activism, human rights, politics, refugees

A man on fire: Australia’s hidden mental health crisis

Trigger warning: please take care of yourself and read with caution. The below content references torture, self-harm and suicide.

Yesterday, a man set himself on fire.

As many as 50 refugees on Manus Island have attempted suicide or self-harmed since the federal election. Mental health issues have been prevalent in Australia’s offshore detention centres for years, but according to refugees and advocates on the PNG island, May’s election result has triggered a complete mental health crisis.

Let’s think about this, statistically. At least 50 individuals have attempted suicide in just three weeks, with more than 70 isolated incidents reported as of the date of this post. That’s about three attempts on the island per day. If we were to look at those 70 incidents as a percentage given the 500 men living in the Manus detention centre, we are looking at (at least) a 14% rate of suicide attempts – in three weeks.

To give this context over one year, alongside general Australian statistics: suicide attempts are occurring on Manus Island at a rate that is 5000% higher than that in Australia, generally speaking. 5085.19% higher, to be specific.

So what are we doing about it?

So far, we know that those who have self-harmed are being held in prison cells by Manus police.

In severe cases, men are sent to Port Moresby hospital, who are understandably overwhelmed by the magnitude of this emergency. In some cases, the hospital has even returned patients to Manus where the self-harm has recurred.

In October 2018 it was revealed that refugees on Manus Island were waiting up to a month for access to mental health services. One month. To date, we don’t have any indication that this minimal access to healthcare has improved. In fact, within days of re-election, Scott Morrison made clear his intention to repeal the Medevac bill (which was only made law in February). Its reversal would ensure that refugees in desperate need of medical care could no longer be brought to Australia for proper treatment. Refugee advocates have called the repeal a “death warrant” for asylum seekers in offshore detention. It seems obvious now more than ever that a reversal of this bill would be catastrophic; yet, it’s been one of the Coalition’s top priorities since re-election.

Given the recent spike in suicide attempts, our government’s continued disregard for human life is pretty astounding. When did politics become more important than people? Surely as the Australian people, we can do better?

We’ve got to remember where the majority of these people have come from. Refugees are men, women and children fleeing war, terror and persecution. According to staff on the island, these people already 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. It is a cruel policy by international standards, and the refugees on the island know that they are being made an example of. They aren’t being held prisoner for any crime, but rather, held there as a warning to others who may consider coming to Australia by boat.

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. Facing at least another three years in detention under the Coalition, it is no wonder that the refugees on Manus have lost any shred of hope for their future. It is bleak.

If we return to the rate of suicide attempts in the last three weeks alone, 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. If a suicide crisis like this emerged among a specific people group in Australia, it would be declared a state of 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 carrying on any longer.

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. So why are we funding a system that demonstrates such a brazen disregard for human life? Does one human life matter less than another? How many men need to die for us to start paying attention?

In a lucky country like ours, this response isn’t good enough. PNG police are already calling on the Australian government to respond to the self-harm outbreak on the island, and frankly, we should be too. This isn’t somebody else’s problem. It’s our problem.

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

Every life matters.



Please see the below resources for extra reading, or ways that you can help to raise awareness on the crisis that is unfolding on Manus Island:

7 News: ‘Refugee sets fire to himself on Manus Island’

SBS News: ‘Refugee sets fire to himself on Manus Island’

Josh Butler for 10 Daily News: ‘Manus Refugee Sets Himself On Fire As Self-Harm Crisis Escalates’

SBS News: ‘More than 40 refugees brought to Australia for medical treatment in months since Medevac law’

Chasing Asylum film (available on Stan Australia)

No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani

Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC)

‘Eyes on Offshore’ Facebook Community

Behrouz Boochani for the ABC: ’27 suicide or self-harm attempts on Manus since election result’

Holly Robinson for the ABC: ‘Manus Island in ‘unprecedented crisis’ as refugee self-harm surges after Australian election’

Cover image of Behrouz Boochani taken by Hoda Afshar.


Readers seeking support and information about suicide can contact Lifeline 24 hours a day online and on 13 11 14. Other services include the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467, Beyond Blue and Kids Helpline (for people aged five to 25) on 1800 55 1800.


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