The health of human rights on full display: July media review

By Pia White

A discussion of human rights and heath inevitably invites consideration of a number of issues reaching beyond access to medical service. Questions of race and gender, poverty and standards of living can be extremely pertinent in certain circumstances.

July saw media coverage of a number of issues relating to health and human rights, including the revival of the euthanasia debate, the mental health of children in detention and indigenous health services in Australia.

Closing the health gap


The Beyondblue TV campaign against discrimination

Ethnic disparity in health outcomes is widely considered to be an indicator of broader human rights concerns within a community. What does it say about Australia then that our indigenous communities continue to experiences shorter life expectancy, higher rates of mortality and preventable illness and a higher rate of suicide than the national average?

This month, Beyondblue launched a campaign focusing on the links between racial discrimination and depression amongst Indigenous Australians, serving to further highlight the “gap” that endures between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations in Australia.

Though the problem is clear, the appropriate way to address the health divide is not. However, July brought a number of developments that may contribute to improving the situation.

At the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Summit in Cairns, the Queensland government announcement that it would transfer responsibility for delivering primary healthcare services to Aboriginal community organisation, Gurriny Yealamucka Health Service.

Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service CEO Julie Hartley-Jones explained that “the evidence is very clear that a community that determines their own health needs and is a model based on the needs of the family rather than the needs of individual people have better health outcomes.”

Meanwhile, Melbourne University announced the establishment of the University of Melbourne Poche Centre for Indigenous Health. The Centre will provide “training and development programs for emerging and established Indigenous leaders, and create academic pathways for Indigenous PhD candidates and postdoctoral fellows in health.”

The link between community managed health services and a reduction in health inequalities was reiterated by Associate Professor Shaun Ewen who spoke in support of the centre.

Mental health in detention

children-detentionYet, when it comes to health, Australia appears to be failing both the traditional owners of the land, and its newest arrivals.

Last month, Human Rights Commission president Professor Gillian Triggs visited Christmas Island Detention Centre and reported of a “mental health crisis,” shining a spotlight on Australia’s failure to protect the health of asylum seeker children in particular.

As part of the Human Rights Commission’s National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, Professor Triggs reported that children at the facility are self harming, suffering developmental problems, anxiety, depression and symptoms akin to post traumatic stress disorder.

Further, the former mental health director of International Health and Medical Services Dr Peter Young told the inquiry that the government requested IHMS remove statistic pertaining to the mental health crisis among child detainees from a report provided to the immigration department.

Immigration minister Scott Morrison responded to the allegations by warning against “making a whole bunch of conclusions” until the department had the opportunity to respond to the evidence.

Although the Human Rights Commission Inquiry has not concluded, the links between a rise in mental health disorders and the overall increase of the time spent in detention seem obvious and the government’s failures even more unacceptable.

The right to live vs the right to die

Philip Nitschke

Philip Nitschke

The euthanasia debate in Australia has been revived of late, after a draft bill dealing with the issue was tabled in the Senate late in June. The draft bill would seek to legalise the provision of drugs by doctors to terminally ill patients wishing to end their life.

Euthanasia continues to be a politicised issue despite their being significant community support in favour of decriminalising it. The Age published a persuasive editorial in favour of assisted death for the terminally ill and Archbishop Desmond Tutu recently wrote an article published by the Guardian in which he expressed support for dignity in death.

Some believe that the euthanasia debate in Australia has been derailed somewhat by the campaigning of euthanasia advocate Dr Philip Nitschke. The recently suspended doctor has been criticised for not distinguishing between circumstances of terminally ill people choosing to end their life and healthy, able bodied people looking for assistance in their suicide.

The international framework of human rights is designed to protect the right to life and to live with dignity. It seems that one issue driving the divisiveness of the euthanasia debate may be disagreement over whether the right to choose assisted upholds or undermines the right to life.