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Death in the Kimberley

Russell Skelton reports on the suicide epidemic that is gripping Mowanjum, in Australia's far north west. Producer - Tom McKendrick

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CANBERRA will spend $6 million on community-based suicide prevention strategies in the Kimberley region over four years, starting with an allocation of $1.5 million.

Mental Health Minister Mark Butler told The Age he acknowledged that indigenous suicide rates in the Kimberley were the highest in the nation and agencies needed to identify and respond faster to suicide clusters.

''The real challenge is that we do not have good systems in place to deal with emergency suicide clusters,'' he said.

Mowanjum community leader Gary Umbagai at the gates of the town.

Mowanjum community leader Gary Umbagai at the gates of the town. Photo: Glenn Campbell

There will also be a review of the resources available to a two-person standby suicide response team based in Broome.

The minister said funds would also be used to set up a psychiatric hotline providing expert advice for indigenous health workers confronted with life and death cases in remote communities.

The announcement comes two weeks after The Age revealed that the tiny community of Mowanjum, near Derby, with a population of just 350, was at the heart of an extraordinary new spike in indigenous suicides across the Kimberley, recording six suicides in six months and scores of attempted suicides.

In the earlier Age report, community chief executive Steve Austin accused state and federal governments of ignoring Mowanjum's crisis by turning down applications for youth workers and failing to provide counselling for traumatised children and families.

He also said excessive drinking linked to suicides had risen sharply since the number of CDEP (Community Development Employment Projects) positions had been cut, a claim Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin denied.

In the past 12 months there have been 25 suicides in the Kimberley region, 21 in the west around Derby and Mowanjum. The number of indigenous suicides last year exceeded the number of fatalities sustained by the Australian Defence Forces in Afghanistan.

Mr Butler said he accepted the situation in Mowanjum was bad and had instructed his suicide prevention advisory council to provide advice on ways to identify suicide clusters as they emerge and to respond quickly.

But a medical practitioner who has worked in the area slammed the failure of federal and state governments to provide support for Mowanjum, saying it had no on-site counsellors or mental health staff. He said there had been 10 suicides in Mowanjum in the past 12 months, including that of a 12-year-old girl. The Derby hospital did not have sufficient staff to manage the crisis, he said.

Writing anonymously in the West Australian Medicus medical journal, he said there was an appalling disparity between Mowanjum and the nearby Curtin immigration detention centre, where full-time counsellors, psychologists, mental health nurses and a visiting psychiatrist have been employed.

''Why has there been no similar awareness of or response to the epidemic of suicide that is robbing the community so close to Curtin of so many of Australia's young people and at a much higher rate that at the detention centre?'' he wrote. ''It is time the suicide rate among young people around Derby is recognised as the medical and social emergency that it is, so support and resources so desperately needed might be mobilised.''

Meanwhile, the WA government has approved a suicide prevention plan for Derby and nearby communities, including Mowanjum. The plan, approved five days after The Age reported the crisis in Mowanjum on April 18, provides for youth programs and counsellors.

State Mental Health Minister Helen Morton said $800,000 would be spent on the Kimberley-wide community action plans and a further $9.4 million on a 14-bed mental health unit in Broome. But she said no government could work effectively to prevent suicide until communities themselves developed their own action plans.

For help or information visit beyond blue.org.au, call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251, or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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