An Urgent Message From Young People on Suicide Prevention and Our Future
This story was written by professor Jo Robinson and the following young people: Finnian Gregor, Alexander Dalton, Zoe Teh, Taylor Johnstone, Annabel Ramsay and Samuel Hockey.
Suicide prevention, including among young people, is front and center of public debate, and as the mental health of young people across the globe has been rocked by COVID-19 this is more important than ever.
Youth suicide rates have increased in recent years and there are grave concerns over young people’s futures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic: concerns arising from the health, social, financial and educational impacts of the pandemic, to name but a few. As a result, many professionals have been advocating for an increased focus on the needs of young people. But what do we as young people think the solutions are?
Last month we took part in “The Young and the Restless webinar,” (produced by Sydney University’s Brain and Mind Centre and the youth mental health organization, Orygen) talking about how we see the future of suicide prevention. We are all young people in Australia with our own lived experience of feeling suicidal, and while the suicide prevention sector worldwide has done a great job of listening to the voices of people with a lived experience, these are (for the most part) adult voices. Now it’s our turn – we want and we need to be heard!
Lived experience of suicide can mean different things. It may mean surviving a suicide attempt, living with constant suicidal thoughts or supporting a suicidal friend. Tragically for some of us, it means losing someone we love to suicide. All these experiences are valid and they can all help inform how to do things differently, but so far they are left unheard. We are failing to do anything differently, and as a result the system is failing us!
For Finn, 19, it has taken him a long time to accept the struggle of this new “COVID normal.” Progressing through life’s complications requires resilience at the best of times, so when you attach the enormity of a pandemic it is even harder. “As a colourful homosexual, I struggled immensely simply existing in the black-and-white suburb I live in. I could never understand what was going wrong with my personal development. Why were my jokes unfunny to others? Why was I never fitting in? It wasn’t until I ventured to university and got professional psychological help that I understood that I wasn’t born to fit in with this world but to stick out of it.”
For Alex, a 17-year-old trans man, access to mental health support was critical. But his journey was not straightforward; it required patience, persistence and resilience: “I went to three different counsellors within the same service in 2.5 years, meaning I had to relay the same information over and over, rather than making progress with recovery or developing effective coping strategies.”
Getting help also needs to be both cheaper and quicker. According to both Zoe, a Uni student, and Taylor, who grew up “as a footy mad teenager in the country,” 10 sessions and the mental health care plan rebate is simply not enough: “I needed an additional $2,000 per year for a private psychologist because the wait time at the free service was 2 months; I wasn’t going to last 2 months!”
The problem is urgent! Amazingly none of us gave up and between us we have successfully navigated the system. Mental health services are essential — often life-saving. But the reality is they are not sufficient to combat the current national mental health crisis.
Which begs the question, what would we do differently post COVID-19? Well for starters, services need to be more streamlined, more accessible, more affordable and tailored to the diverse and specific needs of young people in this rapidly-changing world. Services like headspace Australia are amazing, and for Alex it marked a turning point in his recovery. But long wait times make it hard to access, and many young people are not as lucky as us — the wait is just too long.
Importantly, clinical services are not the only setting where recovery can occur. The best help Finn got was through Uni, but for many, including Taylor, help-seeking journeys frequently start back in school. Schools are a well-accepted setting for suicide prevention activities, although often school staff are scared to talk to us about suicide for fear of doing harm. We now know that talking about suicide will “not put ideas into our heads,” and for Taylor talking to others, and helping them better understand mental ill-health and suicidality has been a critical part of his recovery. “It’s about empowerment and agency and us being seen as part of the solution and not just the problem.”
As young people we want schools and other people, including media, to talk openly about suicide. The way in which suicide is spoken about in the media has been debated for years, but have we actually made any progress? To be honest it all just feels patronizing. As young people we talk about this stuff all the time – these days mostly online. Silence amongst adults and mainstream media simply increases the intergenerational stigma and shame surrounding suicide, making it even more difficult for us to open up and ask for help.
We need to name the problem if we are going to fix it!
For Annabel, 23, open conversations and advocacy are key to dismantling the taboo around suicide: “The stigma only engenders shame, and shame stops us from seeking help.” Despite the diversity in our experience, stigma (and dare we say discrimination) are things we have all been forced to live with.
Samuel, 25, believes “as a society we need to acquire the gumption and stand up against the discriminatory rejection of people who experience mental ill-health.”
Hand in hand, stigma and discrimination ripple deeply across households, sports clubs, workplaces, cultures and communities, and must be tackled — now! There is often the (mis)perception that as young people we’ve got nothing to worry about, but right now that couldn’t be further from the truth. Our studies, work, bills, friendships, dating, family and hobbies all impact on our wellbeing — and this is especially true now when we are all so isolated and our futures feel so uncertain. It is hard to study, we are losing our jobs, we can’t see our friends or family and accessing care is almost impossible. However, despite this perfect storm we remain hopeful and optimistic.
We want to help each other and help ourselves and this couldn’t have been more evident during the webinar. Instead of arguing and point scoring, we need compassion, support and some positivity. And we need youth friendly healthcare that is there when we need it and at a price we can afford. And we need it now. Recycling the same negative stories and the same voices with the same ineffective solutions is no longer acceptable and we refuse to be told otherwise. Our friends are dying and we need change. We need schools and Uni’s, services and policy makers to listen to us. We are the experts in our own experience.
We are fed up with the silence and shame that surrounds suicide and we are fed up of adults speaking for us and at us. If we are going to come out of this pandemic with any kind of future, it is time to give us a voice and give us the care that we need!
For tips and advice for how to talk about suicide safely online see the #chatsafe guidelines.
Finnian Gregor is a 19-year0old Communications student, Alex Dalton is a 17-year-old secondary school student, Zoe Teh is a 26-year-old Psychology student and Research Assistant at Orygen in Melbourne, Taylor Johnstone is a 22-year-old Osteopathy student, Annabel Ramsay is a 23-year-old Law and Communications student and Samuel Hockey is a 25-year-old youth lived experience researcher at the Brain and Mind Centre in Sydney. Jo Robinson is an Associate Professor and head of suicide research at Orygen.
All took part in The Young and the Restless webinar, which produced by Sydney University’s Brain and Mind Centre and the youth mental health organization, Orygen, as part of the ‘Flatten the Mental Health Curve’ series.
Image via the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Center