There is a mental health crisis among young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in remote areas of WA.
Suicide is the leading cause of death among Australians aged 15-44, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported in 2022, with alarming rates in Indigenous communities.
Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are twice as likely to die by suicide than non-Indigenous individuals.
“We’ve found this crisis is particularly evident while we’ve been on the road in remote areas of Western Australia, where we have observed complex and intergenerational challenges concerning youth mental health,” zero2hero projects manager Gemma West told Business News.
“Historical events have inflicted grief and trauma on Indigenous communities, disrupting the transmission of cultural knowledge, stories and identity to young people.”
The high rate of hospitalisations for suicide and self-harm underscores the lack of sustainable mental health resources available for young people in these regions of WA.
“The absence of proper mental health education in regional areas leaves vulnerable young minds ill-equipped to understand and cope with emotional struggles,” Ms West explained.
“Without essential mental health education and support, their resilience remains low, perpetuating the critical issue of youth suicide.”
The remoteness of communities in the North West exacerbates the problem by limiting access to critical support services.
“Urgent action is necessary to empower these communities with accessible and comprehensive mental health resources,” Ms West said.
“Addressing this crisis demands a collaborative effort to provide support, education, and proper infrastructure for youth mental health in remote Indigenous regions, offering a lifeline to those struggling and reducing the prevalence of youth suicide."
zero2hero’s goal is to provide every young Western Australian with access to good mental health education through its school programs, regardless of their location or remoteness.
In 2022, zero2hero reached more than 28,000 young people living in the Goldfields, Wheatbelt, Pilbara, Kimberley, South West, Great Southern, Mid West, Gascoyne, and metro regions.
“Our goal is to strengthen community capacity through upskilling young people to positively manage their mental health and teach them how to help those around them to do the same,” Ms West said.
Ms West explained there needs to be a better recognition to look outwardly from the metro areas for how to support remote areas.
“Those with the capacity in metro areas need to step up and start having more of an on-the-ground footprint in remote areas,” she said.
“Handing out flyers and expecting a young person to be able to navigate everything on their own isn’t enough. There needs to be more in-person work being done.”
zero2hero connects with organisations with a multi-region footprint to support their engagement and impact for the individuals and families living within each community.
“This collaboration is essential in our ability to work together in a way that provides real change for students, schools, communities or whole regions through comprehensive mental health and wellbeing programs,” Ms West said.
“It is critical that we recognise our responsibility to collaborate between corporate and community services as a solution to the current mental health crisis our young people and first nations people are experiencing.”
Lack of nutrition linked to poor mental health
Foodbank WA CEO Kate O’Hara said the food relief charity is doing what it can to get nutritious food to remote areas of WA.
The charity, which relies on third party supporters, currently distributes food to some regional communities in WA, including Geraldton, Kalgoorlie, Bunbury, and Albany.
Foodbank WA also reaches communities in Kalumburu in the Kimberley with its School Breakfast Program, which reaches 501 schools statewide.
“The North West, as we know, has too many households in third-world conditions. That’s a fact and it’s predominately Indigenous households and communities,” Ms O’Hara said.
“Through our School Breakfast Program, we can see the hardship that so many households are facing,” she said. “As much as we are teaching people in those communities about how to feed themselves well, it’s still about a lack of access.
“We’ve been asked to increase the food supply because the demand in the schools has gone to not just every kid in the school needing breakfast but their siblings turning up,” Ms O’Hara said.
She explains that some children take food for their school lunchboxes because they also go without lunch.
Curtin University's food stress data and Foodbank’s hunger map shows some 35,000 people in the Kimberley region, with an average age of 32 and 41.6 per cent Indigenous population, are under food stress.
Around 1,000 people in the Kununurra area are in food stress every single week, and in the Newman area it’s higher at 1,500 people each week under food stress.
Ms O’Hara explained the lack of food and quality nutrition has a significant impact on social issues.
“We’ve got research that points to the impact of food and published articles that demonstrate how significant food is for bridging the gap. Households make different decisions and other behaviours once they’ve got a full pantry and fridge,” she said.
“Without that fundamental part of a household being complete with a food supply, with food quality and nutritional value being consumed, the impact on communities will compound and lots of problems outside of food will occur.
“Food is the early warning system. When people start turning to us it’s an indicator of the other issues that can come if they can’t keep their kids or themselves focused.
“When we look at people in hardship, if they can’t access nutritious food in their fridge and pantry, life choices for them become even more difficult, so their capacity, particularly for children to grow into new pathways, is significantly hindered if those children can’t get access to good food.”
Foodbank WA has recognised the need to expand to more locations across the state, noting that Newman, Port Hedland, Tom Price, Meekatharra, Kununurra, Fitzroy Crossing, and Broome are all critical areas in need of food assistance.
The cost of expanding the Foodbank WA hub in the North West regions would be a $3 million investment over 3 years to create a service that is sustainable, Ms O’Hara explained.
“We will do our very best to be here for anybody that needs that support but we want the support to ensure we can. We need funding, volunteers and skills to be able to meet what is ahead of us, particularly for the next 12 months,” she said.