10-Year-Old Indigenous Girl's Suicide Was Tip Of The Iceberg, Experts Say

"The youngest suicide I’ve seen is 8 years of age."

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Suicide prevention researcher Gerry Georgatos has said Western Australia is in the midst of a "catastrophic human rights situation" following the suicide of a 10-year-old Aboriginal girl.

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"It's an abomination, moral and political or otherwise, to have Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders nine times more likely to commit suicide than their non-Indigenous counterparts," Georgatos told BuzzFeed News from the Kimberley region.

The 10-year-old girl killed herself on Sunday 6 March in the remote community of Looma in the Kimberley region of WA after becoming angry that she was not allowed to sleep over at a friend's house.

The WA minister for mental health, Helen Morton, said last week that the girl "is one of those young people where she experienced quite a significant amount of accumulated trauma and harm over those 10 years [of her life] and part of that resulted in her and her younger brother going to live with extended family members".

The Department for Child Protection (DCP) was working with the family and monitoring the girl prior to her death, but she managed to fall through the cracks.

"In hindsight," Morton said, "you can always see that more could have been done, but the Department of Child Protection and family support were providing a level of support to this family that was considered appropriate."

Georgatos said: "The further west you go on this continent the worse it gets. The arrest rates, the jailing rates, the homeless rates, acute poverty, the self-harm rates, the suicide rates. Western Australia is the mother of all those statistics."

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"Unless we push the onus for political reform, it's only going to get worse."

Georgatos is heading the federal government's $1 million Indigenous suicide critical-response unit, which was set up to curb the high rates of suicide in the Indigenous community. The program is being trialled in WA.

The timing couldn't be more significant – the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released its cause of death statistics last week, revealing a grim picture of skyrocketing self-harm rates within the Indigenous community.

The report found that the leading cause of death for Indigenous people aged between 15 and 35 is suicide, and that 1 in 4 all Indigenous suicides take place in Western Australia.

"Overall, according to the ABS, 1 in 19 of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths is a suicide," Georgatos said. "That's a staggering statistic, but myself and other researchers, we estimate it's actually higher and more than likely 1 in 10 to 1 in 12 deaths."

"The youngest suicide I've seen is 8 years of age, and I'm aware of several 9-year-olds," he said. "Just before Christmas, I came out of a community that buried three children in five days."

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"There have been several 14- and 15-year-olds who have lost their lives recently. That didn't make the news – it should have, and it should have galvanised a national response."

Georgatos said the solution to reducing the suicide rate is more commitment from federal and state governments at a grassroots level to address the high-level disadvantage.

"We've never had any government properly or adequately support communities from the ground up to the extent that they should," he said. "I've been to hundreds of homeland communities over the years and watched one government after another degrade them.

"Should a community have to beg for clean water? Should the community have to beg for the upgrade of a water pump? Should the community have to beg that its school should not be closed? Should they have to beg for power lines? That's what we actually have in this country – racialised economic inequality."

Morton has said that the state government has been successful in reducing the numbers of youth suicides over the past five years.

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"Since 2011, the number of young Aboriginal people under the age of 25 [who have] died from suicide has continued to decline," she said, but "we're a long way short of where we should be."

Last year the WA coroner investigated the suicide of an 11-year-old boy in Geraldton.

Morton said the level of trauma young Indigenous people are living with is immense.

"When young Aboriginal children are exposed to a series of harm and neglect over a longish period of time and they see other people in their family dying from suicide," she said, "it might not be as difficult for them to see [killing themselves] as another option for them to consider."

Georgatos told BuzzFeed News that if it were a non-Indigenous community there would be more outrage.

"If there were white communities living in the same conditions as a lot of these Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander communities, there would be an outcry, it would not be permissible," he said. "Kids are sometimes living in shanty towns and tent cities, I've seen it. People living under corrugated iron without electricity or water would not be permissible if it were a white community.

"It's an indictment on our nation; our policies should focus on prevention. Real prevention is to address the disparate rates born from the cesspool of dysfunction, the sense of hopelessness, the domestic violence, the filling of our jail with low-level offenders, the tsunami of poverty-related issues."

The WA coroner is launching an investigation into several youth suicides across the Kimberley region.

If you need to talk to someone, you can call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue Australia on 1300 22 4636, Anxiety UK on 08444 775 774, or Hopeline America at 1-800-784-2433.

Allan Clarke is an Indigenous Affairs Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.

Contact Allan Clarke at allan.clarke@buzzfeed.com.

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