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Suicide in Australia

CHAIR —Welcome. I understand you have been given information on parliamentary privilege and protection of witnesses and evidence. I invite you to make an opening statement and then we will ask you some questions.

Mr Kickett —I understand the terms of reference for this are related to the broader community in relation to suicide, and I am here to talk about Aboriginal suicides particularly in the southern part of this state. We have had spates of suicides happening. There were a number of suicides in the Narrogin and a number of younger people suicided in Albany. Most of the Narrogin suicides happened in 2008. There was a spate of them in the first six months when around four suicides happened within six months. But, for the record, that year we experienced about eight suicides.

Senator MOORE —Were all of them males?

Mr Kickett —All of them were males. In Albany they were females around the ages of 14 or 15 years old and I think they happened in 2009. I was with the Aboriginal Health Council of Western Australia as the chief executive officer for 2008-09 and it was in that capacity that I was called into Narrogin and Albany to see what we could do. We went to the state government for funding and were unsuccessful at first. We then went to Oxfam Australia and they provided around $50,000 to do work in Narrogin in 2008. I think we received that funding in June 2008.

We were able to employ a psychologist named Darryl Henry to do work with the families. He went and initially held a meeting with at least four families who had lost either sons or grandsons in 2008. He explained to them what was happening in relation to suicides and made them more aware of what was happening. I think they really appreciated that. They asked him to go back, so he went back and provided counselling support to them and introduced a model that he had developed around suicide prevention. He invited strong members of the families to come together to work with him. He was able to pay them for three or four hours per week to work with him to strengthen the families from the inside. So he worked with those families and in fact the people that he trained actually got jobs later on.

I think probably due to that work the suicides dropped off. We had one suicide after that, but that happened in Perth. The parents lived in Narrogin but the young man was living in Perth. There were a number of people at risk and he was able to pull together the family members to form a team to provide a 24-hour watch for those at risk and to work with the police. I think the police really appreciated that. Then in late 2008 a request was made from the community members because they had formed a reference group and they had also been talking to a local committee made up of government department representatives in Narrogin called the intra-agency group. So they all got together and Kim Hames was invited up to Narrogin. He went along with the new mental health minister for the state, Minister Jacobs, and those ministers were asked to establish a men’s crisis centre in Narrogin.

What the department did, through the director-general, Peter Flett—he is no longer there now; Kim Snowball has taken over—was agree to provide some funding for the fitting-out of a house that was made available by the state Housing and Works Department for a crisis centre. I think Peter made available $36,000 for it to be fitted out. But there was no real understanding by the department of what was needed, so nothing happened. At some point, because of the shortage of housing in Narrogin, the community agreed that it be handed back to be used for accommodation for a family in crisis. So nothing further has happened in relation to a men’s crisis centre.

Oxfam have since extended their funding for 2009 and through to June this year. They have also asked Darryl Henry to support Albany, so he has gone to Albany and met with the women and others down there and they are inviting him back to run some counselling sessions. What he has been doing is nothing new. The kind of model he has introduced to strengthen families from the inside has been a part of discussions at the national level. It is about taking a social and emotional wellbeing approach; a community development form is what I call it. It is empowering the people to take control over their own situations, and through that process the families have become strengthened. They are still facing a huge battle in relation to some of the underlying symptoms, if you like, that come with these suicide attempts. The use of drugs and alcohol, for example, is rife in Narrogin and in other towns in the south as well. Some members of families are involved in carrying and delivering drugs to Narrogin, and I imagine that would be the case in Albany.

The effect of drugs has been significant in suicides, I understand from a report from one of the mothers. That was in a newspaper report. She believed the use of ice was a factor in her son’s death, that it enabled her son who suicided to be strong enough to do it. So working with families and encouraging them to work with their kids and with the service providers so that they access the services that are there in a much more meaningful way is extremely important. The strong family members have been doing that. They have been shepherding the people who have problems into housing, for example, and into the mental health services in the town if they need that, and even to the hospital in a crisis situation. I know that the hospital emergency department have been doing a wonderful job with Aboriginal clients who go in there. There is a wonderful nurse who runs the emergency department there who has been very helpful. They have had some problems with being in the hospital, with some differences with a nurse in the mental care area, but they have been able to sort that out, I think.

