The Immigration Department incident report reveals that 26 minors harmed themselves between August, 2010 and November, 2011 in two Darwin centres.
But the department says the rates of self-harming have significantly decreased due to improved support programs and reduced wait times in detention.
Presenter: Jane Bardon, Lateline
Speakers: Fernanda Dahlstrom, Darwin Asylum Seeker Support Network; Louise Newman, Professor of Developmental Psychiatry, Monash University; Morteza Poorvadi, Former immigration detainee; Ian Rintoul, Refugee Action Coalition
JANE BARDON, REPORTER: Asylum seekers in the Darwin Airport Lodge are among 940 children in the Government's Alternative Places of Detention.
Detainees say some hurt themselves.
Immigration Department documents obtained under Freedom of Information laws by the Darwin Asylum Seeker Support Network detail how 26 children harmed themselves and attempted suicide between August, 2010 and November, 2011.
FERNANDA DAHLSTROM, DARWIN ASYLUM SEEKER SUPPORT NETWORK: The one that really stands out is an incident where a nine-year-old performed an act of self-harm involving taking an overdose of painkillers knowing what the likely effects of that would be on him.
JANE BARDON: The documents show the nine-year-old stated he was going crazy in detention. A 10-year-old boy who cut his forearm was not happy being in detention. A 17-year-old tried to hang himself with the knowledge that staff could be delayed in response while dealing with another incident. A group of 14 to 17-year-old boys had a wardrobe blocking the door to their room while they slashed their forearms. All in one of the Alternative Places of Detention.
FERNANDA DAHLSTROM: So one of the places that the Government describes as being less harsh, more comfortable and more cheerful.
JANE BARDON: Professor Louise Newman chairs the Federal Government's mental health group, which advises the Immigration Department. She studied the children's reports.
LOUISE NEWMAN, PROF. OF DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHIATRY, MONASH UNI.: Fundamentally what it says to those of us in mental health and health professions is that children should not be detained.
JANE BARDON: The Immigration Department's documents say its detention centre manager Cerco isn't qualified to assess whether self-harm incidents are suicide attempts. Yet some self-harming children were removed from the psychological support program as the behaviour of the client was determined as not a mental health issue.
LOUISE NEWMAN: Their approach is not in keeping with contemporary and modern mental health treatment.
JANE BARDON: The Immigration Department says since 2011 it has invested in more mental health staff and extended clinic hours. It says it's also strengthened its psychological support program by providing ongoing mental health awareness training and introducing new child mental health care policies.
LOUISE NEWMAN: These are children whose liberty is constricted. These are children who are not supported adequately emotionally and psychologically.
JANE BARDON: Morteza Poorvadi was released from Villawood in Sydney 10 years ago. He found four years in detention unbearable.
MORTEZA POORVADI, FORMER IMMIGRATION DETAINEE: I've tried to commit suicide seven times in total and it all happened from 16 to 20.
JANE BARDON: In Woomera, like other detainees, he hunger-striked and sewed his lips to protest against detention. In Villawood, he tried to kill himself by slashing his wrists.
MORTEZA POORVADI: One morning you wake up and you are sick of everything. You are - you are just - you feel so tired and stressed and depressed that you don't really think straight.
JANE BARDON: A handful of refugee advocates hold a weekly vigil calling for the release of detainees at the Darwin Airport Lodge. Detention centre visitors continue to receive reports of children self-harming.
FERNANDA DAHLSTROM: It seems to have become a routine part of life in the detention centres.
IAN RINTOUL, REFUGEE ACTION COALITION: Particularly in Darwin, Darwin Airport Lodge and there were earlier reports with families who were in Leonora.
JANE BARDON: The Immigration Department says self-harming has decreased significantly since 2011. While it can't supply numbers, it says the reduction is due to improved mental health services and training for staff, less time spent in detention and the use of community detention and bridging visas.
Mental health professionals and refugee advocates are calling on the Government to release the statistics on self-harming voluntarily and regularly.