Coffin said. "Having an animal weighing 600 kilos that wants to be with him was a powerful message, - especially for a child that felt - unloved."

Dr Coffin said just sitting in a room "doesn't work for our kids".

"A lot of Aboriginal kids find it shameful to seek help for mental health problems," she said. "They go to Facebook for help and it creates more of a problem."

Shantae Thorne, 15, one of the Aboriginal children who has benefited from an equine psychotherapy program
Picture: Colin Murty

There are high hopes for her work. Community leaders are awestruck by what they say is an unremitting toll of self-harm and suicide among Aboriginal youth. In the Kimberley where police keep a tally of call-outs for self-harm and suicide threats, Aborigines, who comprise 45 per cent of the region's population, are the subjects of 94 per cent of those call-outs.

Next week, indigenous Kimberley MP Josie Farrer will fly north for another funeral - that of her sister's grandchild. The mother of a preschool child, the 18-year-old woman went missing for five days last month before she was found dead by her sister in the Warmun community.

Ms Farrer lost her own 16-year-old grandson Boyd Lyall Farrer in 2004, a turning point in her life. "He rang me and I sensed something wasn't right," she said. "He said 'I'm OK'. To this day, we never found out why he suicided."

A series of male Aboriginal suicides in the Kimberley prompted a coronial report in 2008, which found alcohol was a factor in each. Since then, drugs have become another potent influence.

Ms Farrer says she's now worried about an increasing number of suicides by women who leave behind young children.

"One of the things I pinpoint is depression," she said. "People live on the edge and they don't have enough money to pay their bills. We see fathers going to prison because of alcohol, or they drive their vehicles (without a licence). If you can't pay fines, you end up in jail and the family suffers."

In the midwest, where Little died, the latest suicide cluster has shocked even experienced mental health worker Glen Fleeton, regional communities' manager of Midwest Men's Health.

In the days either side of Little's death, 21-year-old Dylan Foley and 24-year-old Chantelle Mongoo committed suicide.

"This is an alarming human catastrophe," Mr Fleeton said. "Suicide is becoming normalised in some midwest communities."

In Halls Creek, an east Kimberley town of about 1800 people, there have been at least five suicides by young Aborigines this year - almost 30 times the national suicide rate.

An especially heartbreaking case was in January when a popular 13-year old Aboriginal boy hanged himself in his backyard.

Donna Smith, of the Halls Creek Healing Taskforce, said the boy was an excellent student. "He was always at school by 7am," she said. "He was smiling and happy. People are still hurting from that."

Ms Smith said the compounding sense of grief was leaving a permanent mark on children, some of whom might mistakenly view suicide as a means of getting attention.

"These children attend so many funerals, so a kid who is not recognised will see how another kid gets a big send-off and think 'maybe I should do that'," she said.

Yet across the Kimberley, grassroots organisations such as the Halls Creek Healing Taskforce and the Fitzroy Crossing-based Yiriman Foundation are struggling to attract government funding to stay afloat. Ms Smith's group has resorted to crowd-funding, but has raised only $1000 so far. "We are running on the smell of an oily rag," she said.

The Halls Creek Healing Taskforce hosted a large community meeting at Ningkuwum-Ngamayuwu to feed back information about the Halls Creek Healing Strategy and role of the Taskforce.

Around the time of Little's death, 18-year-old Bunuba woman Philinka Powdrill began training in a hotel kitchen in Fitzroy Crossing.

Raised by close relatives, she spent time with her nieces and friends at a sports carnival the week before she died.

"There was no sign of any problem she had," said older brother Jack Macale, who is preparing to study counselling in response to his community's needs.

Powdrill had been drinking when she arrived at her aunt's place threatening to commit suicide, apparently after arguing with a friend. "Aunty rang the police but she dashed off quickly," Mr Macale said.

Just as it was in the Little case, children found the body.

Bereaved relatives tell stories about what might have tipped the balance - an argument, an upsetting phone call, or black-on-black bullying.

The first Australian study that attempted to contextualise and quantify Aboriginal bullying was conducted in Little's hometown of Geraldton. In a three-year study, Dr Coffin and an Aboriginal-led steering committee interviewed more than 260 Aboriginal children, elders and teachers.

They found bullying, often intra-racial bullying, was serious.

"Kids are told: 'You're doing really well at school, but that's not really black is it'; 'you put your hand up for the teacher, but that's not really black either'; or 'we're going to steal a car on the weekend, and if you don't come with us, you're not really Aboriginal'," Dr Coffin said.

"You need to add that to the backpack of other things kids carry around with them - perhaps a death in the family that weekend, family feuding or alcohol problems. Kids come to school with their backpack fairly full. Sometimes it takes only a few small events to tip them over."

Bullying on social media was significant.

In Geraldton next week, Dr Coffin will help organise a celebration of Aboriginal culture in a park near where Little died. "The sadness and grief is so deep," she said, "that we're organising some entertainment in the park to bring back a positive feeling."

Additional reporting: Paige Taylor

If you are depressed or contemplating suicide, help is available at Lifeline on 131 114