I will give you an example. One of the people was put into hospital because he was suicidal. There was a family feud happening in the town and the nurse went up to the person who had tried to commit suicide and said to him, ‘So-and-so is a lovely person, isn’t she? I really, really like her.’ She was part of the opposing family. That really upset him, so he walked out of the hospital. So there is that kind of thing happening.

I think the mental health services are only just being reorganised, becoming more separate from the state health and country health services. I think that is a good thing. They have been focusing mainly on the extreme end of the spectrum. If you look at those who need mental health services, they can be measured from seven to 10, with 10 being the worst case. People in the one to six range remain in the social and emotional wellbeing area, where counselling becomes extremely important.

We know that Aboriginal people in Narrogin are very reluctant to go into an office based service. They would prefer that the workers came out to see them in their homes, but that is not a policy of the state mental health services at the moment. They had a really good worker within the department of health up there, an Aboriginal guy named Wayne Coles, who was excellent. He was called on on weekends and out of hours to assist people to go to hospital or to get support. About two months ago he broke down and now we have lost him. He has had to pull out. There is a lack of training. There is a lack of a good, solid Aboriginal employment strategy within state health and mental health services. It has not really happened.

We are now moving towards the idea that if the state government are reluctant to maintain an Aboriginal specific service in those towns for suicide prevention then we need to try another tack. So we went to the Menzies School of Health Research in Darwin and spoke to them about what possibilities existed. They were doing a mental health project, in partnership with Yothu Yindi, from an Australian research grant. That involved placing families at the centre of the research project and working through issues, and setting up partnerships with state and Commonwealth agencies, local government and other service providers in the Arnhem Land area. Out of it came clear direction for the families on how to deal with suicide prevention. Out of it came proposals for projects for funding, based on evidence that the research project brought out. They are keen to work with us in Narrogin and Albany, and other places perhaps, to put up a research proposal to the Australian Research Council to do the same for those towns. In that way, we might be able to convince the government what the right direction ought to be. Our letters, words and approaches have not really been successful because of this unwritten policy of mainstreaming the services in the south.

They were very reluctant to talk to us about Aboriginal medical services being set up or other Aboriginal-specific health services. That is why we grew the Nyungar Health Council, which we will now start to develop our plans for. We have provided three positions on the board for it and we are lucky that Fiona Stanley has agreed to sit on our board as a board member, along with perhaps a couple of other experts. We have the KEEDAC organisation in Narrogin, which is a CDEP organisation. It covers Narrogin and Northam in the wheat belt area. The Southern Aboriginal Corporation is a member, the South West Aboriginal Medical Service is a member and Derbarl Yerrigan in Perth is a member. We are talking about those organisations proceeding to set up effective primary healthcare centres within those four zones of the south so that we can have a go at Aboriginal control and leadership around health to negotiate partnerships with government and GP divisions and other service providers and try to turn these things around—to close the gap in life expectancy. We are looking at working with Fiona on a child and maternal health strategy for the Nyungar Health Council and for the south.

We want to look at establishing a brokerage service for Aboriginal people in the south so that there is brokerage support to shepherd people into accessing GP services and other service providers. We are going to work on proposals for that through the Nyungar Health Council. We have got to work out how we are going to set up these primary healthcare centres in Albany to cover the area from Albany to Katanning and then in Narrogin to cover the area from Narrogin to Northam out to Merredin. Derbarl Yerrigan and SWAMS are being very supportive. We think that in this way we can give great assistance and contribution to the government efforts to close the gap in life expectancy as well. It starts with these important priority areas like child and maternal health and mental health or suicide prevention. The statistics to date from the state health reports show that there are growing numbers of hospitalisations for mental health issues. Mental health is becoming more of a serious problem for Aboriginal people down south. I will leave it there.

