Spotlight on ‘severe shortage’ of mental health services after teenager kills child in regional NSW – ABC News


A country NSW teenager texted a friend from her bedroom one night last year, confiding of “feeling rather odd lately” and worried “something bad” and “irreversible” was going to happen.

Barely 12 hours later, the 14-year-old was arrested over the brutal killing of a younger girl in a town in the state’s north-east.

She told a detective she understood what she had done.

“How do you feel about it?” he asked.

“I don’t feel anything about it,” she replied.

It was a morning in 2020, when a police body-worn camera recorded the teen calmly answering questions at a neighbour’s property about a crime that sent shock waves far beyond the rural town.

Details of the 10-year-old victim’s death are so graphic they cannot be reported due to a court-imposed non-publication order.

As a judge this week found the girl not criminally responsible for the act due to undiagnosed mental illness, the newly-released video and a trove of court documents reveal how her behaviour increasingly alarmed friends and relatives in the lead-up.

She had been hearing a voice while battling a feeling her life was not “real” and seemed like a video game.

Severe shortage of specialists

The tragedy shines a spotlight on the difficulties of accessing specialist health services in the regions.

There were just 3.4 psychiatrists per 100,000 people in outer regional areas, according to a 2019 policy statement from The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists.

That compares to 15.1 in major cities, amounting to a “severe shortage” for rural and remote Australia.

Forensic psychiatrist reports before the Supreme Court concluded the girl was suffering from schizophrenia at the time of the killing.

According to a statement of agreed facts, the girl’s grandmother recalled she was always a “happy, bright and fun-loving” child.

She was creative, artistic and had a great imagination.

By the age of 12, she had begun to respond to teasing with physical violence.

Earlier, she began biting and piercing herself with staples.

Police at the scene in Gunnedah.
The teenager was found to be not criminally responsible for the killing.(ABC News: Caitlin Furlong)

Dreams blurred with reality

Her peers were unsympathetic, sometimes referring to her as a “psycho b***h”.

By September 2019, she had told friends of “realistic dreams” and said sometimes she didn’t know if she was daydreaming.

Then there were the voices.

One sounded like a female teenager, which presented at times of “build up” and “intense emotion such as anger”, sometimes telling her to stab people with pens.

The girl coped by writing stories about characters, many of them detailing acts of violence.

Another voice, which she came to know as the “get them” voice, was a “muffled, hoarse adult voice”.

She heard that twice; once before she killed the younger girl.

But she didn’t want to hurt people, she told a friend in the weeks before the incident.

Diary entries discovered by police described fantasies of killing people, including her parents.

She would also see “eyes” belonging to a cat — she also liked Satan and had a fascination with knives.

A delayed referral

Two weeks before the younger girl’s death, the teenager made a disclosure to her mother, the court documents reveal.

“I think about killing people all the time,” she said.

It was enough for her mother to make a GP appointment for referral to a specialist.

That appointment happened via teleconference a week later, when a doctor’s notes included symptoms like being irritable and angry, having poor sleep and low mood, low self-esteem, anxiety and hearing a voice.

The mother was told there would be a referral to a Sydney clinic and a phone call, but this hadn’t happened by the time the younger girl was killed.

Experts say the main obstacle in the way of access to mental health support in rural areas was staffing.

Hazel Dalton, from the Orange-based Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health, believes the need for GPs to make referrals to city-based specialists increases the likelihood of delay.

“It just provides more opportunity for communication to drop out and things not to work,” she said.

Dr Dalton said there was an expectation to “bridge the access gap” and have local and specialist support.

During her recorded police interview, the girl told detectives she thought the idea of seeing a Sydney specialist was “stupid”, “unnecessary” and a “waste of money”.

Seeing the cat’s eyes had “never bothered her”, she said, despite sometimes looking “creepy”.

A psychiatrist’s report noted that, in the girl’s perception, the cat had a “demonic smile” before the killing.

Schizophrenia as an impairment

When asked what she thought would happen to someone who committed the younger girl’s killing, the teenager replied: “go to gaol”.

“It’s against the law,” she said.

According to Associate Professor John Kasinathan’s report, which was considered by the court, schizophrenia is an ongoing disturbance of thought and perception.

“Schizophrenia impairs the emotional wellbeing, judgement and behaviour of the person,” he wrote.

The girl could not reason with a moderate degree of sense and composure about whether the killing was wrong, he wrote.

Two days before the incident, the teen broke down and told her mother “nothing feels real” and she “didn’t want to feel like this anymore”.

While confiding in her friend over text messages the night before — in a conversation during which she also spoke of wanting to kill her parents — she said she felt like she was “going crazy”.

The friend offered to speak with the girl’s parents herself and attempted to have the teenager promise not to do anything, before suggesting she try listening to calm music.

The last text she received back read: “Goodnight”.

The teenager will remain in detention under supervision.



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