While we know that things are not great in many remote – and not so remote – communities, this article turns my blood cold, particularly when the deaths are linked to grog, often obtained illegally, and cuts in government funding. What is the value of a young life, and what other suffering must be under the surface?

The dot point, for those wanting to bring it to the attention of SOR kids, is as Paula points out, the continuing effects of dispossession.

This article is from the April 19 issue of The Sydney Morning Herald Digital Edition. To subscribe for $4.50 a week, visit http://smh.com.au/digitaledition.

Russell Skelton

‘Sometimes you wonder if they are looking for attention. Sometimes you wonder what was lacking in their lives.

– Heather Umbagai

It came without warning, triggered by something as trivial as a teenage boy demanding that his brother hand over his mobile phone. It was the 16-year-old’s birthday and he was celebrating by drinking steadily all day, as he did most days. The tiff, really nothing more than a simple squabble between brothers, ended in the early hours of the next morning when the darkest of impulses overwhelmed the child.

An eight-year-old girl raised the alarm. She had seen the boy’s lifeless body hanging from a tree behind the church in the abandoned playground. After several hours police and emergency services arrived, conducted a brief investigation and had the body removed.

As the sun climbed into the sky, scores of children looked on in silence. Witnesses said the grieving and sobbing rolled through the tiny community of Mowanjum like a thick black cloud. In this one small place, just a 10-minute drive from the thriving mining hub of Derby in the West Kimberley, there have been six suicides in six months.

Gary Umbagai, the chairman of the Mowanjum Aboriginal Corporation, and a mine worker, despairs about the rising death toll and community dysfunction. “There is something dreadfully wrong in our community, but what can we do?” He adds that Mowanjum and Derby have the highest youth suicide rates in Australia, possibly the world. “There is a terrible crisis here but nobody in authority except the police acts as if there is a crisis.”

Mr Umbagai says he has lost count of attempted suicides. A document obtained by the Herald reveals that in four months from July last year, 18 females and 22 males were admitted to Derby hospital for self-harm , attempted hanging, overdosing and suicidal thoughts. Most cases involved indigenous people and excessive alcohol consumption. The number of young Aboriginal people taking their lives may be higher as some deaths, such as a recent road fatality, have been classified as accidental.

The Herald visited Mowanjum this month with the permission of the traditional owners and after being alerted to the community’s desperate plight by health workers troubled by what they believe is chronic official indifference.

In January, a 20-year-old surrendered his life after his partner locked him out because he was drunk and violent. In March, a 44-year-old newly unemployed mine worker hanged himself. In yet another incident, a young girl vanished into the bush only to be found days later, also the victim of an apparent uncontrollable impulse after a relationship went wrong.

Heather Umbagai, 57, Gary Umbagai’s Worra Worra mother who lost her other son Radki to suicide, says that during her childhood on the mission there was far more interaction with the bush. “When I was young it was a peaceful time. We grew up with a solid education even though we had been moved off our traditional land.”

That changed about 12 years ago when chronic drinking took hold. That led to a breakdown in traditional authority and culture . Today, she says young people are not much interested in ceremony and the Dreaming. They slip into a culture of substance abuse at the expense of education. Drinking and teenage motherhood have also compromised good parenting. “Young people have freedom of movement and old folks are afraid to discipline them because they fear they will go and commit suicide.”

A proud, perceptive woman, she says when her son took his life five years ago after he was refused the keys to the family car because he was drunk and unlicensed , a big sadness and depression followed. Her health declined, renal failure set in.

“I never had any counselling of any kind. Mental health authorities did not come out, government services did not come out. I know because I was one of the victims.”

Mrs Umbagai decided to speak to the Herald so authorities could grasp the acute trauma that has taken hold and the failure of mental heath authorities to intervene constructively.

In Mowanjum signs of trauma are everywhere. After each incident trees are cut down at the request of the victim’s families, who don’t wish to be reminded of tragedy and fear “copycat” behaviour . The small community is littered with hacked tree trunks. One young man is openly referred to as “the hangman” because of the scars around his neck. A young girl who tried to take her life on Saturday – her latest of many attempts – is watched closely. “We are deeply worried about her,” an elderly mother confided. “It is a miracle she is alive but we cannot watch her all the time.”

Mowanjum is the epicentre of an extraordinary spike in indigenous suicides across the Kimberley . In the past 12 months there have been 25 in the region – 21 in the west that includes Derby and Mowanjum. The number of “completed” indigenous suicides last year exceeded the number of Australian Defence Force fatalities in Afghanistan. In NSW, which has the largest indigenous population, the youth suicide rate is one in 100,000. In the Northern Territory, where a parliamentary inquiry was set up to investigate the causes of and responses to youth suicide, the rate is 30 deaths in 100,000. In the Kimberley, with an Aboriginal population of about 16,000, the estimated rate is an astonishing and unprecedented one death in 1200.

