It has been 18 months since the West Australian government vowed to improve mental health services and tackle high Indigenous suicide rates in the state’s north, but Aboriginal health advocates say nothing has changed.
- The state government last year released a plan to tackle Indigenous suicide in the region
- Veteran Aboriginal health advocates say not enough is being done to tackle Indigenous youth suicide
- There are calls for more services, education and engagement in the Kimberley
After 13 young people took their own lives in the Kimberley in less than four years, the state government promised to roll out more culturally appropriate mental health services, boost access to clinical services and engage with local Indigenous people on a pathway forward.
Months on, veteran Indigenous health worker Kathy Watson said she was still extremely concerned about the mental health of young people in the region.
In March last year the state government announced $266 million for Indigenous communities and suicide prevention, and in the latest budget $17.6 million was committed towards social and emotional wellbeing services for Aboriginal people across regional WA.
However, Ms Watson said while there was plenty of money on the table, it was not reaching the people who need it.
“[The government] just talk, talk, talk — they’re armchair jockeys. They don’t go out to the communities to talk to the grassroots people and talk in their language.”
“They should come and see first-hand; go into the Kimberley community and talk to a mental health patient and say ‘what do you want?’ [or] ‘how are you today?'”
‘Not enough oomph’
Philomena Lewis spent more than twenty years working in the healthcare sector in the Kimberley and agrees that more needs to be done to save lives.
She said mental health education should be taught in schools from a young age.
“There should be more health providers, Aboriginal health workers — they’re the frontline people — they should be out there in the school system going out to the communities and talking about these kinds of things.”
‘Gaps’ in services
Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Service mental health executive manager Kristen Orazi said there were still gaps in the mental health system, with some people waiting up to eight weeks to see a counsellor.
“We do know that people aren’t accessing the services that they want at the point in time that they want them,” she said.
“When demand gets high all of the services carry a high wait list and people are waiting and things get worse for them while they’re waiting.”
This year, the WA Country Health Service employed a psychiatrist and a nurse educator in the East Kimberley
However, Ms Orazi said more early-intervention services were crucial to helping turn things around.
Government representatives visit Broome
Jacob Smith has been working in the Kimberley to combat suicide prevention for four years and works as a social worker at Headspace.
Indigenous Affairs and Mental Health minister Stephen Dawson and Mental Health Commissioner Jennifer McGrath, who both declined to be interviewed, visited Broome recently to discuss progress made and highlight a promise to work towards developing Aboriginal suicide prevention plans in WA.
In a statement responding to questions from the ABC, a spokesperson for Mr Dawson conceded both the issue and solutions were complex, but rejected suggestions that nothing had changed.
“Suicide is a complex issue with many contributing factors,” the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson pointed to a decrease in the overall number of suicides in Western Australia as a sign progress was being made.
However, the number of Indigenous suicides recorded in WA over the same period jumped from 30 to 36.
The Minister’s spokesperson also pointed to the establishment of a “Safe Haven Cafe” at Kununurra Hospital, $5.2 million towards Kimberley NGOs for mental health, drug and alcohol treatment services as Kimberley-specific initiatives that were already taking place.
“Specialist outpatient support and prevention services, primarily for Aboriginal people, are available in Fitzroy Crossing, Wyndham and Broome,” they said.
“Long-term, we know that to make a real difference to the mental health and wellbeing of people and their communities, more focus needs to be applied to education, prevention and early intervention.”
The spokesperson said the government was continuing to support the rollout of region-specific suicide prevention plans — lead by KAMS in the Kimberley —as well as providing $17.6 million for five Aboriginal social and emotional wellbeing programs to be trialled in regional WA; including in the Kimberley.
Mr Smith said he had noticed an increased effort by the government to listen and engage with people on the ground.
“They’re coming here, they’re listening to what we’ve got to say,” he said.
“It’s just about how those relay now from the conversation and the meetings to (people) on the ground.
He said while there were some innovative and culturally appropriate programs for Indigenous young people, like the Equine Assisted Learning initiative, there was still a long way to go.
“We’re seeing good results with young people that are engaging with services [but] there’s a lot of young people that we see that are falling in the gaps,” he said.
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