There is no time to waste in tackling the unacceptably high rate of suicide among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children Megan Mitchell, Australia’s inaugural National Children’s Commissioner, has said.
Suicide is the leading cause of death for Australian five to 17-year-olds with one child a week taking their own lives Ms Mitchell told the 2016 National Suicide Prevention Conference in Canberra on Monday. “[Another] 50 to 60 children are admitted to hospital for self-harm each week.”
Suicide and self-harming rates among Indigenous children were significantly worse again.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people comprise around three per cent of Australia’s population yet they account for 28.1 per cent of all recorded deaths in children under 18,” Ms Mitchell said. “[They] accounted for 80 per cent of all deaths in the four to 11-year age range.”
While “suicide clusters” were difficult to document they do exist in Indigenous communities.
“In the case of [indigenous] children and young people death due to intentional self-harm is indeed more likely to occur in clusters,” she said.
“It is probable these children and young people were exposed to multiple sources of risk. Exposure to other suicides and self-harming in their communities heightens this pre-existing risk profile.”
The conference, which continues on Tuesday, was told witnessing domestic violence and suffering sexual abuse and physical assault frequently drove young people of all backgrounds to self-harm or suicide.
“Approximately 1.4 million men and women experienced physical violence before the age of 15 [according to the 2012 Australian Bureau of Statistics Personal Safety Survey],” Ms Mitchell said.
“600,000 experienced sexual abuse where the perpetrator was a family member. ABS victims of crime data for 2010-2013 revealed there were 14,048 child victims of physical assaults and 12,073 child victims of sexual assault where the perpetrator was a family member.”
Witnessing family and domestic violence was, in itself, child abuse.
“Children’s involvement in domestic violence is not peripheral,” Ms Mitchell said. “It is being a victim of violence in itself and needs to be recognised as such.”
With domestic violence in Indigenous communities running at more than 30 times that of the non-Indigenous community, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children faced a high level of risk.
This was further exacerbated by other pressures including unemployment, endemic racism, poverty and alcohol and drug abuse.
Acknowledging and addressing racism and discrimination was high on the list of Ms Mitchell’s recommendations.
Making sure hospitals and health services delivered “culturally appropriate” responses to at risk Indigenous children was also vital.
Ms Mitchell said it was time to talk to young people about their mental health, including suicidal and self-harming behaviour.
“[This] does not have a negative effect,” she said. “It is possible to speak to children – carefully obviously – about what worries them, their thoughts of self-harm and what would help them,” she said.
“We need to listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and, in particular, to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.”
This article first appeared on ‘Brisbane Times’ on 25 July 2016.