It’s been 18 months since the Western Australian government promised to improve mental health services and tackle high suicide rates among natives in the north of the state, but Aboriginal health advocates say nothing has changed.
- The state government last year announced a plan to tackle indigenous suicides in the region
- Veteran Aboriginal health advocates say not enough is being done to tackle youth suicide
- There is a call for more services, education and commitment in Kimberley
The northern north of the state has some of the highest juvenile homicides in the world, and the suicide rate among Aborigines in Kimberley is twice as high as among all Native Australians.
After 13 young people took their own lives in Kimberley in less than four years, the state government promised to roll out more culturally appropriate mental health services, increase access to clinical services and engage with local indigenous peoples on a path forward.
Months later, native health worker Kathy Watson said she was still extremely concerned about the mental health of young people in the region.
Last March, the state government announced $ 266 million for indigenous communities and suicide prevention, and in the most recent budget, $ 17.6 million was set aside for social and emotional wellness services for Aborigines across regional WAs.
However, Mrs Watson said that while there was plenty of money on the table, they did not reach the people who needed it.
“[The government] just talk, talk, talk – they are armchair jockeys. They do not go out to the communities to talk to people in the grassroots and speak their language. “
“They should come and see first hand; go into the Kimberley community and talk to a mental patient and say ‘what do you want?’ [or] ‘How are you today?'”
‘Not enough oomph’
Philomena Lewis spent more than twenty years working in the health sector in Kimberley and agrees that more needs to be done to save lives.
She said mental health education should be taught in schools from a young age.
“There should be more health care providers, aboriginal health workers – they are front-line people – they should be out there in the school system, going out to the communities and talking about that kind of thing.”
‘Holes’ in services
Kristen Orazi, head of mental health at Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Service, said there were still gaps in the mental health system where some people waited up to eight weeks to see a counselor.
“We know people are not getting access to the services they want at the time they want them,” she said.
“When demand gets high, all the services have a high waiting list and people wait and things get worse for them while they wait.”
This year, the WA Country Health Service hired a psychiatrist and a nurse educator in East Kimberley
However, Ms Orazi said more early intervention services were essential to help turn things around.
Government officials visit Broome
Jacob Smith has worked in Kimberley to fight suicide prevention for four years and works as a social worker at Headspace.
Indigenous Affairs and Mental Health Minister Stephen Dawson and Mental Health Commissioner Jennifer McGrath, who both declined to be interviewed, visited Broome recently to discuss progress and highlight a pledge to work towards developing Aboriginal suicide prevention plans in WA.
In a statement responding to questions from ABC, a spokesman for Mr Dawson admitted that both the issue and the solutions were complex, but rejected proposals that nothing had changed.
“Suicide is a complex problem with many contributing factors,” the spokesman said.
The spokesman pointed to a drop in the total number of suicides in Western Australia as there were signs of progress.
However, the number of native suicides recorded in WA during the same period ranged from 30 to 36.
The minister’s spokesman also pointed to the creation of a “Safe Haven Cafe” at Kununurra Hospital, $ 5.2 million to Kimberley NGOs for mental health, medicine and alcohol treatment as Kimberley-specific initiatives already underway.
“Specialist outpatient support and prevention services, primarily for Aboriginal people, are available at Fitzroy Crossing, Wyndham and Broome,” they said.
“In the long run, we know that in order to make a real difference to the mental health and well-being of people and their communities, there needs to be more focus on education, prevention and early intervention.”
The spokesman said the government continues to support the rollout of region-specific suicide prevention plans — led by KAMS in Kimberley — as well as providing $ 17.6 million for five Aboriginal social and emotional wellness programs to be tested in regional WAs; including in Kimberley.
Smith said he had noticed an increased effort by the government to listen and interact with people on the ground.
“They come here, they listen to what we have to say,” he said.
“It’s just about how they now pass on from the conversation and the meetings to (people) on earth.
He said that although there were some innovative and culturally appropriate programs for indigenous youth, such as the Equine Assisted Learning initiative, there was still a long way to go.
“We are seeing good results with young people engaging in services [but] there are a lot of young people that we see falling into the holes, ”he said.