Russell Skelton | The Age | February 11, 2012
IT WAS a seemingly routine day in a thriving Arnhem Land township located on a bay facing the sparkling Arafura Sea. Northern Territory MP Marion Scrymgour had flown to the unnamed Aboriginal and islander community of 2000 to meet constituents, listen to grievances, and relay them to the powers that be in Darwin. ''I was walking from the council office to the health clinic when I saw all these people running, screaming and calling out.''
She stopped a panicked passer-by to ask what had happened and was answered by a swift gesture: a hand passing across the neck. ''It did not dawn on me at first what that gesture meant. Then somebody from the clinic said a girl had hanged herself. When I heard that she was 11, I thought, what is happening to our people and families? What is it that leads a young person to give up all hope and see no alternative in life but to leave?''
Flown by air ambulance to Darwin, the girl died in hospital after life support was turned off.
The circumstances of her death remain a mystery for most. Police requested that details not be publicised and the Coroner is yet to publish a finding - he may never do so, because not all suicides in the territory are subject to coronial investigation. Police reports are often accepted at face value and passed onto grieving families.
Scrymgour, who says she was told that the girl's desperate final act had had something to do with bullying, believes there is an urgent need for much more research into the territory's horrendous number of indigenous suicides. ''There had been a lot of bullying at school, but there is nothing cultural about a kid being bullied. That is an issue that can and should be dealt with.''
The shocking fact remains that more young girls are killing themselves than ever before in the Northern Territory. It is almost impossible to put an accurate figure on the precise number suiciding because of a time lag in reporting the deaths, but no one disputes figures complied in the NT Child Death and Prevention Committee annual report, showing that territory Aboriginal children are 3.5 times more likely to die during childhood than non-Aboriginal children.
Australian Bureau of Statistics figures are dated, but in a two-year period to 2008, 15 child deaths resulted from intentional self-harm. (Researchers believe the statistics, which are out of date when published, underestimate the numbers by as much as 16 per cent.) The figures do not include young people over 17. Three 20-year-olds hanged themselves in a suicide pact in Darwin six months ago after posting their intentions on Facebook. Police withheld the incident from the media out of fear it might encourage others.
Gary Robinson, associate professor with the Menzies School of Health Research, says there has been a rising number of child and adolescent deaths by hanging, the vast majority classified as suicide. ''The rate jumps around a lot from year to year and moves around the territory in clusters.''
Clusters occur in East Arnhem, Katherine and central Australia around Alice Springs. Robinson says there is a compelling argument that a suicide register similar to one in Queensland should be set up to accurately record deaths and provide raw data for meaningful research.
Independent analysis by the Children's Commissioner has found that over a recent four-year period, 62 children under the age of 17 died from ''external causes''. About one-third were classified as intentional self-harm or ''accidental threats to breathing''.
What deeply troubles Scrymgour is also the magnitude of ongoing and profound trauma for communities. The young teacher who cut the girl down required counselling, schoolmates and family were left grief stricken and frightened. Sorry business brought the community to a standstill. There were fears that publicity may encourage copycat behaviour.
It was at that point that the former deputy chief minister decided to press for a parliamentary inquiry to investigate all aspects of youth suicide, including the reliability of data and investigations, and the effectiveness of programs and government strategies - territory and federal.
''There are young people killing themselves and I had to ask just what are we doing? Are we so immune as a nation that we don't want to talk about it, to keep it away from public view? There must to be a national response. Millions have been spent on the emergency intervention, but it has changed little in these young lives.''
The six-member parliamentary inquiry, which has received little publicity outside the territory, will report next month. It has heard evidence from a diverse range of experts and organisations, including Dr Howard Bath - the outspoken Children's Commissioner who exposed widespread dysfunction in child protection services - the Menzies Institute and Dr Colin Tatz, who has spent 22 years researching youth suicide.
While the causes of child suicide can be difficult to isolate and are complicated by factors such as overcrowding, drug and alcohol dependency, Bath believes the psychologically devastating impact of domestic violence, now at record levels in the territory, is a big factor. ''I am concerned, as the commissioner, about children who are frequently exposed to violence in the home or in the immediate family,'' he says.
Bath, who spoke to The Saturday Age last week after testifying before the committee, noted the significant increase in the number of girls committing suicide. ''Unfortunately, now some 40 per cent of young people have been girls [in 1980, it was zero], and in no other jurisdiction do as many females attempt suicide.''
He says developmental research shows that children are profoundly affected by violence in the home and community. ''Some of the kids are traumatised, some act out the violence, some disengage mentally as a way of coping. Others adopt violence as a way of life because they think after living with it that it is normal, it is what you do.''
To emphasise the point, Bath points to a shocking increase in violent assaults on indigenous women across the territory. Figures produced by the federal government's recent intervention evaluation report confirm that violence against women is a massive and continuing problem. Since 2000, the number of Aboriginal women admitted to hospital as a result of violence has doubled. According to the monitoring report, there has been an 84 per cent increase in domestic violence incidents reported by police - many alcohol related - with the number last year reaching almost 3000.
