Self-harm in the Australian asylum seeker population

A Melbourne psychologist is just days away from submitting a PhD she hopes will change the future for asylum seekers.

Kyli Hedrick has spent the past 20 years working with people seeking asylum and refugees and is the founder a small private practice for people from asylum seeking and refugee backgrounds in Melbourne’s inner west.

As part of Refugee Week, which aims to inform the public about refugees and celebrate positive contributions made by refugees to Australian society, Dr Hedrick spoke with Cabrini Outreach about her thesis and the work she’s been doing.

Dr Hedrick’s thesis, ‘Deciphering despair – A study of self-harm in the Australian asylum seeker population’, collected data from more than 900 self-harm incidents reported across the Australian asylum seeker population between August 2014 and July 2015.

She said the data examined the incidence and key characteristics of self-harm from people in both on shore and off shore detention facilities, as well those living in community-based arrangements.

“The main findings are that people seeking asylum in detained populations have extremely high rates of self-harm, more than 200 times the Australian hospital treated rate of self-harm. By comparison, rates of self-harm among community-based asylum seekers are four times higher than in the general population,” Dr Hedrick said.

She said the data also showed that having people seeking asylum in lower security facilities didn’t actually lower the risk of self-harm.

“It’s the closed aspects of detention, regardless of security, that are associated with self-harm rates.”

Dr Hedrick said Refugee Week was not only about highlighting some of these important findings, but keeping the spotlight on issues around everyone’s right to healthcare.

She said the Covid-19 pandemic had brought a lot of focus to asylum seekers and those in the community not able to access some of the payments and health related support services available.

But she said it was important to keep educating ourselves and explore ways in which to help.

Dr Hedrick said the overall key finding was there was no independent body responsible for monitoring and reporting self-harm incidents among people seeking asylum, and that needed to change.

“Without knowing that data we don’t know the trends or how to implement prevention strategies,” she said.

“We need a clinical body tasked with monitoring and reporting these incidents.

“These are really alarming and exceptional rates of self-harm in people seeking asylum, particularly in those who are detained. The lack of reporting means we can’t implement any prevention tactics to improve these findings in the future.”

The Cabrini Outreach Asylum Seeker and Refugee Health Hub has also identified cases of self-harm among clients, along with other mental health problems.

The hub is just one service trying to fill the healthcare gap highlighted by Dr Hedrick, by offering free primary and specialist mental health services to people seeking asylum who have no access to Medicare or income support.

Find out more about the Cabrini Outreach Asylum Seeker and Refugee Health Hub here.