Support ‘can stem indigenous suicide epidemic’

Support ‘can stem indigenous suicide epidemic’

MAY 6, 2019

The outgoing co-ordinator of the nationwide “flying squad” of counsellors tackling the rising number of indigenous youth suicides has called for more outreach and 24-hour support services to stem the worsening crisis.

Leading suicide researcher Gerry Georgatos, who last week stepped down as co-ordinator of the National Indigenous Critical Response Service, said indigenous people didn’t have enough access to support services when they were needed.

The number of indigenous people taking their own lives continues to soar, with 56 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders taking their own lives this year — more than half under the age of 25.

Latest figures show that, as of last Friday, 14 of the 56 indigenous deaths were children under 18, including two 12-year-olds — giving Australia one of the highest rates of child suicide in the world. There were 180 indigenous suicides in Australia last year, a third of them children.

Mr Georgatos, who is establishing a suicide prevention program, said state and federal governments had failed to prioritise youth suicide prevention and the network of existing counselling services was overwhelmed.

“What is lacking in this country is that we haven’t genuinely prioritised youth suicide prevention, our response has been minimalist, piecemeal and sometimes lacks the expertise,’’ he said. “Services such as Headspace need to exist but they need to be rolled out further. These services are overwhelmed. We need more 24-hour phone and outreach services that go into public housing and remote communities.’’

Mr Georgatos said the National Indigenous Critical Response Service, formed in 2015 with federal funding and which provides on-the-ground counselling and support for grieving relatives, proved that targeted counselling was able to prevent suicides.

The “flying squad” had counselled and provided support services to 300 grieving families who had lost a member to suicide in the past three years, with no relative subsequently taking their own life despite evidence showing they were more at risk. “The success comes down to recurring visits by our people, to being available on the phone at any time, not just in scheduled 15-minute sessions,’’ he said. “There are children we have kept alive because we were, and are, there for them.”

Mr Georgatos has worked with families who have lost children to suicide as young as nine, and with children “who have attempted as young as six”.

“It should be steadfastly unimaginable that a six-year-old can contemplate ending their life but it’s the grim reality and our political and moral obligations should be to authentically prioritise and abate this crisis,” he said.

While indigenous children make up about 5 per cent of the overall child population in Australia, this year they account for almost 40 per cent of suicides by Australians under 18.

Mr Georgatos said his research showed almost all of the suicides were among indigenous Australians below the poverty line.

“Poverty kills. Domestic violence, sexual abuse, bullying, substance misuse, mental unwellness, are many times more likely for those experiencing chronic poverty than for people living in relative affluence,’’ he said.

Both Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten have acknowledged the worsening problem of indigenous youth suicide during the federal election campaign.

Labor has announced a $115 million plan to improve indigenous health, which includes a $29.6m boost to services to improve mental health and prevent youth suicide. The Coalition announced $42m for youth and indigenous mental health, including $12.5m to “make mental health services more effective for indigenous people’’.

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