Senator ADAMS —Thank you very much for your introduction. I am from Kojaneerup, so I am certainly very aware of the areas that you are talking about. How is the Nyungar Health Council funded?

Mr Kickett —We do not have any funds at the moment. We are putting together a proposal for funding.

Senator ADAMS —Are you the acting executive officer or the coordinator?

Mr Kickett —Just the coordinator.

Senator ADAMS —So you are applying to the state government, the federal government—who are you applying to for funding?

Mr Kickett —We would apply to both state and federal to see what possibilities there are.

Senator ADAMS —How far have you got? You have talked about who might be on the board but have you got your constitution set up? How far have you got in that respect?

Mr Kickett —We have been incorporated just recently.

Senator ADAMS —That is what was worrying me—whether you were an incorporated body or just where you were at. At least you have that structure sorted. With Aboriginal medical health services, are you getting any help from Bunbury at the moment?

Mr Kickett —Yes, the South West Aboriginal Medical Service provides support.

Senator ADAMS —They are actually helping in Narrogin?

Mr Kickett —They actually paid for the incorporation to happen.

CHAIR —SWAMS do not normally cover Narrogin, do they? They are extending their boundaries to help them, aren’t they?

Mr Kickett —They are in the south-west—Bunbury to the Collie area.

Senator ADAMS —So do you eventually see an Aboriginal health service being set up in the wheat belt for the Great Southern? It would not be coming out of your Nyungar Health Council. Would that be one of your aims?

Mr Kickett —We have had requests at meetings that we have attended. There was a huge community meeting. There was a medical service set up and they told the state governments representatives who were there. We have had requests from the Narrogin northern people as well. We have also had requests from the Kwinana-Rockingham area, the Mandurah area and the Midland area in relation to their own medical service. Durbell provides some coverage of those places; they have clients there as well, and they are looking at restructuring at the moment to better service those clients in those outlying areas. They are currently centrally based in Perth, Maddington and Mirrabooka, with clinics in those three areas.

Senator ADAMS —Do they have enough GPs to spread around?

Mr Kickett —They have just set up a street doctor program. That runs to Cullacabardee and out to Midland. We hope that will also run down to Kwinana for at least a one- or two-day clinic each week or fortnight.

Senator ADAMS —So that is for Aboriginal people. What about your people going to the street doctor program in Fremantle? Do they patronise that? It is probably based on that model, and that is very successful.

Mr Kickett —Yes, they have a very successful street doctor program.

Senator ADAMS —To come back to Narrogin, will your health council have any Narrogin city council involvement to help support you?

Mr Kickett —The Narrogin town council started setting up a reconciliation program in Narrogin.

Senator ADAMS —You were talking before about the house having to go back to being a family crisis place. Would the shire be able to provide facilities for your health council to get itself organised?

Mr Kickett —There is very little accommodation in Narrogin and it is all fairly tightly taken up, so it is very hard to get any accommodation. We also have the Southern Aboriginal Corporation, who own houses in Narrogin. Maybe we can have some discussions with them about providing a house, but I really think the state government needs to take some responsibility. I know that police have a lot of problems with people with mental illness or suicidal tendencies. All they do is put them in a cell. That is not very nice for people with those thoughts. Police are also part of the push in Narrogin to get a place for that to happen. I think the department of housing and work say that if proper funding is provided they would make another house available if something came up. The thought of the director-general at the time was that you could get a couple of old people to caretake the house at night or something when people were having problems. Our argument was that you need trained people in there to do that; otherwise, you are putting these old people in danger. Some of these places we have looked at have costings for running and staffing of around $400,000 if you are going to be serious about it. Otherwise it just will not work.

Senator ADAMS —Will the Nyungar Health Council have its main office here in Perth or will it be situated down in the middle of either the wheat belt or the Great Southern so that you have a presence in the area that is the problem?

