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Suicide in Northern Australia

Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia) (3.26pm)- I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister representing the Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, Senator Ludwig, to a question without notice asked by Senator Siewert today, relating to Indigenous suicide. Unfortunately, there has been a recent increase in the number of suicide deaths in Northern Australia, both in the Northern Territory, where we have had seven deaths, six of which were of people under the age of 18, and in Western Australia, my home state, where I am aware of at least two in recent weeks and three attempts by people to take their own lives. This situation needs to be dealt with urgently. I chaired the Senate inquiry into suicide in Australia, and suicide in Indigenous communities was one of the areas that we focused on and made a specific recommendation about. The recommendation was: The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth governments develop a separate suicide prevention strategy for Indigenous communities within the National Suicide Prevention Strategy. This should include programs to rapidly implement postvention services to Indigenous communities following a suicide to reduce the risk of further suicides occurring. This is why I am asking this question of the government right now. The government moved fairly quickly to implement some of the recommendations from the suicide inquiry. In fact, when it comes to governments responding to recommendations from Senate inquiries, I think it was the quickest response I have seen to date in this place.

I welcomed the $277 million that the government allocated over four years to address suicide. I think that more needs to be allocated in the future, and I look forward to the government’s formal response, which the minister has indicated will be done by 24 November— and I am very pleased to hear that, because it is within the time frame. Normally I would respect that time frame; however, in this instance, I simply cannot. We have seen and are seeing a number of suicides in Aboriginal communities, and that necessitates a much speedier response by government. Last week in estimates departmental representatives said that the government had earmarked $8.1 million of the $277 million for expenditure this year. That is a relatively small amount that is going to be spent on this issue this year.

I propose to government that, given the urgent nature of the need to intervene and to provide further resources, they (a) urgently start developing an Indigenous strategy for suicide prevention as recommended in the Senate inquiry and (b) start spending some of the money that they have earmarked for suicide prevention now. All the research shows us that clusters are a particular feature associated with suicide in Aboriginal communities. They call it ‘contagion’. I actually do not like it, but that is the official word that it is used in mental health and in dealing with suicide prevention. It is much higher in Aboriginal communities.

We know the proportion of people taking their own lives in Aboriginal communities is much higher than in the broader Australian community and we know that young men are the greatest at-risk group. We know that a suicide in an Aboriginal community may in fact lead to others unless we have urgent postvention. We also know that there is not sufficient training and there are not enough mental health workers in Aboriginal communities at this present time. It has been clearly articulated in Aboriginal communities.

Whenever you go into Aboriginal communities, it is, ‘We’ll let you know’. I have been contacted by a number of people on this issue. They are crying out for help. They need urgent resources; they need resources in these communities to start addressing the issues around suicide and to help the young people. When I asked last week in estimates about the most recent causes, the department at that stage did not have a clear idea around what some of those issues are.

It was interesting to note also—and I think this is a very important point to bear in mind—that people in Aboriginal communities have suffered more trauma incidences than virtually anybody else in Australia. They believe that this is one of the issues that needs to be dealt with. It points to one of the reasons why we need to be investing resources now.

My plea to government is as follows. you have earmarked $277 million to address suicide. One of the most pressing issues facing us right now is the number of suicides that we are seeing in Northern Australian Aboriginal communities. Please, please have a look at moving some of the funding that you have already committed to spending to start addressing this issue now. I know there are some really good programs operating. We need to be building on that.

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