'I've lost too many friends to suicide'
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In Shepparton, a youth mental crisis has been brewing for years. As politicians spruik their plans to combat the issue, teens in town have their own ideas about what needs to change.
How much bullying does it take for a 13-year-old to no longer want to live? Nattaya can tell you. There was a time, not so long ago, when that's exactly what she wanted.
WARNING: This article discusses suicide and self-harm.
Where bullying, harassment, and "nasty, threatening words" used to be left at the school gates, they followed Nattaya home. Social media acted as an open doorway, allowing the ordeal to creep insidiously into every aspect of her life.
Without reprieve, the taunts soon started to change how she saw herself and her place in the world. She started to believe she wasn't wanted.
To cope, she tried to make herself invisible. Even to family and friends.
Then she tried to take her own life.
"It got to the point that I just wanted to give up on everything," she says.
It's been a long road of counselling and confidence-building to get Nattaya where she is today: a resilient 15-year-old who loves her cat and guinea pigs, sings her "heart out", and wants to become a disability support worker.
But she's regularly reminded of just how close the danger is when news spreads of another friend who has lost their battle with mental illness.
Losing someone to suicide is shattering at any age, but even more so in plural all before you're legally allowed to drive a car.
"Too many young people take their own lives because of bullying," Nattaya says. "I've lost too many friends to suicide and I'm 15. I want other people to know if you are ever getting bullied don't be afraid to open up."
The youth mental health crisis in Shepparton, a regional centre of 51,000 people two hours out from Melbourne, where Nattaya has spent her entire life, has been brewing for years.
And like in towns and cities across Australia, it's been exacerbated by the social disruption and anxiety brought on by years of on-again, off-again lockdowns.
Over recent months, a number of suicides among young people has left local families especially on edge.
Earlier this year, the state Member for Shepparton, independent Suzanna Sheed, spoke about a message she received from a young woman from the region, detailing a "tragic picture of the situation" where young people were waiting up to six months to access mental health support.
This week, she says the shortages in mental health support are just one part of a "health crisis situation" related to workforce issues and accessibility. "Regional areas are always underdone compared to metropolitan areas," she says.
At an acute level, there are no inpatient facilities for children and adolescents who are at risk of suicide in town, with the closest option more than two hours away in Melbourne's Box Hill. But even if you can travel, the lack of available beds and staff to manage them is an ongoing issue.
For the local headspace, a mental health organisation open to people between 12 and 25 years old, this means making tough decisions.
The organisation is supposed to target early intervention and primary prevention, but this has been stymied by the need to direct resources to more complex referrals.
"We can't ignore the referrals that come in," says Robyn Hucker, the manager of Shepparton's headspace centre and a lifelong resident of regional Victoria.
"The reality is there's nowhere else for them to go; they can't afford private practitioners, other services aren't specifically catering to mental health therapy, and we know young people can't get into GPs."
Prioritising more serious cases, however, comes with a heavy trade-off. "The longer we see somebody, the less people we can see. It's a constant see-saw," she says.
Nattaya is just one of the young people impacted by these hard decisions.
In 2020, during her first year of high school, she reached out to headspace when the bullying started. It wasn't until the following year that she was able to get a session. "It helped a lot," she says.
Finding an online community called Mayhem Crew — a group of people from across the world dedicated to supporting each other through mental health challenges and spreading positivity — has also played a big part in changing her outlook.
This is part of what prompted Nattaya to share her story, so other young people know they're not alone while waiting for professional help.
And when she sees her friends post stories on social media, saying that they're "over life" or "can't do this anymore", she'll often get in touch and try to fill the gap.
"I write them back and ask 'what's wrong, what's happening?'," she says.
"But I don't say 'I've been through that' because no one ever goes through the same thing, only something similar and they know the feeling of what it's like.
"I tell them that I'm always here for them, and that life is never easy, it's always going to have struggles and tough times, but you're strong and you can get through this."
It's a grim reality that suicide is the leading cause of death for young Australians.
This is especially true for Indigenous youth, those that are LGBTIQ+, and young people living in regional, rural and remote areas, who are all more likely to take their own lives.
The pandemic provided an opportunity to bring the issue back into the spotlight, and in the lead up to Saturday's federal election both major parties have made mental health announcements.
On the NSW North Coast everyone knows each other. And everyone seems to know someone. Someone who has lost a loved one to suicide; someone who has become acquainted with the black dog.
Scott Morrison last week announced $55 million in investment into mental health and suicide prevention and support, targeting "the missing middle" services across Tasmania.
Another $873 million has been promised to the national headspace network over the next four years "to address demand and reduce wait times".
Perhaps ironically, however, the Coalition's focus on the issue of trans kids in sport, via their candidate for Warringah Katherine Deves, led to a spike in calls to the national LGBTIQ+ helpline QLife earlier in the campaign.
Labor has said it would honour the government's March budget promise to boost mental health and suicide prevention spending by an additional $650 million and has also promised to reverse a funding cut for bulk-billed telehealth psychiatry sessions for people in regional and rural areas to a cost of $31 million over the forward estimates.
While the teenagers of Shepparton won't be able to vote in this weekend's election, they're unequivocal that more needs to be done to support young people grappling with mental illness.
Maxwell has just turned 18 and can now say they have "so much to live for". But it wasn't always that way.
Asked about when their battle with anxiety and depression began, they say it's been part of their life for as long as they can remember.