Mr Kickett —The registered head office is in Bunbury. The Derbarl Yerrigan Medical Service in East Perth has made available some office space, so we work there as well. We work with the Southern Aboriginal Cooperation and KEEDAC at the Katanning Education and Training Organisation in Narrogin. They have property in Northam and in Narrogin. They own their own buildings and they have agreed to work with us to set up primary healthcare centres in those places so that we actually manage and govern Aboriginal health across Nyungar country through a Nyungar structure.

Senator ADAMS —That was the reason I was asking about the shire or the council involvement just to ensure that you were going to be centred in the particular areas where you should be. What about Katanning? Can we move down a wee bit into the Great Southern. What is your plan for Katanning?

Mr Kickett —They have a site office in Katanning. It will take some further planning and development with both the Southern Aboriginal Corporation and KEEDAC in Narrogin to develop plans for how those things will be set up—what office space they will need, what staffing they will need—and then putting that together into a proposal for funding to go to the Commonwealth and state governments.

Senator ADAMS —Are you all right for office space in Albany?

Mr Kickett —Albany has a site office down there, so they will be doing the same thing.

Senator ADAMS —So you really have a network partnership already there which will help a lot to get this off the ground?

Mr Kickett —Yes, they are very excited about setting this up. We know there have been so many funerals. Funerals from suicides have just added to the grief and trauma, because you do not expect these people to die so suddenly. It has been so difficult with the waves of trauma and grief coming out of the early deaths not just from suicides but also from other illnesses. I think the last four deaths were at extremely young ages.

Senator ADAMS —What about the high school in Narrogin? How are you coping with that at the moment?

Mr Kickett —The high school has not managed very well the issues around suicide and the impact it is having on the Aboriginal students at the Narrogin High School. There has been fighting—a teacher fighting a student and there have been brawls. It seems that Aboriginal people in Narrogin do not have a voice at the high school and have no influence. A new principal is now there who is trying to do something, but he will need a lot of help.

Senator ADAMS —My information, from talking to different people in the area, is that Narrogin as a community is coming together to try to do something rather than it being a case of perhaps nobody really being worried because it was a ‘them and us’ thing. It has been a very traumatic period, but I think it is settling down and people are really trying to come together to help in different directions.

Mr Kickett —I think what has happened is that there has been a breakdown between the two feuding families, the two groups, in Narrogin. One of the families is not going to any of the meetings that have been set up by government—the interagency group meetings, for example. They have decided to stay away because they believe that the other family is promoting the violence—the attacks on houses in the middle of the night, the continual harassment. And we know that when young people drink alcohol or are on drugs they carry that fight on, on both sides. So the remedy has not yet been reached in Narrogin.

Senator ADAMS —But there is a lot more support from all the different agencies and people around the community to try to solve the problem. Would you say that, compared with the way it was before?

Mr Kickett —Because I do not live in Narrogin I really cannot see what those people you are talking about are doing.

Senator ADAMS —Are you getting any reports back, though?

Mr Kickett —There is some goodwill from some people. You have Heidi Astbury, who is wonderful. She has helped set up a TAFE course for those high school students who were too afraid to go to high school. So they are running a TAFE course for them, separate from everything else. The churches up there are wonderful. The ladies have been doing things like catering for funerals where people have suicided. The police have been doing the best that they can in the circumstances. There are still accusations of racism in the police and unnecessary harassment of those people who are at risk by some of the families. We heard that last week. I am not sure whether you know but Michael Gooda, the new commissioner—

CHAIR —Yes, he went down—last week, wasn’t it?

Mr Kickett —Yes, he went down to Narrogin last week and I attended that meeting. So there are a lot of these complaints coming out of there. The new race relations commissioner and disabilities commissioner were there. But there is never any effective long-term strategic approach to these things in Narrogin. There are always these short-term, knee-jerk responses.

