Australia

'Children are still dying': Calls for rapid action on Indigenous child suicides report

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There are calls for rapid action on recommendations from an inquest into the deaths of 13 Indigenous youths in Western Australia.

The "broad" report from the coroner into the deaths of 13 Indigenous young people in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia has "heartened" community leaders and prompted calls for the recommendations to be implemented as soon as possible.

WA coroner Ros Fogliani handed down her report into the deaths of 13 Indigenous youths that occurred in the four years until 2016. Five of the deaths involved kids aged between 10 and 15.

The report determined the deaths were shaped by inter-generational trauma and poverty, noting most of the young people had no contact with mental health services prior to their death.

File picture of State Coroner Ros Fogliani.
File picture of State Coroner Ros Fogliani.
AAP/The West Australian/Trevor Collens

'Grassroots response needed'

Rob McPhee, Deputy CEO of the Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services, said it was going to take years to tackle the complex issues that arose in the report, but action was needed.

"The issues are complex. It is not something that we can simply resolve by one program or one set of funding. It is something we need to tackle across the community with the help of the government," he told reporters outside court.

Deputy CEO of the Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services Rob McPhee.
Deputy CEO of the Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services Rob McPhee.
SBS News

He said a shift in the way major support services approach remote communities is needed to address the specific needs.

"I think we've got a lot of mainstream services trying to impose a particular model on the needs of the community. What we really need is to work with the community to understand what are the needs; and design the services to respond to the needs.

"We can't continue to impose things because an organisation simply says they're the best organisation to deliver it."

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Lack of access to services

He said this included a gap in mental health services in remote areas.

"From working on the ground, we know there is a gap in service delivery. We know it is very hard to service remote communities. It's hard to attract staff in remote areas...and we know that not everybody that takes their life necessarily has a mental health issue and that's what the coroner discussed," he added.

"But we also need people to have the services and support available if they do need them."

But he was "optimistic" the government could help act on the coroner's recommendations to help the community.

Social Justice Commissioner calls for action

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar said it was time the recommendations were implemented because "children are still dying".

“This time, there must be action. There have been more than 700 recommendations from 40 inquiries into Aboriginal youth suicide and related factors over the past 14 years and our children are still dying," she said in a statement.
 
“We need radical change to the level of support across the Kimberley and for the many families affected by suicide in communities across the region."

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Recommendation on holistic approaches welcomed

Indigenous Health Professor Pat Dudgeon at the University of Western Australia said she felt the report showed recognition to the issues that have contributed to Indigenous suicide.

"I think it's a real difference to the language I have heard previously. I thought there was recognition of all the issues that contribute to Indigenous suicide," she said.

"I think it's not only good for the Kimberley, the outcomes, but it's good for the whole country."

"To hear the recommendations about the social determinants, that holistic approaches are required," she added.

The region has some of the world's worst youth suicide rates, according to a 2016 report published in the Medical Journal of Australia.

More than 40 reports - including today's inquest - have been authored on the issue and millions of dollars injected into the region's health services over the past 15 years.

Key recommendations from the inquest:

  • Screen for foetal alcohol spectrum disorder during infant health assessments and when a child enters the child protection or justice systems for the first time
  • Restrict take away alcohol across the entire region, introduce a banned drinker register, resource police to enforce "sly grogging" regulations and provide more funding for patrols to take intoxicated people to a "safe place"
  • Extend an offer of a voluntary cashless debit card to the entire region
  • Build culturally-appropriate residential colleges for students who volunteer to be admitted with the consent of their parents and/or caregivers
  • Build a mental health facility in the East Kimberley that incorporates treatment for alcohol and drug abuse problems, and permanently base a mental health clinician in Halls Creek
  • Train child protection workers and teachers who have regular contact with Aboriginal children in suicide intervention and prevention
  • Expand the "Adopt-a-Cop" classroom program to improve the relationship between children and police, and expand a program where Aboriginal elders help conduct night patrols and speak with children on the streets
  • Introduce or continue to expand Aboriginal language classes in schools, and introduce re-engagement classrooms in primary schools to improve attendance rates
  • Consult more with Aboriginal people to "co-design" services and programs
  • Expand cultural programs including on-country trips, and develop or refurbish facilities for young people to meet and engage in activities.

If you would like to talk to someone about your mental health, here are some people ready for your call:

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