Warning: This blog post discusses youth suicide.
This week has been brutal for Brisbane. We have lost 3 tweens/teens to suicide. I’ve been flooded with emails with people expressing grief and asking how they can be part of the solution. While I’m answering Brisbane based emails, I am actually working in Hervey Bay. This community has recently experienced 6 teen suicides in a period of two months, with one young man being only 12-year-olds.
Youth suicide is of far greater magnitude than most realise. The Australian Bureau of Statistics suggests that suicide remains the leading cause of death for young Australians, and it is continuing to rise. 458 young people under the age of 25 (347 males and 111 females) died due to suicide in 2018. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people are significantly over-represented in these statistics, being three times the rate of non-indigenous young people. We must do everything in our power to prevent lives being lost too soon.
It’s been obvious for some time that Australia is staring down the barrel of a disenfranchised mental health system. Families need easier access to medical services, especially in rural and regional areas. Long wait lists make finding help at the right time almost impossible… try telling a struggling teen to wait for three months to see a psychiatrist! There is also the real challenge of finding a service that is the right ‘fit’ for the child, as one size does not fit all.
Even if we are able to improve all of these things, and dump bucket loads of funding into our medical system (oh I WISH!!!!), it will always be inadequate unless we are able to stand up and fill the gaps. Without this I fear our medical system will fail no matter how much money we throw at it. The only way to address a crisis of this magnitude is with a tribe mentality.
I have worked in the health and wellbeing sector for 20 years. During those years I learnt a lot about how people cope with desperate times. I learnt that it is the “who” and not always the “what” which saves lives. In overly simplistic terms, that means that you and I are more a part of the solution than we realise. Make no mistake about it, family and social relationships keep people’s heart’s beating.
What does this mean practically?
Community Matters More Than Ever
The research nationally and internally points to connection with family and community as being critical to supporting those with mental health challenges. Our young people need a robust identity that is based in a strong sense of belonging. It is only from a place of belonging that we can work out life’s issues. Without this basic need met, all other initiatives are often futile. Nothing can replace this, and it takes an investment of time to nurture this sense of belonging.
In this fast-paced world driven by technology we can’t afford to lose sight of the importance of contributing to a local community. That’s why belonging to local sports clubs, dance groups, community events are all a vital part of the answer to mental health challenges. They are gathering places for people to take care of each other. If you have a local business, or volunteer in a community group, the space you create is part of the solution.
Please Think Holistically
Please don’t expect counselling to be our one stop magic bullet for a child who is struggling – it’s often not. We have to think about young people’s mental health holistically – physically, socially, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Small changes can make a big difference. The addition of a personal trainer, new job, change in school, a new hobby or sports team or even holiday can tip the scales in the right direction. The more positives we can get in their daily schedule the better.
Check In On Your Kids’ Mates
As parents we can often get blind sighted – we don’t see what we aren’t looking for. I have met some amazing families who have missed significant traumas in their child’s life because they didn’t see what they weren’t looking for. Teenagers can be complicated and difficult to read. They need a range of adults around them – ones who have their best interests at heart and are prepared to read “between the lines” when necessary. If we look out for other people’s kids and appreciate it when they do the same in return, I believe our world can only be stronger.
Don’t Underestimate Small Gestures
We all know at least one young person who needs to be noticed, heard, protected and safe. How we respond to them could make all the difference. If you are concerned for a young person’s mental health, don’t stay silent. Speak up. Ask them how they are. Lean in with curiosity and care. There is power in noticing. There is also power in offering a bed for the night. There is power in cooking a meal or creating a moment of fun. I have learnt that hope can be transferred by the simplest of gestures and you don’t have to have a degree to be a part of the answer.
Just Get On With It
Many people ask me, “How did you get started? I want to help young people but I’m not sure what to do next.“ When I started a charity I was 24. I literally picked up the phone, offered my services for free and it went from there. I didn’t make it any more complicated than that. If you have an idea to support your community, please – just get on with it. Australia needs to see innovative and diverse local initiatives, who will offer prevention and early intervention services. If you don’t have your own unique idea – volunteer! The world needs you.
I want to draw attention to the not-for-profit programs who have long been under rated and overlooked in national funding budgets. Philanthropic funded programs like Backtrack and social enterprises like Push Productions have gained successful, long term outcomes for those most vulnerable for many years. They offer a unique and vital piece to the puzzle; a genuine guardrail for young lives, sometimes after, and often until they are ready to engage with medical services. These are people who just got on with it.
Always Ask for Help
What do we do after a crisis? We grieve, we heal, and we help others. Please unapologetically lean on each other. There are some things that are not meant to be handled in isolation – the load is too much to bear. It is only within community that we can find true healing and answers. Our kids have been through so much of late – Covid, floods, bushfires…there have been so many events out of their control. Teach them to heal with community by helping, and looking for the helpers who they admire.
Don’t forget to ask for help when you need it. Please do take advantage of:
Lifeline – 13 11 14
Lifeline also have a chat service available 12- 2pm every day – 0477 131 114.
Kid’s Help Line – 1800 551 800.
Headspace, the national youth mental health service, is also available.
1300 642 255 (1300 MH CALL) is another number you can call to get advice on how to handle a crisis and what services are available to you.