HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [5.22 pm]: I rise to give my final member statement in this place. I thought hard about what I wanted to say as my final statement. The one thing that really stood out in my mind was that I wanted to put on the record for members, particularly those who are continuing, the importance of ensuring that the program to assist with postvention for children who have been bereaved by suicide, particularly parental and sibling suicide, continues and is expanded in the coming years.
The PRESIDENT: Order! Just a moment. I ask those members in the gallery to be quiet, because I am finding it really difficult to hear the member on her feet. If you would be respectful as you move out of the chamber, that would be appreciated.
Hon ALISON XAMON: Thank you, Madam President. I have been very open with why I have such a keen interest in this—that is, of course, my own lived experience of my father taking his life when I was a child and the impact that subsequently had on both myself and my brother, the resultant mental illness and the issue of living with suicidality. The result of that experience was that about 25 years ago, when I finally started to get onto the road of recovery, I began a process of collating the research on what happens to children in this situation. Part of the reason for that was I needed to try to make sense of what had happened to me and my brother and try to get an understanding of it; also, I wanted to see whether there were things that could happen to improve the lives of children who are affected in such a way.
The statistics on what happens to children who lose a parent, particularly to suicide, are damning. Global research shows that those children are three times more likely to take their own lives later on in life. To make a comparison, someone who loses a parent to homicide is twice as likely to take their own life. Here in Australia, it is deemed that, particularly because of what happens with Aboriginal Australians, it could potentially be as high as seven times more likely for someone to subsequently take their own life. Bereaved siblings are seven times more likely to experience mental health issues and to go on to experience suicidal ideation. Importantly, these statistics apply regardless of the age of the child who experiences the loss—whether the child is 17 years old, or, interestingly, has not even been born yet. That says something about the specific risk to these children. There is an important quote by Campbell, who says that adult child survivors of suicide are “forever changed by this indescribable and complicated bereavement”.
Suicide postvention within Australia is expanding but is still a relatively new area. It tends to focus very much on immediate crisis following a suicide and on communities, but not so much on looking at the long-term needs of people who are going to need support. That creates particular problems for children, many of whom do not start developing issues until sometimes many years down the track. It also presumes that people have a community around them, and that is often not the case for families who have been bereaved by suicide, who often end up living quite fractured existences outside of their community.
Overall, we are very bad at understanding the nature of children and grief. As a culture, we have a very poor understanding of the way that children grieve. Children grieve differently from adults, but they do not grieve less. One of the most dangerous perceptions is the idea that somehow children grieve half as much as an adult does, whereas, in actual fact, I would say that children grieve twice as much. Children also do not bounce back. That is usually symptomatic of either age or—worse—if children feel that it is not safe for them to demonstrate their grief. They may appear in the first instance to be minimally affected, but in actual fact that is not necessarily the case. Sometimes, the need to be around friends and the like is simply an indication that they do not feel safe at home. It is often aggravated by well-meaning but deeply misguided commentary, with adults saying things such as “You’re the man of the house now”, or children being denied access to often very important grief rituals. Basically, children need permission to grieve, and very often they are denied that. This can be quite significantly exacerbated when that grief is due to suicide. We know that trauma absolutely aggravates the grief process.
We know from the research on children who have been bereaved by suicide that they are often likely to revisit that trauma and grief multiple times throughout their lives. They may experience it at the age of five, but they will experience it again at the age of 10, then at 12, then at 15 as they grow to understand the deep complications in the nature of, in particular, parental suicide. We need to remember that when a parent chooses to take their life, the child will perceive that as their ultimate rejection and abandonment. There are additional complicating elements. There is often a deep-based fear that the other parent will also take their life. Children might be reluctant to reveal distress in case the other parent decides to take their life. What the child learns is that they cannot have trust that parents will stay alive in order to make sure that they are okay. They often feel responsible for the death itself. There is often an enormous amount of stigma around suicide.
They lose their protective factors. The families themselves are often fractured and traumatised, and families can be split apart by recriminations. They can be isolated from their communities, so the usual supports that accompany grief can be deeply compromised. It can be worse if people decide that they do not want to discuss suicide. Worse still, research tells us that children learn that suicide is a response to distress. That can be significantly aggravated by some of the well-meaning but very misguided things that we say to children, such as “Oh, well, Daddy’s in a better place now” or “Daddy’s at peace” or “Daddy’s happy.” That tells children that suicide is a solution to distress. Additional complicating factors are that the child might be blamed for the death, there may be a history of suicide attempts leading up to that death, there might be a history of mental illness and, in some instances, children themselves might experience post-traumatic stress disorder from discovering the body.
The studies also show us that there can be genetic factors in relation to this. What happens in other areas when we know that there is a genetic aggravating factor is that we give more support. If we think about women who are more likely to get breast cancer as a result of genetic factors, we give them more support, not less; yet we do not do the same thing when a suicide has occurred. We also know that trauma can have lifelong impacts on children’s developing brains. When a child loses a parent through suicide, we need to ensure that we intervene early and, importantly, that we intervene often. We have to take the long-term approach to how we are going to do this.
We have a specialised service here in Western Australia. I am happy to say that when I was on the Ministerial Council for Suicide Prevention, I presented all the research that I had pulled together. As a result, we established a pilot program in this state to enable children in the metropolitan area only to be able to access these services. That has subsequently been independently assessed and found to be an enormous success. It is an important program and one that will help break, hopefully, the intergenerational trauma of suicide. Members, we need to make sure that that program is not only continued, but also extended into the regions.
There are waitlists even in the metropolitan area, and we know that children—in particular Aboriginal children, but also all regional children—who need these services are not getting these supports. This can be life-altering support. This is a really important program. I have been delivering training on this for a number of years; I deliver it for free. It is an area that I have a lot of expertise in. To those members who are staying, I ask that when you look at the budget papers every single year, please make sure that this program continues to be funded and please make sure that you put pressure on to have this program extended. It is very important. It is the first time that we have had something like this in Australia. There has been enormous interest in other states for something similar. It is something that we should be really proud of. I really urge members to think about making sure that this is a priority particularly at budget time, and that this becomes an ongoing and a permanent part of our landscape, because, hopefully, it will help to break that intergenerational cycle of deep trauma.