THE value of genuine caring and compassion cannot be overestimated.
It’s hard to understand why someone with their whole life ahead of them would decide to end that life, yet 419 children and young people, aged 25 and younger, died from suicide in Australia in 2016.
There’s no simple solution, but if we want things to change it’s crucial we all increase our understanding, step up, and play our part.
We need to start by listening to the experts – young people who have thought about and/or attempted suicide.
In 2017, Kids Helpline responded to 10,636 contacts from young people about suicide.
What we’ve learnt from talking with these young people and those who responded to our survey about suicide provided important lessons for policy makers, practitioners, and in fact, each and every one of us.
Firstly, young people who attempt suicide don’t actually want to die, but suicide can seem like the only option when you’re in unbearable emotional pain and have lost any hope of change.
These young people often feel they don’t really belong anywhere, that they are unimportant.
Combined with a sense of failure or self-hatred, they come to believe that others would be better off without them.
So every single one of us can play a part by showing every young person we meet that they are truly valued – that they matter.
When we asked young people what helped stop thoughts of suicide, they told stories of teachers making an extra effort to show they cared, of friends who listened without judging and families who never gave up on them.
The value of genuine caring and compassion cannot be overestimated.
Unfortunately, most young people don’t tell anyone how they’re feeling.
They don’t want to worry loved ones and they’re scared that asking for help might make things worse – that they’ll be called an attention seeker or their feelings will be trivialised.
And the main reason why is stigma.
What do we mean by stigma?
Stigma means your best friend saying ‘just grow up and deal with your problems’ when you tell her you’re thinking about ending your own life.
It means health professionals calling you a waste of a hospital bed when you’ve just tried to kill yourself.
It means being given a lecture about budgeting when you’re a homeless teenager collecting a food package.
These are all real experiences of our survey respondents.
Too often, just at the time when they most need compassionate support, young people feel more ashamed, more isolated, more distressed and more scared.
And the next time they feel suicidal, they stay silent.
So what can we do?
We need to build young people’s confidence to share their feelings and encourage them to ask for help.
We need to ensure when they do seek help, they receive a positive response, regardless of who they approach.
More than that, we need adults to be proactive, to take the support to the young person, not wait for them to come looking.
Then we need to provide child friendly professional mental health treatment, that is easily accessible.
It must be provided by a youth specialist with the patience and skills to connect with a child in distress, which is often not easy.
And finally, that specialist support needs to be provided for as long as it takes, not for as long as the funding allows.
In other words we need to build caring communities and health systems based on the needs and preferences of young people, rather than the adults managing the world in which they live.
Suicide is preventable if we all work together.
■Dr Samantha Batchelor is a senior researcher with yourtown and Kids Helpline. Kids Helpline is Australia’s only free, private and confidential 24/7 phone and online counselling service for young people aged 5-25. Freecall 1800 55 1800 or kidshelpline.com.au