The monthly average of indigenous suicides in the Kimberley continues to escalate with no signs of abating, widening the suicide rate to an unprecedented eight times that of non-indigenous Australians living in WA’s north-west, a leaked report has revealed.
The draft report, funded by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and obtained by NIT, also claims that the appalling numbers may well be a dramatic underestimation of the real suicide rates now crippling indigenous communities and devastating families.
As national outrage builds over the shocking suicide last Sunday of a 10-year-old girl in the remote community of Looma, 120km south-east of Derby, the report challenges suggestions that the suicide rate in the isolated region is falling.
The Kimberley Roundtable Report also uncovers another group of vulnerable youngsters within already susceptible Aboriginal communities; those who self-harm, those who struggle with their sexuality and those re-entering their communities following jail terms.
Last week’s horrendous events in which it was revealed that the 10-year-old girl witnessed the suicide of her cousin, then 14, three years ago in another remote community in the east Kimberley, has refocused attention on what some authorities are now calling an epidemic.
The girl, who had just recently arrived in Looma with her five-year-old brother and was being looked after by an uncle and aunty, will be the subject of an expanded inquest by WA Coroner Ros Fogliani to include a number of other teenage Indigenous suicides across WA in recent months.
Looma, a “dry” community on Nyikina Mangala land whose 500-strong community is predominantly evangelical Christian, is often put up as a “model” remote community due to its relatively low crime rate and strong leadership.
Looma officer-in-charge Neville Rip told NIT the close-knit community was devastated.
“It’s tragic what has happened, there’s no other word for it. This is a strong community, but it’s hit everyone hard,” he said.
The leaked draft report is part of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project (ATSISPEP), a comprehensive national plan to evaluate what works and what doesn’t when it comes to suicide prevention programs among indigenous people. Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion is expected to release its final report midway through this year.
It makes grim reading. The report also found;
- The economic gap between white and black Australians in the Kimberley was widening, with disparities relating to extreme poverty, housing issues and homelessness worsening;
- A lack of jobs and economic opportunity directly impacted on the well-being of indigenous Australians;
- WA had 14 per cent of the country’s indigenous population, yet contributed about a quarter of the national suicide rate;
- An “increasing disconnection” between service providers and the communities they serve.
The Kimberley’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population of about 20,000 is much younger than the non-Indigenous residents, with nearly 44% aged less than 20 years old.
Overall, there are about 45,000 people in the Kimberley, which boasts the highest concentration of remote communities in the country, particularly around Fitzroy Crossing, Kununurra and on the Dampier Peninsular north of Broome.
In the major towns, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people constitute 97% of the Halls Creek shire, 76% of the Derby-West Kimberley shire, 42% of the Wyndham-East Kimberley shire and 30% of the Broome shire.
Other contributing factors to the rates have been identified in the report, including homelessness. The Kimberley has the second highest homeless rate in the nation, with some statistics suggesting 12 percent of indigenous people in the region fall into this category.
The ATSISPEP Roundtables and various community consultations have been held across the country in areas as diverse as the Shoalhaven region of NSW, Adelaide, Cairns, Mildura, and Darwin, all areas struggling with spiralling suicide rates.
Mr Scullion announced in January a spate of extra funding measures to bolster a critical response team to co-ordinate first-response service to those affected by suicide. A team is now in Looma.
There was national media attention around the issue in 2006, when 21 mainly young people took their own lives. This led to a much-publicised coronial inquiry led by then WA State Coroner Alastair Hope. Despite a raft of recommendations being introduced, little seems to have succeeded in halting the spiraling rate.