Suicides continue in the Kimberley with communities waiting for the Government to act

Suicide among young Frist Nation people in West Australia’s Kimberly is an epidemic, made all the worse by ongoing government neglect. Recommendations from a coronial inquiry have not been implemented yet. This is a crisis deeply rooted in the history of marginalisation, and sense of hopelessness faced by the dispossessed. Claire Moodie and Erin Parke (ABC Kimberley 29 February 2020) write about how this affects the families and communities of those who have died. Everyone should read this. Here is a crisis crying out for something to be done about it.

As suicides continue to devastate families in the Kimberley, there is concern that the State Government is being too slow to act.

“I don’t know why the Government is taking so long in helping,” said Marianne Skeen, a health worker from the Halls Creek area.

“To have healthy kids who suddenly decide they don’t want to live anymore … that’s very, very distressing.”

It has been more than a year since State Coroner Ros Fogliani made an “urgent” call for action after investigating the deaths of more than a dozen Indigenous people, some as young as 10.

While service providers have been waiting for action, there have been at least another six suicides, including two cases involving teenage girls at the Balgo community.

Photo by Claire Moody: Collette Cox has lost a son and a daughter to suicide

Health Minister Roger Cook told the ABC this week that the Government’s response would be released in the coming weeks.

“We take these matters extremely seriously, and we are committed to a response that is meaningful and comprehensive,” he said in a statement.

“It’s crucial that we get this right.”

Despite huge efforts by service providers, suicide has been a persistent tragedy across the Kimberley for years.

There have been two major coronial inquiries into multiple suicides since Broome mother Collette Cox lost the first of two children in 2005.

And she knows of another 20 families in the town who are suffering from the grief that comes from losing a child and not knowing why.

“You think you’ve been a bad mother, that’s what I thought,” she said.

“I call it poison, because you will never know why they did it.”

Photo from Collette Cox: Nathalia Cox was an apprentice chef at the Argyle diamond mine

Ms Cox’s daughter Nathalia, 20, was an apprentice chef at a Kimberley mine when she took her own life in 2005. Three years later, her son Warrick, 21, died.

She said both of them were happy young people who showed no signs of being suicidal.

“He was a happy boy, really happy boy, we were really close together.

“He always woke me up when he came home, but he didn’t this night. I found him in the morning.”

Friends, her faith and her five other children kept Ms Cox going through some tough times, when she hid her grief from the outside world.

“I never used to talk about it, then I thought, ‘I have to heal myself’.”

Photo by Emily Jane Smith: The communities are waiting for the Government’s response to the coroner’s report

Twelve years later, Ms Cox is speaking about her experience, hoping it will help other struggling families.

She said she was worried about a trend of even younger Indigenous people in the Kimberley choosing to end their lives.

“I’d like to see all the people working together in the community, and all the organisations put their heads together and beat this thing.”

Photo by Erin Parke: Marianne Skeen says she’s concerned there is a “copycat” element in the high rate of suicides

There are growing concerns too about signs that suicide is becoming normalised across the Kimberley’s towns and communities.

Ms Skeen said young people were now using it flippantly as a casual threat.

“I’ve actually heard young teenagers say to their parents or grandparents, you know, ‘Give me money or something or I’m going to go over there, I’ll show you mob, I’m going to kill myself’,” she said.

Another Broome mother, Isabella, who lost her son Tamati 10 years ago, said she would like to see more education for parents and communities to help them recognise early signals.

She said her son was a gentle giant, a deep thinker with a beautiful nature who still gave her hugs up until the age of 21.

Photo by Claire Moodie: Isabella says her son Tamati was a gentle giant who inspired everyone around him

“He was very loving, always wanted to show you his affection, and he’d say, ‘I love you; I love you; I love you’,” she said.

“One day, he just changed. He went a lot quieter.

“Nothing was sacred between us, we talked about everything and anything, but he wouldn’t talk about it.”

Every time Isabella hears of another suicide, it brings back the pain of losing Tamati.

“It affects me in the fact that another life has been taken, another family is suffering, and the parents are going through what I’ve been through,” she said.

“I have spoken to other mothers about things and it puts me in a position where I can understand where they are coming from.

“I find that if I am helping them, or they are helping me, it’s a good thing.

“As long as I walk this Earth, I will never find closure — that void is always there, until you leave this planet.”

Photo by Claire Moodie: The Government expects to release its response in the coming weeks

In her report, Ms Fogliani said the situation was “dire” and government-run suicide-prevention programs were too often retrofitted to work in Indigenous communities and needed to be more culturally relevant.

The coroner, who made 42 recommendations, said the deaths she investigated had been shaped by “the crushing effects of intergenerational trauma”.

The Government said it had been engaging with key stakeholders, especially Aboriginal people and organisations, since the report was handed down in February 2019.

Youth wellbeing engagement workshops have been held in Broome and Kununurra, with 150 people from communities and organisations attending.

“Most importantly, these workshops featured significant participation from young Aboriginal leaders from the region who shared their views on what is needed to address youth suicide and promote youth wellbeing in the Kimberley,” Mr Cook said.

The Government said its 2019-20 budget included numerous measures to improve Aboriginal well being and support communities.

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