In April 2016 Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform made a submission on the association between drug policy and suicide to the Standing Committee on Health, Ageing, Community and Social Services that had been charged on 11 February 2016 by the ACT Legislative Assembly to report on Youth Suicide and Self Harm in the ACT. The Assembly was moved to establish the enquiry by the alarming level of suicide and self harm revealed in the “last recorded data from ‘Causes of Death’ in 2013 [issued by the Australian Bureau of Statistics]:
- a third of young people aged 15-25 who died in the ACT in 2013 died as a result of suicide;
- in 2013, suicide was the leading cause of death of children between 5 and 17 years of age;
- intentional self-harm is one of the top ten leading causes of death in males;
- 37 persons died due to suicide in the ACT in 2013, which is a 54% increase on the previous year;
- there was a 13% increase of persons aged 15-19 dying from suicide in Australia in 2013 compared to 2012;
- between 2011 and 2013, there were more deaths by suicide in the ACT than there were in transport accidents;
- intentional self-harm is the leading cause of death among Australian children and young people aged 15-24 years;
- as at November 2014, one child under 18 years of age takes their own life every week, and 18 227 children and young people were hospitalised in Australia for intentional self-harm over the last five years;
- (i) between 50 and 60 children every week are admitted to hospital for self-harming incidents in Australia; and
- (j) there has been a 650% increase in deaths from self-harm, when comparing 12 and 13 year olds with 14 and 15 year olds from 2007 to 2012.”
The terms of reference required the committee to examine:
“. . .the extent and impact in the ACT [of these findings of the Bureau of Statistics], having regard to:
(a) ACT Government and Commonwealth Government roles and responsibilities in regard to youth mental health and suicide prevention, particularly in relation to the recently announced Commonwealth response to the National Mental Health Commission Report and the mental health and suicide commissioning role for the Primary Healthcare Networks as it affects the ACT;
(b) any gaps or duplicate roles and responsibilities;
(c) whether there are unique factors contributing to youth suicide in the ACT, taking into account the small number of young people who have died by suicide in the ACT in recent years, and the impact public investigation may have on families and close friends, that can be identified through submissions and expert witnesses; and
(d) ACT government-funded services, agencies and institutions, including schools, youth centres, and specialist housing service providers’ role in promoting resilience and responding to mental health issues in children and young people; and
the Standing Committee on Health, Ageing, Community and Social Services will report back to the Legislative Assembly by the last sitting day of this Assembly.” (http://www.parliament.act.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/828172/2016-03-04-Media-Release-call-Public-Submission-HACSS.pdf
The submission urged that the Committee to:
“carefully consider the effect of criminalisation of drugs on the marginalisation of drug takers and how changes to drug policy would have a direct bearing on the suicide rate.
In transmitting its submission to the committee, Families and Friends wrote that “we would very much appreciate the opportunity of appearing before the committee in relation to [the submission]”. As it turned out on 9 June the committee tabled in the Assembly its report. The report, which is available at http://www.parliament.act.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/871915/8th-HACS-08-Inquiry-Into-Youth-Suicide-And-Self-Harm.pdf, contains only cursory reference to our submission. It paid no attention to the issues of substance raised in it.
On 16 June Ms Joy Birch, the committee’s Labor Party chair wrote expressing the regret of the committee that it was “unable to facilitate a hearing for [us] to appear and to give evidence.” The reasons conveyed by Ms Birch are curious: the committee declined to hear us “due to the nature of that submission and a limited time available to the committee for preparing the report into the enquiry.” The report and this response invites the conclusion that the committee did not want to consider the association between drug policy and suicide that our submission examined.