Bath believes the domestic violence epidemic has been significantly understated because the statistics on hospital admissions are only taken from the territory's five major hospitals and not from the scores of health clinics located in much smaller communities.
''The figures on hospitalisation are about as hard as you can get. It is horrific because everybody knows most people who are victims of domestic violence don't report it, whether they are indigenous or non-indigenous, and deal with the injuries themselves. Some women don't report violence out of fear children may be removed.''
FIVE years ago the languid tropical Tiwi Islands, with its obsession with football and its connections to the Essendon and Bulldogs AFL clubs, was widely referred to as the suicide capital of the world.
Just a 20-minute flight from Darwin, the community of 1700 including two police officers was wrestling with an epidemic of young men taking their lives by jumping onto or hanging themselves from power lines. The last suicide was more than 12 months ago.
Today, Tiwi is a community living on the edge, ever vigilant, watching out for the next person who may run out of hope or succumb to despair. Steel caps have been placed around power poles. When Alan Hudson, the CEO of the Tiwi Shire Council, and councillors including Manny Rioli and the mayor Lynette De Santis testified before the parliamentary inquiry, they described a community in crisis, living with the constant fear that any day another talented young person may be lost.
Tiwi communities are not without hope or even effective programs, but illegal gambling, cannabis addiction and alcohol abuse are entrenched.
On a lazy Saturday afternoon when The Saturday Age visited the township of Wurrumiyanga on Bathurst Island, dozens of card games involving scores of players, including young children, were under way. Thousands of dollars can be won and lost in a few hours, leaving families without money for food. Even with the quarantining of welfare payments, gamblers find a way to rort the system by trading food for cash. Councillors say the two police officers are powerless to stop the illegal gambling because so many people are involved. A recent council meeting voted to enforce bans on gambling while a big card game took place outside.
The police focus has been on stopping the flow of ''ganja'' into the community, with recent raids by the drug squad.It is not garden-variety marijuana, but powerful hydroponic cannabis that leads to chronic addiction, psychotic episodes and serious depression when the supply runs out. According to Hudson and the councillors, some 80 per cent of the community are smoking the drug, and sourcing it can be obsessive. Kids roam the streets in the early hours of the morning trying to score, stealing if they have to. A tiny plastic bag costs about $30.
Kevin Doolan, the co-ordinator of the community's youth diversion and development programs, says ganja is an insidious drug. ''People don't know they are hooked until they don't have it and then they will do anything to get it.''
The drug has been a factor in a number of suicides with young people threatening to kill themselves if their parents don't get money to buy it. ''A lot of people say they are going to kill themselves, and that goes up and down and depends on whether a person has enough money to score. A lot of people sell dope; it's a way to make money. When there is no ganja, people can get violent and sniff petrol.''
Hudson says there has not been a suicide for 15 months but there have been enough attempts to keep the community on high alert. Those who threaten violence to themselves or others are intensively counselled by relatives. When a person loiters around a power pole, the community is vigilant. When an angry dispute flares in a home, people are taken to the beach to cool off. Parents are taught not to threaten suicide as a way of keeping children in line because children come to see it as the ultimate threat.
Robinson, who has conducted extensive research with the Menzies Institute on the Tiwi Islands, says anecdotally there is a correlation between ganja and suicide. ''You get a sense that young people are being driven by ganja. It is a major driver for behaviour.''
The institute's effective Let's Start program to encourage better parenting and family relationships found children as young as four had threatened suicide, suggesting behaviour had been modelled by parents.
But there are other factors, too. At-risk children caught up in the child protection system figure in the suicide statistics, and a particularly vulnerable group are school-leavers. When children leave the predictable structure of school, Robinson says, they can ''come adrift'' and easily slip into drug taking. Bullying can come into play through Facebook and other social media prevalent in even the most remote communities. It is also when young girls become sexually active and are exposed to ganja. Suicide can result from love conflict, a reprimand from a parent, assault or worse.
It is not clear yet what recommendations the NT parliamentary committee of inquiry will make when it reports next month, although it seems certain - given the weight of evidence - that a suicide register to facilitate research will be high on the list. Support for schools, including the greater adoption of the federally funded Mind Matters program has also been enthusiastically discussed by the bipartisan committee that includes former policeman and Country Liberal MP Peter Styles.
For Scrymgour, the independent Labor member for Arafura, who also chairs the inquiry, there are serious flaws in the system with hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on the emergency intervention and much-needed housing, but haphazard co-ordination of programs aimed at domestic violence, suicide and drug abuse. She believes Aboriginal families have lost confidence in the system and see no point in speaking out.
As one Tiwi councillor put it to the inquiry: ''It is mind boggling the amount of money going into indigenous funding, but nothing is changing. We need law and order above all else.''
Scrymgour sums it up this way: ''Are we going to remain immune to the scale of the tragedy, keep it from public view, or are we going to devise a thoroughly co-ordinated and properly funded national response? There is something shockingly wrong when a young girl feels she has no alternative but to toss a rope over a tree.''