AUSTRALIA: Human Rights Commission to investigate self-harm and suicide in children

[22 April 2014] - The Human Rights Commission is set to investigate self-harm and suicidal behaviour in children, with rates among young people in Australia being some of the highest in the developed world.

The National Children's Commissioner, Megan Mitchell, says she will focus on why so many young people are intentionally self-harming.

"I think we're doing something wrong," she said.

"I think we really ought to be talking about it to shed a light on what's happening for our kids and how we can better respond to their cries for help."

In 2012, more than 10,000 instances of self-harm resulted in hospitalisation, with self-harm and suicide the leading causes of death in people aged 15 to 24.

Ms Mitchell says the issues are serious and complex and that the rates are "stubbornly high" and "alarming".

"There are a lot of stresses and pressures affecting our young people today, and I don't think we really know enough about what's happening to them and what is driving them to take this type of action," she said.

She says many young people associate suicide and self-harm with bullying, with some more affected than others.

More than 41 per cent of sexually diverse young people have contemplated suicide, according to a recent survey.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are also five times more likely to be represented in the suicide statistics.

Ms Mitchell says a lot of young people do not know who to talk to.

"A lot of young people say that they don't actually tell people that they're engaging in self-harm and suicidal thoughts, they don't know who to speak to or they think it's going to get worse if they tell somebody," she said.

"So I think it's really important to tell young people that there are people who can help them, and that those people have the skills to help them - that there is always hope."

Better understanding and responses needed

Ms Mitchell says there is little data available on suicide and self-harm, and better data is needed for new policies and program development.

"I really would like to look at ways we can get better information and trend data over time, so that we can see what's happening for different children in different circumstances," she said.

She says she welcomes submissions to the enquiry from anyone who has an interest in the issue, to better understand the barriers for children seeking help.

"From practitioners, from service providers, from families and individuals themselves ... what are the kinds of interventions we can put forward so that we can help children better than we are at the moment," she said.

Roundtables will be held with stakeholders in every capital city, as well as some regional centres.

The enquiry will also be working with partners, such as Kids Helpline and Headspace, to help children tell their own stories.

"I wouldn't encourage children to do this on their own, they really need to be supported to be able to tell their stories," Ms Mitchell said.

She says she has talked to a number of people within the Government who are "very supportive" of the project.

"No-one wants to see young people's lives lost, let alone the significant disability and loss of healthy years of life associated with prolonged self-harm," she said.

"So in a sense it's an issue for all of us to make sure that we better respond and better understand self-harming and suicide in our young people.

"They are our future, we need to be supporting them and doing everything we can to help them."

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