What would compel a 9-year-old child to do this?

Image from the Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network.








There have been 26 cases of children self-harming at a single asylum seeker detention centre in Darwin in the past 16 months. And disturbingly some of these children are as young as nine-years-old.

Child psychiatrists have issued warnings for the past 10 years that keeping children in detention centres would likely have negative consequences for their mental health – and now they are devastatingly being proved correct.


The many stories to emerge from this one detention centre, are simply heartbreaking.

Children and teenagers have turned to cutting; slashing their wrists and arms with razor blades. One 17-year-old boy tried to hang himself and when he was caught, insisted that he would try again. Another teenager repeatedly bashed his head against a metal pole – and had to be hospitalised – after his case review to be allowed to remain in Australia, failed.

A nine-year-old boy tried to overdose on his mother’s painkillers.

He wanted to get out. He wanted an escape.

He said later that he was “going crazy” in detention.


He was aware what the consequences could be. He wanted to die.

These shocking incidents are enough to make you sick to your stomach and yet according to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the 26 cases of self-harm between August 2010 and November 2011 is a “significant decrease” on previous years.

26 children self-harming. And that’s supposed to be some kind of improvement.

It’s likely that children in other detention centres around Australia have experienced similarly traumatic circumstances – and may be desperately trying to release their pain in similar ways.

So surely this points to the fact that young children should simply not be allowed to go on living in these conditions.

Detention is not an appropriate place for kids, especially over an extended period of time; as many families spend years waiting to see if their cases will be successful.


Louise Newman, a professor of developmental psychiatry at Monash University, told Lateline that:

“Fundamentally what it says to those of us in mental health and health professions is that children should not be detained.”

And it’s as simple as that.

Is there any amount of money that could be invested into mental health resources that will really help these children?

Children who are growing up in circumstances that no child should have to endure. Children who are frightened and uncertain of their futures. Children who have been taken away from everything that is familiar to them – who have sometimes escaped from war torn countries, or communities stricken by poverty – only to find themselves imprisoned once more.


Fernanda Dahlstrom, from the Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network, who made the FOI request that led to these harrowing facts being released, told the Sydney Morning Herald:

“Months after the announcement that children will be sent offshore, they still have not been told how long they will have to endure offshore detention.”

“In the months and years to come, an epidemic of child self-harm is likely to occur on Manus Island. If it does, the government cannot say they did not see it coming.”

Refugee policies are a complex, divisive part of Australian politics.

But with stories like these emerging, one wonders if the complexities of the situation shouldn’t be simplified; if the politics couldn’t somehow be removed from the policy.

When children are driven to inflict physical pain on themselves, as the only way they have of showing their mental pain to the world – it’s clear that something needs to change.

We look to our leaders. And we wait…

If this post raises issues for you, you can seek support and information about suicide prevention by contacting Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 (for young people aged 5 to 25).

What do you think of refugee and asylum seeker policy in Australia?

To show your support for children being allowed to live in the community and not in detention, you can visit the Welcome to Australia website here. Mamamia’s Publisher Mia Freedman is an ambassador for Welcome to Australia who give everyday Australians opportunities to engage in practical acts of welcome for asylum seekers, refugees and other new arrivals.

The Minister responsible for conditions in Australia’s detention centres is the Minister for Home Affairs the Hon Jason Clare MP. You can contact the Minister at or on Twitter @JasonClareMP.