Suicide among Aboriginal children as young as 11 at alarming levels


GIRLS as young as 11 are committing suicide at an unprecedented rate in Northern Territory indigenous communities where family violence is rife.
Dr Howard Bath, the territory's outspoken Children's Commissioner, told The Saturday Age this week that girls now account for a previously unheard of 40 per cent of all suicides of children under the age of 17.

The increase in young female suicides coincides with an epidemic of marijuana use and a staggering rise in the number of territory Aboriginal women being admitted to hospital as a result of violence.
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"Aboriginal women are being hospitalised for assault at 80 times the rate of other women. It beggars belief.'' said Dr Bath. ''Exposure to violence greatly increases the risk of a person taking their life."

Describing the level of violence against women as "horrific", Dr Bath said he believed the proportion of indigenous girls committing suicide in the territory was now the highest in the Western world.

"The method chosen is usually hanging and it is a particularly lethal method, far more than an overdose," Dr Bath said.

In New South Wales, with Australia's largest indigenous population, the youth suicide rate is one young person in every 100,000. In the Northern Territory it is above 30.

Pinpointing the precise number of suicides is difficult because there is no central register and definitions vary between government agencies. But a 2011 report by the territory's child deaths and prevention committee found that over a recent four-year period, 62 children under the age of 17 died from "external causes".

About one-third were classified as intentional self-harm or "accidental threats to breathing".

Five years ago, when the Howard government launched the emergency intervention in the territory to combat systemic child abuse and neglect, the number of girls committing suicide was significantly lower. In 1980 it was zero.

Some communities have been overwhelmed by suicide. On the Tiwi Islands, a short flight from Darwin, steel spikes have been placed on power poles to stop young men and women from scaling them to hang or electrocute themselves.

From 2000 to 2005, Tiwi was known as the suicide capital of the world. The last suicide in the community was a little over 12 months ago but residents remain vigilant.

Dr Bath said: "We now have a situation in the territory where there are almost as many female as male suicides."

Dr Bath, however, is no critic of the intervention and makes no link between intervention policies and the rise in the suicide rate. He believes it is unfortunate that the "narrative down south" has been anti-intervention and not focused on effective policy outcomes.

Meanwhile, an NT all-party parliamentary committee inquiry into youth suicide has uncovered alarming incidents of unreported suicide and heard evidence from researchers claiming suicide figures in the territory were seriously understated because of imprecise data collection.

The committee appears likely to accept a recommendation from the Menzies School of Health for a register of suicide deaths to facilitate the policy response of police, government and mental health agencies.

Independent inquiries by The Saturday Age have revealed that police, the Coroner's Office and health officials have had a policy of minimally publicising suicides to avoid "copy cat" responses and "clusters" in remote communities.

In one particularly shocking incident, three 20-year-old indigenous youths and a girl hanged themselves after announcing their pact on Facebook.

In another controversial case, a man living on an out station in East Arnhem has refused to bury his son because there has been no coronial inquiry.

Committee chairwoman Marion Scrymgour said she had been aware of the need to treat suicide with sensitivity because many remote communities affected had tiny populations and the trauma had been overwhelming.

But she said excessive secrecy had resulted in a limited national debate about the impact of suicide in the territory at a time when the rates were regarded as among the world's highest.

"It is far better to talk about it, to get it out in the open, because we need to work out a national response," she said.

"Young women are hanging themselves, overdosing and attempting suicide and there is nobody to talk to. Suicide has always been regarded as a men's problem, but clearly that is no longer the case.

''Young women are taking their lives in greater numbers and we have more and more children growing up in violent situations."

Associate professor Gary Robinson, of the Menzies School of Health, said there was a compelling need for a register of suicide deaths in the territory based on similar lines to one that operated in Queensland.

He also said questions had been raised in recent years about the lack of resources available to the Coroner's Office and delays in investigations. "A separately designed database would assist research into suicide and in devising particular prevention strategies," he said.

Professor Robinson, who gave evidence to the parliamentary committee, told The Saturday Age there were links between excessive gunja (marijuana) use and bullying in recent suicide deaths, although much of the evidence had been anecdotal.

He said the more powerful forms of hydroponic gunja had produced psychotic behaviour. "The big problem is nobody keeps any data. Everything is based on impressions."

The emergency intervention followed the release of the territory's Little Children are Sacred report that identified widespread evidence of sexual abuse and neglect of children and systemic failings in child protection services and inadequate policing.

The current government of Chief Minister Paul Henderson has backed the suicide inquiry, which will deliver its findings next month.

The committee has been told suicides of young people have occurred in so-called clusters in East and West Arnhem, Katherine and central desert communities around Alice Springs.

Dr Bath disputes the fact that the spike in assaults on women is a result of crime being reported because of a greater police presence. ''The obvious fact is only a select number of communities were assigned police or extra police.''

For help or information visit beyond, call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251 or Lifeline on 131 114.