A suicide prevention program for young people in Victor Harbour is changing and strengthening a community, one classroom at a time, writes Louise Pascale.
On a chilly October night at the old wharf of Goolwa in South Australia an audience embarks a series of buses for a theatre experience with a difference. Taken from location to location they will slowly be engulfed in the world of Adrian Fulgin, a young man who could be from any regional town across Australia.
The show, called If There Was a Colour Darker than Black I Would Wear It, was devised in Mount Gambier and as the title implies is a dark piece of theatre.
“All of this started with my original concept of the last of moments in someone’s life before they decide to kill themselves, as they were dying and what went through their head as well,” says the shows Co-Director John Crouch.
“I was drawn to it because some of the kids who I taught, that had committed suicide, were not the kind of kids I had assumed would commit suicide. They were, from outward appearances, really successful kids, very good at sport – and that’s really important in a regional centre – they were good looking, they came from apparently wealthy middle class families.”
John is also a drama teacher at a local high school in Mount Gambier, a regional centre with a high youth suicide rate. In his 12 years of teaching he has seen eight suicides in the town’s different high school communities. There are also those who have taken their lives not long after leaving school.
Prior to A Colour Darker Than Black appearing in Goolwa there was also a spate of suicides by young men from the local football club. They now have a suicide prevention program in place.
Just down the road in the neighboring town at Victor Harbour High School counselor Colin Sibly has seen a worrying trend of depression, anxiety and self-harm in some of his students.
“Because they had formed a relationship with us, and were really comfortable with that, they wanted us to help them through what is essentially a clinical area that needed some medical intervention,” says Colin. “So we were finding increasingly we were not able to meet the needs of (these) young people.”
But in a town where going to your GP for a sports injury is cool but seeing them for mental health was un-cool, how was he going to do this?
After discussing this with the local chaplain and GP Dr Anke Doley they came up with an early intervention program called Doctors on Campus. Simply put, Dr Doley spends one morning a fortnight in the School’s Student Services office seeing students who have been referred by counselors. She then writes a referral and a mental health plan that includes seeing a psychologist who also visits the campus one morning a fortnight.
An administrator in the Student Services office keeps all appointments confidentially and students are sent discreet text message reminders. If they still forget their appointment a counselor goes to the classroom and pulls them out of their lesson.
Because Student Services carries a range of activities from career counseling to leadership programs their appointment could be for many reasons, least of all to see a psychologist.
This pioneering program has been running since 2006 and just over 300 students have accessed it. Colin and Dr Doley are both confident their early intervention has stopped some students from extreme self harm and perhaps even suicide. In fact Colin tearfully recalls one student who overdosed, coming back to the school for help. His grateful parents later told him without that support “they would no longer have a son.”
Another student Daniel Pearce is testament to the program’s strength. At age 13 he struggled with severe depression and confesses contemplating suicide on a daily basis.
“During year 8 and 9 I fell into a severe depression and Mr Sibly was the first person I would go to if I ever had troubles,” recalls Daniel. “So I would come to school not feeling very well, I would just come and talk to him and then go and get on with the rest of my day.”
Through the Doctor on Campus program Daniel was able to develop coping mechanisms for his depression and also understand the chemical imbalance that was going on in his brain. Today through the support of the program, his school community and friends Daniel has been able to make life changes that have assisted with his recovery.
While many people still live in fear of the stigma of often associated with mental illness, Daniel is happy to share his experiences publicly and with his mates. He openly says: “I feel that talking about it actually makes me feel better. Not only does it make me feel better but it gives other people an understanding of what’s happening with them if they’re upset.”
Most recently Daniel shared his journey with depression in the Lion’s Youth of the Year Quest and won on a national level. With success stories such as this it is easy to see why politicians locally and Federally, from both sides of politics, have praised Colin’s work.
Yet while they are willing to congratulate him and the team, none have found any continuous funding to roll it out to other school communities. Colin believes that is because a program like this requires thinking outside the square and inter-departmental action.
“Recently I have been to see [Minister for Mental Health] Mark Butler and [he] is enthusiastic about the program but obviously the Federal government has made a significant commitment to headspace and that’s fantastic. The only problem is headspace centre’s are only regionally located and not as accessible as a Doctors on Campus program within schools,” implores Colin. “The other thing is, from a lot perspectives, you still need a mental health plan so the problem of getting the student to a doctor for an initial mental health plan still exists.”
headspace is a national foundation that assists with youth mental health through counseling and programs with a focus of getting young people ‘back on track’. Based around the country the nearest centre for young people in Victor Harbour is just under an hour away.
However, headspace along with the Minister, has just announced a school support program for communities affected by youth suicide. In the Minister’s announcement he said it “will help grieving school communities to come to terms with their loss and it will provide ongoing resources and training for school staff to identify students at risk of suicide.”
While acknowledging suicide “is the single largest cause of death among young Australians” he admits that of the 1 in 4 young people experiencing mental health problems, three-quarters are not receiving professional help.
According to John assisting young people after a suicide or looking for signs is like “shutting the gate after the horse has bolted.”
“I think it is very important work, I think it needs to be explored more,” he believes. “I think we need to do more work to try and prevent the journey these people go on, taking their own life.”
As first appeared in Ramp Up, 12 November 2012