Senator FURNER —You said that the use of drugs is rife in the area, and then you went on to talk about ice. Are there any other types of drugs that are of major concern?

Mr Kickett —I know that injecting drugs, like amphetamines, are there. A couple of my nephews are on it. They have difficulty getting off it because of the urges. Darryl Henry has been trying to counsel them—teach them how to breath, and that kind of thing, to try and stay off it. We are happy that one of the boys we were talking to actually gave the drugs up. He has been off them for four months now and is looking for a job in the mines. So we are very proud of him.

Senator FURNER —It is indicated that there are families involved in the supply?

Mr Kickett —Yes, I know there are families involved in the supply. I have been told this by family members themselves.

Senator FURNER —Has that been reported to the police to follow up for investigation?

Mr Kickett —Yes. My brother Basil Kickett lives there. He reports to the police regularly of who is supplying drugs, but no action has been taken. The police say to him that they want to catch the big fish.

Senator FURNER —Can you just elaborate more on the position of strengthening the family from inside? That has certainly been an initiative that we in this committee have seen in relation to other types of issues, particularly out in Central Australia with petrol sniffing, where things are driven from the inside in the communities by the families and there have been some positive changes where that has occurred. Can you elaborate on that concept and how that should happen?

Mr Kickett —The idea is not new. It is really an old community development idea. I taught community development at Curtin university as a lecturer. It is about empowering people to fix up their own problems. Giving family members that kind of support by someone who could be a facilitator is very effective, because they start to see other ways of doing things. Through that support, they are able to talk these things through and come up with new ideas and strategies—problem-solving methods that are going to work. That has been a fairly effective.

One of the leaders down there, Priscilla Kickett—she is my niece—lost her husband through suicide and she has been working very closely with others. Two family members who experienced suicides during 2008 were involved. One was a guy called Jock Abraham. He has been working with the South West Aboriginal Medical Service in Narrogin partnering with a social worker to work with the families to deal with social problems.

Darryl Henry has been working with families through a guy called Rocky Bolton to work on the suicides in that family. That has been very effective. It is about planning what to do in relation to suicide prevention, understanding what suicide is, why it happens, what the triggers are and how you can prevent suicide.

There has also been money given to a group in Mandurah—the chamber of commerce, I think—to provide suicide prevention training in Narrogin. That is a kind of hit-and-miss thing, because it is content driven. You try to learn from content and the instructions that the trainer gives you. But the way that Darryl Henry does it is on the job, getting involved straightaway with understanding what suicides are and how they can be prevented.

It is setting up structures within families that work, like the 24-hour watch thing, about how to shepherd people into hospitals or into mental health services or to the police if they need to get support. It is about having access to Darryl Henry by telephone on a 24-hour basis to provide advice, support and follow-up. A lot of the people who have tried to commit suicide have actually been in phone contact with Darryl regularly.

CHAIR —So Darryl is continuing to be funded by Oxfam?

Mr Kickett —Yes. He can only visit Narrogin one week out of every month.

CHAIR —While I am on funding for people that are working in the community, I heard a rumour that Paul Sheridan from SWAMS had resigned or is not working for them anymore. Is that right? Will that position be replaced?

Mr Kickett —Paul was a young fellow. He had just recently become a social worker before he went to Narrogin. He was thrown in at the deep end, not having had any experience before he went to Narrogin. But he was very good and a lot of clients went to him around social problems. But he felt that he had to move on. They had trouble getting someone. We know that social workers and GPs only go to live in Perth and Bunbury. So he has left and I think they have got a consultant doing a couple of days a week in Narrogin.

CHAIR —They had trouble getting funding in the first place,

Mr Kickett —Yes.

CHAIR —And they have trouble getting staff. Do they still have the funding?

Mr Kickett —They have some funding, yes, until the end of June. I am not sure how they are going to go after that.

CHAIR —Do they still have only a man and not a woman—they did not have funding?