Mr Umbagai worries about the impact of profound trauma on his community of only 350. “Police come and investigate, that is their job. It takes a long time before the body is handed over to the ambulance. Kids hear the commotion. Everybody is distressed and crying. We have kids five and six witnessing these events and you worry what effect it is having on them.

“Kids grow up thinking this is normal and that any little problem can be solved this way. There is virtually no grief counselling, nobody comes to investigate why this is happening in Mowanjum. So much money is being spent on suicide prevention in the Kimberley but we don’t see it. I don’t think bureaucrats in Perth or Canberra understand how bad it is – what we are facing.”

Despite the deaths, no effective suicide prevention strategy has been put in place in Mowanjum . Steven Austin, the chief executive of the community, notes that the West Australian government is spending $150 million on a new Derby jail while the federal government spends millions more annually maintaining the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre nearby. “We have made applications for a youth co-ordinator to keep kids occupied with programs but they have all been rejected. We get back a generic letter saying we don’t meet the criteria. We get no help.”

Mr Austin says the applications for funding were made to Victims of Crime WA and to the federal Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs without success. “It is as if the bureaucrats don’t have any idea of what we are up against.

‘‘ I wrote to Jenny Macklin [the Indigenous Affairs Minister] when we lost our [community development employment projects ] and her office did not acknowledge our letter.”

According to the community council, savage cuts to CDEP programs in 2009 coincided with the wave of suicides. Mr Austin says the number of people employed fell from 140 to about 30. All attempts to have funding restored, including a direct appeal to Ms Macklin and to the Derby Indigenous Co-ordination Centre have failed.

Mr Umbagai says the lack of a positive response has left families feeling haunted and fearful. Some even believe the community has been cursed but he says the underlying reasons are all too apparent. “When they took away our CDEP, more people started drinking. In every death the victim has been intoxicated. Our community is supposed to be dry but we cannot enforce the ban. The WA government took away our authority to run night patrols. The police do their best but they cannot be here all the time.”

Zoe Evans, the co-ordinator of the Standby Suicide Response Service in based in Broome knows Mowanjum and its people and has friends in the community . She says her team visits every community immediately after a suicide to give counselling and support and organise activities. But she says counselling is not always possible because people are grieving and want to be alone.

Although the service is funded by the federal Department of Health it is a shoe-string operation with two full-time workers to cover an area the size of a small European country. With attempted suicides occurring sometimes daily and vast distances to cover, the service has little capacity to develop preventive programs.

In Mowanjum children start drinking from as young as 11. On any evening cars driven by older men and loaded with under-age drinkers head for Derby to pick up nightly reserves of grog, often bought under the counter from unscrupulous traders for $150 a slab.

Mr Umbagai says alcohol abuse leaves children going without and begging food from relatives . In the homes of drinkers, children get little sleep and find it hard to attend school regularly. He is surprised that child protection services are not more vigilant when it is obvious children are being abused and neglected.

There appears to be no shortage of programs or money to address suicide in the Kimberley yet the deaths keep coming. In 2006 there were 13 deaths in 13 months at Fitzroy Crossing.

Wes Morris, the co-ordinator of the Kimberley Law and Culture Centre, says there have been two key coronial investigations into suicide, the latest being one in 2008 into 22 deaths at Balgo. He says the findings of Alastair Hope, who made a scathing assessment of the performance of departments and agencies providing services to disadvantaged communities, have been largely ignored. Mr Hope found the system of providing funds for Aboriginal programs was “seriously flawed” and agencies were not monitored or audited despite a failure to curb suicide.

Mr Morris doubts that the multimillion-dollar regional partnership agreement between the federal and WA governments will have any real impact on the suicide rate. As for the new $30 million mental health facility in Broome, a two-hour drive from Mowanjum, he questions its effectiveness because the “causes of indigenous suicide are culturally based” and not necessarily linked to mental wellbeing.

For Mrs Umbagai the pain of her son’s suicide is undiminished . She wonders what she could have done to prevent it. “I remember it like it was yesterday . He said ‘Alright Mum, I will see you in the resurrection.’ That was his last words to me.

“I should have followed him. I should never have let him go and do that thing. Kids today are doing more daring things than kids of other generations. Sometimes you wonder if they are looking for attention. Sometimes you wonder what was lacking in their lives. But no matter which way you look at it, alcohol is always involved.

“In Mowanjum we try to comfort each other, because there is nobody else. For three years I was like a zombie – there was nobody to help me through the grief.”

For help or information contact Lifeline 131 114; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800.

Copyright © 2012 The Sydney Morning Herald