Inquiry ‘powerless’ in stopping WA’s Aboriginal youth suicide epidemic

Aboriginal mental health activists have hit out at the State Government’s inquiry into youth suicide in remote communities. File photo. Photo: Glenn CampbellProminent Aboriginal mental health activists have hit out at the state government’s inquiry into youth suicide in remote communities, calling the lack of representation on the committee “shameful”.
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A standing inquiry was launched in April of this year, with the committee comprised of Dr Graham Gibson Jacobs, Rita Saffioti, Janine Freeman, Robert Johnson, Murray Cowper and Josie Farrer.

Member for Kimberley Josie Farrer is the only Aboriginal community representative on the committee.

Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation chief executive officer Robert Eggington believes the lack of diversity on the panel shows a misunderstanding about what his community needs.

Mr Eggington’s son lost his battle with drug addiction at age 27, and he has criticised the lack of support by the government’s mental health organisations.

“Our people don’t use things like Head Space and beyondblue. They need something unique to their experience,” he said.

“I found the greatest misfortune, following the loss of our son, was that there was no ‘post-vention’ program offered to us to deal with the unimaginable.

“My concern is if Aboriginal people aren’t part of the process of the Parliamentary committee hearings, it will lack a real input from the very people and communities that it is addressing.”

Suicide prevention researcher Gerry Georgatos said he also believed the lack of representation on the panel was far from ideal.

“It is a parliamentary committee and can only be comprised of parliamentarians… they could have also included Ben Wyatt, but in the end it is the voices of the communities that matter,” he said.

The inquiry has also come into question over the fact it bases its findings entirely in the Pilbara and Kimberley region.

This is despite the fact the state’s South West has the second highest Aboriginal youth suicide rate in WA, and among the nation’s highest increasing rate of suicide.

Mr Georgatos said the issue was too complicated to be addressed at the inquiry, and would require a royal commission.

“The committee will not deliver the outcomes that we need,” he said.

“Only a royal commission can achieve this… it would open up the opportunity for a predominantly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led management, investigators and researchers- unlike the Standing Committee.

“I hope that the standing inquiry will come to its senses, put people first, and call for a royal commission.”

Ms Farrer originally called for state government action following the tragic death of a 10-year-old girl in Looma.

She agrees that the inquiry may struggle to deal with the ‘national scourge’.

“I was hoping, with my original motion, to instigate a more broad based inquiry into the tragedy of suicide rates in the Kimberley that would provide for greater opportunity for local engagement,” she said.

“Unfortunately, this was not accepted by the government, and they amended my motion to provide for the current inquiry.”

Mr Eggington said it was too little, too late, for his community.

“What could a Parliamentary inquiry or Royal Commission ever do to address the historical wrongs of what has happened- and continues to happen – to Aboriginal people in this country?” he said.

“The very success of this inquiry having any relevance or credibility is to ensure that Aboriginal people are directly consulted.”

In recent years, the overall Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide rate was twice that of the non-Indigenous rate.

The criticism follows a grant announcement from the State Government on Thursday for $145,000 to suicide prevention organisations in the Kimberley.

The grant was made independently of the inquiry, and funds will be offered to mental health organisations state-wide.

The standing committee was contacted for comment.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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