THE families and loved ones and friends of young people who
commit suicide suffer an agony almost beyond imagination and
certainly beyond words.
I have been buffeted by it a number of times. Decades ago, a
beautiful and gentle young man who had been my best friend in
those raw and raucous early teen years killed himself. Precocious
experimentation with drugs had induced psychosis. I thought about
him every day for many years.
Some 18 months ago, I carried the coffin of the 14-year-old son
of a dear friend of mine. The crushing pain and heartbreak that
family and too many others endure is a truly terrible and
terrifying thing to behold. In recent days I was touched by such
We need to talk about suicide with our young people. For too long
it was taboo, in part because of the misguided fear that any
mention of it might prompt dangerous thoughts. There is a growing
understanding that careful and appropriate discussion about it is
an important duty. We must help our young people develop
resilience; our responsibility to nurture resilience is as
crucial as providing them with an academic education. Existence
is a mysterious and wonderful thing. It can be loaded with joy
and serendipity, with meaning and magic, but it also comes with
the certainty of adversity and pain.
We can and must help prevent suicide; we can reduce the number of
young people taking this terrible, irrevocable step, one they do
not fully comprehend and one often taken in the fog of mental
Mental health disorders have a key role in suicide, which is the
leading cause of death for people aged 15-24. The mongrel truth
is that in an average year 12 classroom, one person has attempted
As many as one in four young people experience mental health
issues such as depression, eating disorders and anxiety, as well
as the less-common illnesses of psychosis and bipolar disorder.
Drugs and alcohol often fuel the problems, and are sometimes used
to self-medicate them.
Talking appropriately about suicide does not glorify it. It means
explaining that young people have many options - and suicide is
not one of them. There is a growing array of resources; one of
the greatest things about the web is the information immediately
available to people in need. A site that can help young people
confront many of the issues they face is reachout.com, which
guarantees anonymity should the young person feel inhibited.
Another fundamental resource for troubled young people is other
young people. They can, if we give them the knowledge, lead their
friends towards help.
A dilemma many face is wondering whether to break a confidence
given in time of distress or suffering. We need to empower our
young people with the knowledge that it is far better to see
their friend happy and healthy and doing well than to keep such
There is some world-leading research being co-ordinated by a $100
million organisation of which I am a board member. The Young and
Well Cooperative Research Centre (youngandwellcrc.org.au), led by
a gifted psychologist, Associate Professor Jane Burns, brings
together more than 70 partner organisations.
One of Burns' core principles is that young people must be at
the centre of everything the CRC does, and she has assembled an
inspiring, Australia-wide youth brains trust.
One of the Young and Well CRC's missions is to reduce the
number of young people ending their own lives. Burns stresses the
importance of promoting better mental health for young people.
That means getting help earlier. It means understanding that
things do get better. It means information about the threats
drugs and alcohol pose to teenage brains. Many people do indeed
want to experiment with substances, and humanity has a history of
seeking altered states, but we must help young people understand
that these are adult decisions.
Former Australian of the Year Pat McGorry, one of the most highly
regarded youth mental health experts and one of Burns'
mentors, is one of many who have demonstrated the dreadful risks,
for example, young people take by experimenting with cannabis.
It is heartening to observe, anecdotally, that an increasing
number of young people have the view that such experimentation is
far from hip; they are looking out for each other and consider
that those who are getting stoned at school age are being
foolish, not rebellious.