The 2016 ABS figures on Causes of Death are disturbing in relation to youth suicide. Chris Harris, General Manager of Community Engagement at Youth Focus describes the latest statistics as a ‘call to action’.

“When you look at the figures we need to remember that they don’t paint anything like a full picture of the devastation that suicide wreaks on the wider community. Its ‘shrapnel’ impacts everyone from immediate family to friends, sporting clubs and schools.”

“We have to move from rhetoric to action and make some positive and lasting changes. There’s a recent report commissioned by Macquarie Bank looking at relative levels of happiness and general confidence among young people. It turns out they’re the lowest in a decade.”

“It’s not all that surprising with the current difficult economic climate playing a large part in all this.”

Vulnerable groups

“It’s even worse for some specific groups of young people who have become disenfranchised and devalued more than others. For example, the level of mental health issues is disproportionately high among Aboriginal youth and the LGBTI community. There’s a palpable sense of disconnection and we all need to work hard to address this with initiatives around inclusion and gender-sensitive services.”

Chris elaborates on what he regards as ‘reasonable expectations’ for young people and the merits of early intervention.

“I think a decent education leading to some sort of employment is not asking too much and an improvement in gender equality is desirable, too. Sadly, there are significantly low levels of confidence amongst many of these young people so it’s not surprising they’re struggling.”

“These are really vulnerable people and it’s significant that almost 60% of young people who suicide have had recent contact with a mental health service. So it means we need to improve our levels of assessment and the type of interventions we make. Perhaps far more disturbing is the 40% who aren’t accessing these services at all.”

“It’s vitally important that people, particularly within at-risk groups such as males between the ages of 44 and 55, Aboriginals and members of the LGBTI community know exactly where to get good evidence-based help.”

School involvement

Youth Focus is looking to work more closely with schools this year to improve mental health literacy of young people.

“It’s there in a rather ad hoc way but we’d like to get this issue on the curriculum in a solid and more consistent manner,” he said.

“If we can bring students, teachers and the community together and make addressing youth suicide a joint responsibility the likelihood of getting some positive results will be a lot greater. I think people are sick and tired of throwing dollars at these issues and then just hearing about the problems.”

“There are some things that really work well and the street magazine, The Big Issue, is a great example of that. The whole thing works as a micro-business and gives the vendors a sense of meaning and purpose. We should be asking community groups who are working in this area about what actually does make a difference and look for similar ventures.”

Chris is well aware of the positive impact that a good GP can bring to the equation. He also recognises that there are some limitations.

Docs the safety net

“It’s so important for an organisation such as ours to have a strong, ongoing engagement with doctors. They form an integral part of a young person’s safety net, but they can’t do it all and they can’t fix everything.”

“It’d be a big plus if mental health checks could be built into every routine medical in a GP’s consulting room.”

“We all have to share in the responsibility of turning these suicide figures around and that’s why we’re very big on community engagement. We currently go into 40 schools in WA and we’re closely involved with the annual Ride for Youth, which gets bigger every year.”

Chris’s background is psychology and eating disorders and helped establish treatment pathways for young people.

“When I began that journey it wasn’t even considered to be a mental health issue.”

Empowering youth

“One thing I’ve come to realise, particularly in my work with Youth Focus, is that we’re often dealing with young people who have a distinct lack of self-belief and a sense of hopelessness.”

“Having said that, a strength of Youth Focus is that the young people can self-refer so that means they usually arrive with a high degree of motivation. They really want to change, they want to stop living the way they are and move on to building their self-esteem. They want to do a lot more than merely reduce their symptoms.”

“At Youth Focus we provide a mental health ‘platter’ of resources, everything from advice on getting adequate sleep to healthy nutrition. More broadly, we’re attempting to ‘immunise’ against mental health problems using supportive programs that involve the wider community.”

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