Numbers tell devastating story in latest Aboriginal youth suicide inquest

coroners report

Photograph: Grant Faint/Getty Images

The Coroner’s Report

The youngest of the 13 people whose deaths formed the basis for the most recent coronial inquiry into Aboriginal youth suicides in Western Australia was just 10 years old when she took her life on 6 March 2016.

They were born between 1991 and 2006, in communities around the Kimberley region of Western Australia and in the Northern Territory. They died between 20 November 2012 and 24 March 2016 at Halls Creek, Kununurra, Broome, Wyndham and in smaller remote Aboriginal communities in between.

But it was the suicide of a 10-year-old girl in 2016 which shocked the nation and motivated state coroner Ros Fogliani to call a joint inquest in June 2017 to address why, after dozens of previous inquiries, rates of suicide among Indigenous children and young people in the Kimberley appeared to be worsening.

By some estimates, 2018 will be the worst year on record for Indigenous youth suicides. This year alone, eight Aboriginal children have taken their lives; two of them were 12-year-old girls.

But the long-awaited inquest findings, which will be handed down in Perth on Thursday, won’t include these deaths. It won’t include the names of the children, whose names have been suppressed for cultural reasons. Instead, it will refer to the children and young people by number.

And the numbers are devastating. Here are some more.

Two of the boys and one of the girls had a reported history of child sexual abuse. Four had been hospitalised as infants with failure to thrive, meaning they had fallen drastically below expected growth and weight percentiles.

Almost all had been exposed to alcohol abuse and significant domestic violence.

One boy had a full academic scholarship to leave his home community for a boarding school in Victoria. He was to leave two weeks after the date when he, without warning or any previous known self-harm attempts, took his own life a week before his 13th birthday.

Five: the number of deaths in this inquest that concern the suicide of someone aged between 10 and 13.

Forty: the number of government and non-governments reports into Aboriginal suicide in Western Australia delivered between 2002 and 2016.

Seven hundred: the number of recommendations made in those reports, most of which, according to a WA parliamentary inquiry released in November 2016, have not been fully implemented.

Eight: the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 17 and younger throughout Australia who have killed themselves so far in 2019.

That last number could be higher, said Gerry Georgatos, the coordinator of the National Indigenous Critical Response Service. He has supported the families of four more people who have attempted suicide.

“There are more attempts than ever before and more attempts by young people than ever before,” he said. “If that [coronial report] does not come back with a call for mass investment or a reallocation of funding for more outreach services, it’s going to fall as usual a long way short.”

Georgatos represents one side of the argument on suicide response, saying the driving cause is poverty and a sense of hopelessness, not a lack of connection to culture.

“We are seeing the highest suicide rates in the most culture-rich areas – the Kimberley region, the central desert region,” he said. “Poverty is the number one issue. People who live above the poverty line who are First Nations people are not taking their own lives.”

That is not to say that culture is not important – only that, in Georgatos’s argument, it is not absent.

“They have got culture … they need opportunity,” he said.

The Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre (KALACC) said that culture is the missing ingredient in previous attempts to manage the suicide crisis. There is extensive research on the role of culture healing intergenerational trauma, and extensive research on the influence of intergenerational trauma on disproportionate suicide rates.

The rate of suicide among Indigenous people in the Kimberley is three times the national Indigenous suicide rate and seven times the national non-Indigenous rate, according to a 2016 report in the Medical Journal of Australia.

Nationally, Indigenous people die from suicide at twice the rate of non-Indigenous people. Indigenous children aged five to 17 die from suicide at five times the rate of non-Indigenous children.

It was declared a “national tragedy” in a Senate inquiry into mental health in rural and remote areas, which released its final report in December.

The 2016 WA parliamentary inquiry into Indigenous suicide quoted in its introduction a scathing comment from the Telethon Kids Institute director, Professor Jonathan Carapetis, who said but for the physical and societal distance between policymakers in Perth and children killing themselves in the Kimberley it would be considered a “state emergency”.

Even when an emergency is declared – such as when the previous WA coroner, Alastair Hope, handed down a damning report on the deaths of 22 young people in the Kimberley in 2008, and again on the deaths of five young people in 2011 – reforms are either not made or not followed through.

Even specific programs intended to address Aboriginal youth suicide have been slow. The Kimberley Suicide Prevention Regional Trial will hold its first evaluation meeting on Thursday, two-and-a-half years after it was first established. A working group meeting will be held with the federal Aboriginal health minister, Ken Wyatt, at the end of the month. Those meetings have been regularly scheduled, but were only recently upgraded from a half-day to a full.

Wyatt has committed to addressing the issue. Speaking to Guardian Australia in 2017, as the first hearings to the inquest were getting under way, he said he was frustrated that there had been so many recommendations and so little action.

“What disappoints me is 10 years ago the Hope coronial inquiry was handed down, and then 10 years later we’ve having another coronial inquiry into the very same issue,” Wyatt said. “So you’ve got to ask the question: what emphasis and focus was given by various government agencies and equally our communities in addressing the issues within the recommendations?”

For help in Australia

CAPS – Talk Suicide Support Service – Free telephone and face to face support      1800 008 255

Salvation Army Care Line     1300 36 36 22

Reach Out

Headspace     Register and chat now at eheadspace, or call 1800 650 890  Headspace

Lifeline    13 11 14

Mensline Australia 1300 78 99 78 (24 hour phone counselling and referral)

Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636

Mates in Construction: 1300 642 111

QLife        1800 184 527    Phone & Chat  3.00 pm – 12.00 pm everyday

SANE Australia help

SANE Australia Helpline  –  Talk to a mental health professional (weekdays, 10 am-10 pm AEST) 1800 18 72 63

Helpline chat – Chat online with a mental health professional (weekdays 10 am-10 pm AEST)

Kids Help Line 1800 55 1800 (24 hour phone counselling)

Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 (Professional call back service referral line operates seven days a week)

Veterans Line 1800 011 046 (after hours professional telephone crisis counselling for veterans and their families



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