WA gov concedes ‘comprehensive reform’ crucial to address youth suicide crisis

WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt at CEDA Treasurer's Debate. Photo via Ben Wyatt's Facebook page.

The WA Government has released an initial response to the 2016 Message Stick Inquiry and the Coroner’s Inquest into Aboriginal youth suicide in the Kimberley, showing broad support for both inquiries’ recommendations.

The response outlines four general areas to address these recommendations:

  • Increased government leadership, coordination and accountability
  • Listening to, involving and empowering Aboriginal people
  • Provision of culturally based programs
  • Improved services and programs.

The Message Stick Report outlined that one quarter of suicide deaths in the Indigenous population occur in WA, even though WA only makes up 14% of the country’s Indigenous population.

For WA’s Indigenous Australians, the rate of suicide is 3.3 times higher than that of non-Indigenous Australians.

A statement from the WA Labor Government last week said the State Government accepts all 86 recommendations across both reports and that they intend to uphold their commitment to First Nations people and issues contributing to Indigenous youth suicide.

“These issues are complex and it is clear that we need to develop a comprehensive reform agenda that is informed by the community, designed by the community and driven by the community,” said WA Deputy Premier Roger Cook.

Although the statement said a “whole-of-government reform agenda” will be co-developed with Indigenous Australians, no details about what that might look like were included.

Only a rehash of the WA State Budget’s provisions for Indigenous youth well-being was included, such as funding for various community programs and plans.

“We are committed to be a Government that listens to and works with Aboriginal people to make a real difference in this area,” said Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt.

Project Director of the Centre of Best Practice in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention (CBPATSISP) Professor Pat Dudgeon welcomed the response.

“Our young people and our Elders must have the authority to act in our own best interests in partnership with all levels of government,” Professor Dudgeon said.

“Now we need to see the government reinforce those words with action and honour the expertise of our people by investing in the solutions we propose.”

While Professor Dudgeon has welcomed these broad commitments, 2018 WA Australian of the Year Dr Tracy Westerman of Indigenous Psychological Services is more sceptical.

After findings from the Coronial Inquest revealed not one child was given a mental health assessment, Dr Westerman questioned why the capacity to skill people around suicide risk assessment isn’t at the centre of any inquiries or responses to inquiry.

“If you can’t assess, you cannot prevent, you cannot treat, you cannot intervene,” Dr Westerman said.

Dr Westerman said bereaved families have been flagging lack of specialist services and intervention programs as a widespread system failure by generational governments in WA.

“You have to listen to the voices of bereaved families, in terms of the things that are going on in their communities,” Dr Westerman said.

“I don’t think this [response] has done that.”

Dr Westerman also said the WA Government needs to have completed its due diligence to find where the gaps in services are, adding she doesn’t believe they have done so in this instance.

“They aren’t focusing on early intervention, they aren’t focusing on ensuring that people are capable of screening Aboriginal kids for early stages of risk, they’re not ensuring we have specialist services in those high-risk communities,” Dr Westerman said.

Dr Westerman said the State Government now needs to step back and look at who is capable of providing culturally appropriate clinical services, upskilling a workforce to provide those ongoing services, and actually measuring whether suicide risk factors are being reduced as a result.

She said there is currently no data on what is or isn’t working to reduce rates of suicide in high risk communities.

“What’s actually missing here is the clinical expertise,” Dr Westerman said.

“You need whole systems that are capable of really good clinical service delivery.”

For Dr Westerman, she believes it is vital those assisting in high risk communities have clinical as well as cultural expertise to deliver appropriate and competent services.

“Kids, regardless of whether [they’re] black or white, deserve best practice treatments.”

By Hannah Cross

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