The study is the first to attempt a broad analysis of the types of incidents that have taken place in detention as well as the events triggering them. Max Chalmers reports. Reader note: story contains discussion of self-harm.
New analysis has revealed the prevalence of attempted hangings among people held in Australian immigration detention centres, and suggested the ‘precipitating factors’ that lead to self-harm can be directly connected to government policy.
The findings are presented in a psychology master’s thesis authored by Kyli Hedrick, and are based on a systematic examination of incident reports released under Freedom of Information laws and detailing incidents of self-harm in Australian detention centres between October 2009 and 2011.
Hedrick’s analysis found 959 cases of self-harm across that period, with almost 18 per cent involving attempted hangings, a number that sticks out when compared the broader community.
“Once again, these findings highlight some similarities between self-harming behaviours in the wider Australian community and detained asylum seekers in the present study,” Hedrick’s paper states. “Unlike the present study, however, hanging was not found to be a common method of self-harm.”
A separate study found that outside of the detention environment just one per cent of self-harm related hospitalisation in Australia were the result of hangings, considered to be at more serious end of self-harm behaviours.
Taking an ‘ecological’ approach, Hedrick’s study drew on information in reports of self-harm prepared by Serco staff and attempted to identify the “precipitating factor” – the event associated with the onset of the illness or self-harm behaviour. While the link between lengthy periods of indefinite detention and mental harm is well established, research looking closely at specific incidents in Australian detention centres and identifying the precipitating factors is thin on the ground, according to Hedrick.
“All of the eight specific precipitating factors identified in the present study were considered to be macro level triggers for self-harm… meaning that a range of government policies, procedures and processes could be deemed responsible for triggering self-harm incidents among detained asylum seekers,” the paper says.
“Such findings point to the importance of considering a number of alternatives to the indefinite mandatory detention of asylum seekers, such as community-based alternatives.”
The majority of precipitating factors were linked to “conditions in detention” – for example noise levels, delays in medical treatment, or being transferred between compounds – or “processing”, things like delays in refugee applications. Delving deeper into the reports, Hedrick, whose study used data exclusively from onshore detention centres including Christmas Island, found that separation from family was a precipitating factor in 3 per cent of the self-harm the incidents examined.
At a recent Senate Estimates hearing, Department of Immigration officials told MPs that from 1 July 2014 to 30 June 2015, 597 actual cases of self-harm were recorded in Australia’s mainland immigration detention centres. They predicted the number would be around 500 for the current period.
2015 saw 40 reports of self-harm on Manus Island and 102 on Nauru.
At the same hearing the Department’s Chief Medical Officer Dr John Brayley said detention had a “deleterious” effect on the mental health of children.
Professor Louise Newman, formerly the Chair of the now disbanded Immigration Health Advisory Group (IHAG), said hopelessness and the absence of settlement options was likely driving self-harm in offshore detention. She said one of the major takeaways from the report was the lack of transparency around self-harm statistics in immigration detention centres.
Hedrick’s data is entirely drawn from the Detention Logs website, an investigative project which used Freedom of Information laws to force Serco and the Department of Immigration to release thousands of incident reports.
A 2013 report by the Commonwealth Ombudsman implored the Department to improve data collection and presentation.
“During the course of this investigation, we found the self-harm data collected and reported by the department to be poor in quality and breadth,” it stated “The Department only started regularly analysing self-harm data in May 2012, which was well after the incidence of self-harm had peaked.”
Professor Newman said data collection and scrutiny had not improved since then.
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