Personal recollections and ideas in Relation to Youth Suicide in Derby and Mowanjum.




I have lived in Derby from 1981 to the present day. I have suffered from depression and have attempted suicide myself. I understand what it feels like to experience a sense of worthlessness and hopelessness and to feel that the world would be better off if it was not subjected to my miserable state.


From 1981 to 1996 there was one suicide that I knew of that was linked to an ex-student that I had taught. From 1996 to 2010 there were over 80. I decided to keep a list. It was a morbid thing to do but I did it of proof as to how big a problem this tragedy was becoming. In hindsight it was a damaging thing for me to do as it added to my depressive state. During this period I was a teacher at Derby District High School. These statistics indicated a youth suicide rate as 5.7 per year. In my opinion a youth is anyone between the ages of 13 to 25. From research during the last month I have identified 12 youth suicides in Derby Mowanjum from 2010 to the present day. Less than 2 per year so the rate is dropping. We all deserve a pat on the back for that. Awareness of the problem is helping to bring rates down.


I often got asked by people – Why were the suicide rates so high in the Kimberley between 1996 and 2010 when I kept a record of 80 or more. I have a few reasons.


In 1967 our first Australians were given equal rights which should have occurred in 1788 when England settled on our Indigenous Peoples land at Sydney Cove. This granting of so called equal rights caused many complex problems which are still having implications today. People who were living on cattle stations were moved on because the station owners couldn’t afford to pay them real wages instead of rations of flour, sugar, tea and tobacco. These people were forced to move away from their homelands and onto the outskirts of towns like Derby – fringe dwellers. The Christian Missions were also disintegrating and people were moving into reserve areas of towns. The children born in 1967 turned 18 in 1985. This was the first generation of Indigenous People who would become parents with that right to drink. The children born to these parents became teenagers in the late 1990’s. Many of these Kids became the first generation of Indigenous children with 2 alcohol dependent parents.


At the same time Marijuana became very prevalent in the Kimberley especially in the 1980’s and 1990’s and now in the 2000’s we have Speed and Ice. 


Tobacco – part of Kimberley Culture.


Tobacco was an essential part of the rations given out by cattle stations. The people saw it as a good thing. A form of payment for hard work.  Smoke and smoking ceremonies have been part of Aboriginal culture for thousands of years. Burning country for hunting. Smoke is part of their lives. A young Indigenous Person taking up smoking may not be seen with the same horror that white parents display when they find that their kids have taken up smoking. The “Quit Campaign” has had very little effect on Indigenous People in the Kimberley.


The parents in the Kimberley love their kids just as much as any other parents in our world. The habits and behaviour of all parents are always passed on to their offspring. So a typical 15 year old kids from Derby’s back streets can easily be an addicted smoker. A frequent Marijuana user and someone who parties hard every weekend if has the money to buy alcohol.


Many of the kids don’t attend school at all. They are not enrolled and are excellent at being ghosts and avoiding the system. Many of these kids are quite transient and bob up in towns and communities throughout the Kimberley. Basically they live in Derby but there school year is interrupted by family visits, funerals and extended holidays. School is not a high priority.


When a student such as this rolls up to school I understand he or she needs to be put into a classroom setting. This is always a delicate situation.


What are some of the considerations that need to be taken at this point?


  • How do you think the student is feeling?
  • How does the teacher feel?
  • What are some of the outcomes of this situation?


In early 2000’s I was given a position at the school as the Director of Behaviour Management. It didn’t take me long to realise that the most crucial behaviour demonstrated by a student was his desire to attend school when he wakes up from sleep.


A year later I talked to the administration of the school into running re-engagement classes for poor attending students. I took the boys class off campus and Mary (Wife) took the girls classes in a transportable on the school grounds but away from the mainstream classes. The classes were a big success with over 50 kids re-engaging with the school. They were also controversial as many people thought we were spoiling and pandering to “naughty students”.


The Goods and Bads of these classes.


The Goods


1. Most of the students were in poor health and their diet was terrible. The students were taught food and nutrition and breakfast and lunch were prepared by the students. These meals plus tea and coffee provided an opportunity for the students to bond with each other and the teaching staff.


2. The majority of these kids had ability and strengths on many areas. The curriculum was geared toward these strengths. Art, sport and music came to the fore. Maths and English were taught but were related to real life experiences that the students would face in the future.


3. The students were able to integrate with other kids in the school through sports, play and option subjects. The girls were able to see their younger brothers and sisters in the Primary School and feel they were “role models” for them.  The boys were really proud to be selected in school sporting teams and the school started being really competitive in basketball and football. The students bonded together and formed a strong support network of friends. They felt bonded and part of something important. 


The Bads


1. Most of the students were addicted smokers. The teachers and other education workers would often turn a “blind eye” to students disappearing to have a quick smoke. You have to ask the question ”what is more important – the education of the student or addiction that will probably last a lifetime”. 


2. Many of the students had suffered from some form of abuse and neglect. They were very fragile when it came to any negativity or criticism. Very quick to blow a fuse. Very easy to upset. There was a lot of treating students with “kid gloves” to ease difficult situations. Some people believed we were spoiling these kids.


3. Other kids from similar backgrounds with good attendance wanted to join these classes.


4. A lot of staff and community members saw the classes as a waste of good resources and pandering to students who were never going to be any good to the community.


5. Trying to find staff to take on classes such as this is really hard. It’s a job that requires patience, compassion and tolerance. It requires someone who has the ability to really absorb themselves into the community.


The classes closed in 2010 when I was hospitalised for a year with depression.


What has filled the void?

  • Clontarf. Absolutely brilliant in my opinion.
  • Girls Academy.
  • Youth Centre.
  • Men’s Centre

What do we need in town?

  • Working art galleries (Studios)
  • Junior sporting clubs
  • Refuge Centres
  • More short stay accommodation 
  • Cultural Centres
  • Women’s Centre
  • Cafeterias
  • School Hostels



  • Drop in Centres in Derby (an alternative to Youth Centre) Tea, coffee, simple food. Run by social workers and community volunteers, frequent visits by teachers, health workers, doctors and friendly police. This is mainly for 18 to 25 year olds 10am to 10pm.
  • Derby Youth Centre to stay open to 8pm.
  • More youth orientated after school events – Example Disco’s, junior sports.


Some thoughts – discussion

  • Just going with the flow – an easy option, does not help the situation. What do you think?
  • Lower attendance rates at school makes teaching easier but the wider community suffers. Is this true?
  • Transient Government workers climbing the rungs of the career ladder. “Well I can’t really help the situation, I’ll be gone in a matter of months”
  • In my opinion there is a definite link between poor attendance rates at school and your suicide rates. What do you think?


It is not the fault of the school. More resources need to be put into schools to improve school attendance rates in the Kimberley. It is an enormous and difficult task. 


More research needs to be completed in understanding why attendance rates are low and in finding new ways to engage students at risk.


We need to create school environments which are inclusive for the full range of Kimberley students so they can experience rich, meaningful and long lives. Can this be done?



First presented at Derby September 2017.

Second presentation as Guest speaker to Rotary eClub NextGen 31 Oct 2017.