Inquiry to examine suicide and self-harm in immigration detention

Commonwealth Ombudsman Allan Asher today confirmed his office would undertake an investigation into suicide and self-harm in Australian immigration detention facilities.

Earlier in the year, Mr Asher publicly raised concerns about the impact of long-term detention on the ongoing mental health of detainees, while more recently he witnessed the deteriorating psychological health of detainees on Christmas Island.

‘I was alarmed that in the week of June that I visited Christmas Island more than 30 incidents of self-harm by detainees held there were reported to the contracted health services provider, International Health and Medical Services (IHMS),’ Mr Asher said.

‘This reflects an upsurge in the number of incidents of self-harm and attempted suicide reported to IHMS across all immigration detention facilities.’

Since March 2011, Ombudsman staff have inspected the immigration detention facilities at Curtin, Leonora and Christmas Island. A significant issue of concern arising from each of these visits has related to the mental health and wellbeing of detainees.

More than 1,100 incidents of threatened or actual self-harm across all places of detention were reported in 2010-11, according to the latest information provided by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to the Ombudsman’s office. Fifty-four incidents of self-harm were reported during the first week of July this year alone.

‘My investigation will assess the extent of this tragic problem, examine the root causes, and consider practical steps that the Department and its service providers SERCO and IHMS should take to identify and manage those at risk of suicide and self-harm.

‘The aim will be to produce evidence-based, expert-endorsed advice on guidelines and protocols for reducing and/or preventing the number of incidents that are occur in detainee communities.’

The investigation will consider:

  • the extent of the problem, including relative to the incidence of suicide and self-harm in the broader Australian community
  • demographic information, including gender, age, country of origin, urban/rural background, language, and length of time in detention of people who participate in suicidal or self-harming behaviours
  • potential determinants of this behaviour, including pre-existence of mental illnesses
  • catalysts for suicidal ideation and self-harming behaviours, for example denial of visa applications, detention overcrowding, uncertainty about the future
  • contagion issues and the impact of attempted or completed suicides and incidents of self-harm on the broader detention community
  • prevention (such as screening for warning signs specific to populations, putting in place appropriate safety measures), intervention and postvention initiatives, including access to counselling and other health services
  • detention facility guidelines and protocols
  • the availability of appropriately qualified and professionally trained staff
  • the nature and different types of detention facilities, access to means to self-harm or suicide, physical environments, risk assessments and mitigation strategies/measures.

The Ombudsman hopes to be able to release the investigation findings by the end of 2011.

Media contact: Fiona Skivington 0423 845 160

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Date of release: 29 July 2011