Mr Kickett —They have only a man, a part-time social worker, and they do not have a receptionist either.

CHAIR —So that situation is still the same?

Mr Kickett —Yes. Meanwhile, suicides have been happening elsewhere—in York, Northam and other places. There are a lot of suicides happening in Perth amongst young people. My nephew died last year because of suicide. He was 26 years old. It just goes on and on. There is no strategy in the southern area for the prevention of suicides. There is a state-wide mental health strategy—and I think $22 million of COAG funding has gone to that state strategy, but there is no funding available for Aboriginal-specific, Aboriginal community controlled suicide prevention.

Senator FURNER —We heard in Victoria from beyondblue about partnerships with business, particularly the construction industry—how they are trying to establish means for fixing this particular issue. Have there ever been any approaches to businesses in Western Australia—as an example, the mining industry—to see whether there are opportunities to assist in programs?

Mr Kickett —Employment programs, yes.

Senator FURNER —Just employment? There is nothing with regard to—

Mr Kickett —Boddington are going to have 200 Aboriginal workers at the Boddington mine, but I am not sure what is happening in the local business community in Narrogin. I see some workers employed at the local Coles shopping centre. The only information you get is from the 2006 census, but there is no drilldown into what employment is available, what jobs are available, and whether Aboriginal people can access those jobs in that area.

CHAIR —When I was in Albany last year there was a whole mob of people that had come off CDEP around Mount Barker. It was last year so it may have changed, but I am told that about 70 people had come off CDEP down there when it was canned. Do you have any information on that or any update on that?

Mr Kickett —I understand that at that time both Narrogin and Albany lost CDEP funding and had to apply with everyone else for funding for Newstart—or is it Jobstart?

CHAIR —There is Newstart and Work for the Dole.

Mr Kickett —Job services. KEEDAC have been very successful just recently. In fact, I helped them put together a proposal for the Personal Helpers and Mentors program from Jenny Macklin’s department, FaHCSIA—Indigenous affairs.

CHAIR —Community services.

Mr Kickett —Darryl Henry and his psychologist team helped KEEDAC put that together with support from the Southern Aboriginal Corporation and the Derbal Yerrigon Health Service in Perth, and they were successful and won the contract—$1.5 million over three years for five workers for the Personal Helpers and Mentors program in the Narrogin-Katanning area, so that is wonderful. KEEDAC are very excited about that. They have just got the contract and signed it and are now organising to set it up and recruit staff with Darryl Henry’s support. So that is a wonderful thing.

They were also successful in getting what I think is called the job ready program from FaHCSIA. They won that project to get people ready for jobs, so that is a good thing. I am not sure what Southern Aboriginal Corporation is doing but they own a number of houses—at least 70—throughout the south that they rent out to Aboriginal people.

CHAIR —We have run over time a bit but there were some key issues that we wanted to chase up. We had been following up with the council and they said, ‘Ask you,’ because you have been largely running the work in Narrogin. They said to ask you, and we did.

Mr Kickett —One thing I want to say is: we need to do more in the old missions. There is Roelands. There is Marribank near Katanning and Mogumber up near Moora. They are sitting there doing nothing.

Senator ADAMS —So what do you suggest?

Mr Kickett —I think we need to get some healing programs happening through those missions.

CHAIR —Do you know if anyone has applied for funding through the healing foundation?

Mr Kickett —I do not know if they have got funding out yet, have they?

CHAIR —They have set up the board—they had their issues with the board and the CEO.

Senator MOORE —They put something out—expressions of interest.

CHAIR —It may have only just gone out, so there may be some funding there.

Mr Kickett —I will have a look.

CHAIR —Without going into a whole lot of other issues, since that funding pot is there, it seems to me that that is the pot that might be able to fit the bill there.

Mr Kickett —I will give my friend Lowitja a ring—Aunty Lowitja.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. Your time and your evidence is very much appreciated.

Mr Kickett —Thanks for having me. I loved coming.

[4.23 pm]