Youth suicide is a huge issue not just in the UK but globally. Erin Stewart reports on much needed initiatives in Australia where young people are taking and giving each other control to guard against actions which can leave behind devastating consequences.
Studies from the World Health Organization show that suicide is the second leading cause of death among those aged under 30.
Suicide is strongly linked with mental illness and approximately 27 per cent of 18-25 year olds face a mental health issue each year and 75 per cent of mental health problems emerge before the age of 25. Services are chronically underfunded and face high demand.
The situation is devastating for communities coping with the lingering effects of suicide and the lost potential of too many young people. One hopeful thread of this issue, however, is that, in some places like Australia, young people themselves are taking a lead in addressing the issue.
Becks Mollica, for instance, once supported a young girl who she found pacing on the far end of a railway platform. Becks felt uneasy and instead of taking her regular train into university, she observed her.
“Eventually I approached her and said, ‘Do you want to talk?’” The girl declined but Becks told her, “I’m going to sit here for as long as it takes. I want you to know when you’re ready, I’ll be here.”
After an hour, the girl began to talk. Becks encouraged her to call a helpline. “By the end she seemed lighter.”
Becks isn’t sure that she would have been able to act so sensitively if she hadn’t been in a similar situation of feeling suicidal herself.
Eighteen months earlier, Backs had been unexpectedly confronted with her own history of abuse at a university lecture. She went into a dissociative state and remembers nothing of that time. “And when I came out of it, I was at the Gap,” a notorious suicide spot in Sydney.
That was where she met Don Ritchie, a man dubbed “The Angel of the Gap”. Until his death in 2012, Don patrolled area, supporting distressed individuals. That day, he gently, with concern but not panic, helped Becks get in touch with mental health services.
For people who are contemplating ending their own lives, according to Dr Andrew Fuller, a Clinical Psychologist who works with schools to promote wellbeing and a Fellow at the University of Melbourne, “Their logic is the only sensible thing to do is to die.” Having a conversation with them, however, shifts that mode of thinking. “They can start to think about other ways in which their needs can be met.”
Becks is now a mental health advocate and is committed to starting these conversations. She’s spoken to school groups, teachers and politicians about mental health. “A lot of the time, after the school talks you’d get teachers emailing, saying they’ve had kids come to them and ask them even more questions,” said Becks. “That’s what’s needed; we need people to keep talking.”
Tiana Spence has also been working on establishing conversations between people about the issue of youth suicide. At age fifteen, Tiana’s best friend took her own life. Tiana herself sunk into grief, which she still lives with today.
While people sometimes hide their distress, friends and family can learn signs to look out for. Tiana’s project seeks to demystify suicide by printing the seven warning signs of suicide on business cards in order to hand them out in public places.
Tiana thinks that, in retrospect, her friend showed some of the suicide warning signs although it is important to note that not everyone does. “Maybe if I had that information before, I would’ve been able to do something. I didn’t know anything about suicide before this. I’d never even known what it was.”
While education about suicide is sorely lacking, so too is education about how to sustain good mental health. This is an area that Aiden Harrison has addressed with his educational programme, Swish Start which teaches primary school students about mental health using basketball. “We start off with the basics, like what emotions are, what they look like, what they feel like, how we know if we’re feeling them, how we know if someone else is feeling them.”
Like Becks and Tiana, Aiden has been affected by suicide. A few years ago, Aiden found himself lying on his bed, wondering if his best friend, Amelia, who had attempted to take her own life, would live through the night. “I thought, ‘She’s in hospital right now and I can’t do anything. If she dies tonight, what was the last thing I did to help? Did I do anything to help?’”
Amelia thankfully survived but Aiden kept thinking. He hadn’t realised the depth of Amelia’s troubles, “I didn’t pick it up. I didn’t even know what depression was.”
Aiden’s idea exposes students to the concepts of mental health before they face adolescence where their risk of mental illness increases. Youth suicide prevention is complex and multi-faceted, but young people themselves are offering solutions, support and hope. They’re keeping the conversation going.