Mental Health on Manus Island - By Samantha Stoneman


Opinion Piece by guest blogger Samantha Stoneman

A man set himself on fire.

Mental health issues have been prevalent in Australia’s offshore detention centres for years, but according to refugees and advocates on Manus, May’s election result has triggered a complete mental health crisis. Reportedly over 60 refugees on the PNG island have attempted suicide or self-harmed over the last month. It’s time to start paying attention.

Let’s think about what’s going on statistically. At least 62 individuals have attempted suicide in just over four weeks, with more than 95 isolated incidents reported at the date of this post. That’s more than three attempts per day. If we were to look at those 95 incidents as a percentage given the 500 men living in the Manus detention centre, that’s at least 19% of the group.

Alongside general Australian statistics, these numbers suggest that over a year, suicide attempts are occurring on Manus Island at a rate that is at least 5000% higher than in Australia.

These shocking statistics are rising by the day.

There must be a better way forward. It’s been reported that refugees on Manus Island are waiting up to one month for access to mental health services. We don’t have any indication that this minimal access to healthcare has improved. Those of us who have lost a loved one by suicide or face mental health challenges ourselves understand how vital and how urgent that help can be for someone at risk.

This solution, as it stands, is failing vulnerable people in our care.

We’ve got to remember that refugees are men, women and children fleeing war, terror and persecution. It’s difficult to fathom. According to staff on the island, these people arrive traumatised. They are then re-traumatised by the anguish and uncertainty of indefinite detention. Most have been held captive since 2013 with no indication that they will be released. That is six years in limbo and counting. To date, there have been no assurances that the men languishing on Manus will ever be resettled - not in Australia, New Zealand, or the USA. It is easy to see why men are losing hope for their future.

Given the alarming rate of self-harm and attempted suicide occurring on the island, we have to look at ourselves as a society and ask: are we okay with this?

The human lives on Manus Island are in Australia’s care, no question about it. If a suicide crisis like this emerged among a specific people group here onshore, it would be treated like an emergency. We would rush to put the adequate systems in place for the group at risk. We would raise awareness, provide the necessary healthcare, and fight to prevent this epidemic from spreading further. So the question is, do some human lives matter more to us than others?

These men have long been out of sight and out of mind, but this isn’t somebody else’s problem. It’s Australia’s problem. We need to pay attention to what’s going on and have this conversation, tough as it may be.

Together, let’s fight to stop this statistic in its tracks and find a better way forward for the human beings on Manus Island.

We can do better, because every life matters.

Note: The views expressed in this article do not reflect those of the LIVIN Organisation and have been published as a conversation starter and thought provoker on issues affecting mental health in Australia.