Hamish Swayn is smart and kind. He’s a popular school captain at Rosebud Secondary College and lives at Cape Schanck. But in the 17 year old’s eyes is a deep sadness.
Through 2013 and 2014 a suicide cluster hit Rosebud and surrounds. Five people died and it got closer and closer to him, encircling him. There’s a feeling of panic and fright that comes over a community – a town, a city a suburb, a school – when this happens. People wonder who’s next, what is going wrong. There is anger and grief.
In the winter school holidays of 2013, the first Rosebud Secondary Year 10 girl died. Then a few months later, another, a girl from Rye who had attempted suicide several times before and was in and out of a residential youth mental health facility called Stepping Stones, in Clayton. The girls were friends but not close. But according to the mother of the second girl, she was bolstered. “It became more real, more attainable,” the mother says.
Hamish had just started the school then. He didn’t really know the girls but the Peninsula and specifically Rosebud, Rye and Dromana are tight-knit. His own family have been there for years. The pattern is true locals either stay forever or go away then come back to settle down.
Another nearby secondary college was hit too. One student, another girl. Then the Rye Football Club. Hamish was 15 but played in the under 18s – to his surprise in the ruck, but his grandfather played in the VFL for Hawthorn – when the team’s captain and a former Rosebud Secondary student killed himself. “He was an action man, surfing, sport,” says college assistant principal Geoff Seletto. “The community were not travelling well.”
In late 2014 Hamish’s uncle died. As if enough was not swirling around the young man already. His father’s brother. He was a former player and coach at the footy club. “I couldn’t get my head around it,” says Hamish, who has a younger brother at the school now. He heard a speech about the biological factors in suicide, about how the brain doesn’t fire in the moment. “That made more sense to some of my family,” he says.
His recovery has significant hurdles and it’s the same for the entire community. Last year a team of counsellors and psycho-educators from a not-for-profit body from Queensland stayed in Rosebud for a month to help patch things together again. The National Standby Response Service, part of a group called United Synergies, does what it calls “critical post-vention” on communities hit by suicide clusters.
They talk to community meetings and gather “informal networks” of people like police, teachers, club presidents and welfare arms to start talking to each other about suicide. One of the aims is to stop “contagion” where a cluster develops into something more. The other, says chief executive officer Christopher Johns, is “educating the gatekeepers in spotting the vulnerable”.
Melbourne grief counsellor Linda Espie spoke to the community about the unique feeling of being young and surrounded by suicide. “In an adolescent population it creates an incredible vulnerability,” she says. “There is a fear around who is going next. There is guilt. They might ask ‘could I have done something?’ There are existential questions – ‘Did I contribute? How come I couldn’t do anything to save them?’ ”
The number of male teenage suicides (15-19 year olds) dropped from 122 in 1997 to 108 in 2013, while the number of female teenager suicides rose from 33 to 40 over the same period.
Child psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Cregg said many schools still did not offer suicide prevention programs and he warned that ignoring the issue altogether could be very harmful to students, particularly those struggling with depression.
“Sometimes, schools wait until disaster hits and, even after disaster hits, they don’t do anything.”
At Rosebud Secondary College, the approach has been exhaustive. They had teams of specialists from government and the private sector resident at the school. Staff were affected profoundly, as well as the children. When youth mental health agency headspace came in after the second death at the school, Mr Seletto was surprised to hear them say “suicide”.
“We learnt very quickly it was OK to use that word,” he says.
The school had to be careful not to over-memorialise the suicides but still lead and remain dutiful. There were no big announcements at assembly, for example. But everyone was on high alert. The funeral for the young man who was the footy captain attracted more than 1000 people. Hamish Swayn himself wrote down a few thoughts about suicide and was encouraged to make a speech to students last year.
“We acknowledge that this has happened,” says Seletto. “There’s no escaping that. But let’s go forward into a positive process.” The school now has mindfulness and meditation three times a week for half the students. This year they hope to raise more money for their ‘Wellness Pavilion’, where among other things students can access psychological and emotional help. It will be open to the whole community, not just the school.
This article first appeared on ‘The Age’ on 20 February 2016.