"It's been a very difficult track, a very difficult journey, but it's gotten better lately," they say.
"I was very suicidal for a very long time, I didn't think that there was much of a future for me, but some of the stuff that's been happening lately has been really good, that I'm sitting back and going, OK maybe I have something to live for now."
An important part of Maxwell's mental health journey has been support from their mother, who works as a psychologist and quickly noticed when their mental health was going downhill.
"She was the one who got me into therapy, she was the one who got me into using my art as therapy," they say.
"She was never like, 'oh it's your fault that you feel like this', which is something that I really needed to hear because at that point my mental health was mostly around the fact that I felt like shit but didn't understand why."
And like every young person we speak to in Shepparton, it's something they've seen their friends grapple with too.
"My mum dubbed me 'damage control', because I was always happy to bandage people up and give quick little pep talks," they say. Quickly word spread, and soon people outside their friendship circle were reaching out for support.
"It got to the point where I was going to school and people I didn't know were coming up to me, going 'hey, so, I'm feeling a little bit not the best, what should I do about it?'"
"My instant reaction was this is someone that I've got to help."
"Even people that were bullying me, it got to the point that I was talking to them about things.
"I was like, I don't care about what you did to me, if this helps you from, later down the line, hurting yourself and taking your life that means something to me."
While Maxwell says they are always happy to listen — so much so they are now studying at TAFE to become a social worker — they are frustrated that there's not more professional support out there for people who need it.
"The services around this town are just really not good enough," they say.
"As soon as you go as a new patient to headspace, you're on like a six-week waitlist to get an appointment, and if you miss one of those appointments, there are another six weeks that you have to wait — and some people really don't have that kind of time to wait."
"It just kind of sucks because there are so many people around here that need that kind of help, and they either can't afford it, can't get in, or can't bring themselves to realise they actually need help."
Robyn Hucker from headspace acknowledges that services in Shepparton are stretched, both in her office and the private sector.
"We know the private sector is far outstripped in our community, it's just not enough, and generally too costly for the bulk of our population to be viable for our practitioners," she says. "Demand has always been on the rise, there are just some unique challenges we're seeing at the moment."
Demand at the Shepparton centre is roughly about 15 per cent higher than the national headspace average and Robyn says the so-called COVID spike is just beginning now.
There are a few reasons for this, but most simply she believes that during the pandemic people became disengaged with services — they got the "can't be bothereds". Now, as things open back up, and they settle into school for the year, they're starting to return.
Robyn doesn't like the "W word" — waitlists — and while she would prefer everyone could get help as soon as they need it, she adds: "We also can't pretend that we can see everyone".
"It's still not disproportionate in terms of other specialist services, in fact, it might be a lot shorter, but does it meet the needs of what a young person might need then and there? No."
In the interim, headspace provides links to other services, including online resources and phone counselling. Families and young people are also urged to get in touch if something changes and support is needed urgently.
"But what the community sees, and what the young person sees, is that nobody helps," she says.
Ask the teenagers what needs to change to reverse the crisis and they quickly rattle off a number of places to start.
The first is ensuring there are more resources so people can get professional help as soon as the problem arises. The second is making sure those working at the services are well trained in dealing with teenagers — and what they need to hear at that moment.
"Self-harm and suicidal thoughts happen a lot, but turning around and saying it's 'normal' is not going to help anyone," Maxwell says.
"If someone loses their leg and they're bleeding out, being like 'bleeding out is normal' — that's not going to help them. You walk over there and go 'are you OK' and you bandage them up and tell them we can get through this together, I will help you.
"That's the kind of stuff you need, not the 'it's OK, it's fine, it's understandable that you're doing this'."
Felix, another 15-year-old high school student in Shepparton, describes his mental health "as quite the rollercoaster". "I have a very up and down relationship with myself," he says, which has led him to see a counsellor for many years.
But he's also witnessed what happens when people are left to go it alone.
"There's a lot of people who just aren't quite reached [by mental health services], whether that's in time or at all," he says.
"You get the whole 'yeah we can get you an appointment in three months times', and it's like yes, but I need help now.
"Obviously you can't click your fingers and that's fixed, because there's only so many people that can help, but if we just put some more time and money aside to help people."
The next positive change, according to Felix, would be ensuring that if services are available, they're able to dedicate enough time to actually working through the issues. As he puts it, you can't be expected to open up right away when you're "talking to a stranger".
For every death by suicide, as many as 30 others attempt to end their life. Australia has a suicide problem — it seems we can all agree on that — but when it comes to solutions, the verdict isn't so clear.
Nattaya would like to see more dedicated mental health support in schools. This means having someone at school who students are able to talk to about mental health and who "could maybe come sit in the class with you for a session or two, and they can help you do your work while talking about what's going on".
But overall, according to Felix, it all comes back to one thing: a lot of people going through mental illness "feel like no one gets it". "It's a very isolating feeling," he says.
"But if we did educate people more, and give them the correct information, it would be a lot less isolating — because you could look around and see that you're not the only person struggling with this."
The ABC's Takeover Shepparton program gives a voice to young people across regional Australia. If you would like to find more stories or learn about the next Takeover intake go to the Takeover website.
You can find more information about your local headspace centre and online mental health resources here.
Words: Maani Truu
Photographs: Alice Walker, Katie McAllister
Video: Chris Lewis
We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn, and work.
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