Florence Bolton has known all too well the pain of losing a loved one after two of her grandsons died by suicide.
A retired teacher and Goreng-Noongar elder, Mrs Bolton is a respected figure in her home town of Gnowangerup, a sheep grazing town 340 kilometres south-east of Perth in Western Australia.
After already losing her infant granddaughter in a car accident, one tragedy followed another for Mrs Bolton and her family.
“The father and the little sister went to Albany and on the way back they had an accident in the Stirling Ranges and the little girl died,” she said.
“That brought a lot of anger I suppose, [and] sadness.”
Mrs Bolton tried to support her teenaged grandson, Regan, by taking him to counselling to help process the grief of losing his sister.
“I don’t think the kids got enough counselling,” she said.
“They thought that was being degrading, [and] they didn’t want to tell their lifestyle to other people.”
Mrs Bolton said 19-year-old Regan’s grief was compounded by stress regarding an upcoming court case.
The day after driving Regan 140 kilometres to appear at the Albany Courthouse, she brought him home to Gnowangerup for the last time.
“It was the day after that he committed suicide out the back here,” Mrs Bolton said.
“If I really thought that he was going to do what he did, I would have sat with him all night, but it was raining when we came home, and I just went and saw the other kids in the room here and went to sleep.
“And the mother found him and said that he had done what he had done.”
One tragedy after another
Mrs Bolton had not yet come to terms with losing Regan when in January this year his elder brother Duane, 27, took his life in similar circumstances.
“[Duane] did the same thing down in a shed at the back of a house down the other end of town,” Mrs Bolton said.
“He must have only been gone for about half an hour when they found him.
“They couldn’t do nothing for him. He had already gone.”
Left with a house still full of grandkids and others from the community in need of a safe place to stay, Mrs Bolton said the gap in mental health services in Gnowangerup needs to be filled.
“You have to go to Albany or you have to go to Katanning,” she said.
“It’s a horrible cycle; if you haven’t got a vehicle, you have lots of problems.
“There is a definite need of some kind of mental health assistance for these young kids.”
‘All we have is each other’
Gnowangerup community leader, Robbie Miniter, has received an Order of Australia Medal for his work with Indigenous youth in the town, and said stories like Mrs Bolton’s are not uncommon in the area.
“A lot of people come to me with sad stories,” Mr Miniter said.
“Sometimes I think the sad outweigh the good.
“Depression has been something that’s been floating around these communities for a fair while.”
The Shire of Gnowangerup president, Keith House, told the ABC that there were few permanent mental health services in town, with the responsibility for identifying people in need of mental health support often falling to police and ambulance officers.
WA Country Health Services Regional Director David Naughton said multi-disciplinary health services regularly visit Gnowangerup, in addition to a local general practitioner who is the first point of contact for accessing mental health care.
He said Gnowangerup did not have the population to support its own permanent multi-disciplinary team.
“Mental health is about accessing the service,” he said.
“What we try really hard to do is make people aware of the service and we try really hard to reach into Gnowangerup and reach people in their home or the clinic or the GP practice.
“The core thing really is for people to get referred to us so we can respond in a timely way.’
But Mr Miniter said that was not enough.
“We’ve only got each other, to be honest,” he said.
“Because the bigger organisations [from outside the Gnowangerup] they do come out every now and then, but it’s through the day.
“I know they can’t be everywhere at once but when you look at it, when guys are depressed, it’s out-of-office hours. That’s why I say, all we have is each other.”
Mental health services lacking
The accessibility and quality of mental health services in remote and rural Australia is currently the focus of a nation-wide inquiry.
The Senate Community Affairs References Committee established the inquiry to investigate the higher rates of suicide, stigma and barriers to accessing mental health services in country Australia.
The Committee completed hearings in regional towns across Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
“There’s very strong reports that people in the bush aren’t accessing mental health services at the same rate as their city cousins,” Committee Chair, Senator Rachel Siewert said.
“We’ve also had quite a bit of complaint around lack of access to mental health services, and people saying not only do they not have access, but they don’t have as good services in the bush as they do in the city.”
Senator Siewert said understaffed hospital emergency departments, social stigma and a lack of clinical expertise meant services were struggling to cope with especially severe mental illness.
“[Services] are not really set up for that, especially in the bush, with people with enough training in mental illness,” she said.
“There is a lack of staff, lack of being able to attract staff to regional areas, lack of clinical expertise in terms of supervision and training, and long waiting times.”
In Kununurra, in Western Australia’s far north, the committee heard from a child psychologist about childhood trauma and the shortage of child psychologists.
Senator Stewart said the lack of services is not limited to remote and rural areas, with some regional centres being ill equipped to meet community mental health needs.
“Even in Albany, we heard that Aboriginal people are not having their needs met,” Senator Siewert said.
“There are issues around intergenerational trauma, and trauma informed practice that clearly needs to be improved.”
Senator confident improvements will be implemented
The Senate inquiry resumes in Whyalla, South Australia, today and will visit Queensland before reporting to Parliament in October.
Senator Siewert said she was confident the report’s recommendations will lead to improvements in the provision of mental health services in country Australia.
“My experience is, unless you follow them up, Government often doesn’t pay attention to recommendations,” she said.
“But the Community Affairs Committee has a good track record of following up its recommendations and pursuing recommendations.