By Michael Short
February 14, 2011
The Zone - Dr Jane Burns
Dr Jane Burns talks with Michael Short about teen suicide
Young people continue to take their own lives. Jane Burns says this terrible situation won't change unless we realise youth suicide is not a taboo subject and is talked about openly and often. She speaks to Michael Short.
The pain caused by the suicide of a young person is almost too terrible to imagine, certainly too terrible to be adequately described. Words so often elude us here. But we need to talk about youth suicide, not avoid it in the misguided belief that keeping it taboo somehow shelters people in difficulty from dangerous thoughts. Only through appropriate discussion can we cement the crucial concept that young people have many options - and suicide is not one of them.
(• Live chat with Dr Jane Burns here for an hour from noon today. Leave questions here
Dr Jane Burns is in The Zone to help all of us talk about it (the full transcript of our conversation is at: theage.com.au/opinion/the-zone). This mother of three young children can be seen as a crusader for young people, a researcher who broke with traditional academia to work with the young to give them tools and knowledge to confront and combat life's inevitable difficulties.)
''There are ways of talking about it that are better and there are ways of talking about it that are actually bad. And we want to make sure that we don't do the bad things. So, we don't want to glorify suicides. We don't want to provide young people with ideas about how they could take their own lives. And there are very clear media guidelines around that.
''But what's happened with the use of the guidelines is that somehow we've come to a thinking that we must not talk about suicide, and I think we need to differentiate those two things so that we do talk about the things that matter. And the things that matter are: promoting better mental health for young people; getting help earlier; making sure young people feel valued and connected, so that they don't feel suicide is an option for them.''
When a young person takes their own life, it is a desperate reaction to either a long-running issue or to a traumatic event. It is crucial to understand that in the overwhelming majority of cases, mental health problems are involved.
This is where Jane Burns can best help us. As many as one in four young people experience mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, problems with drugs and alcohol and the less common mental illnesses of bipolar disorder and psychosis.
While suicide rates have declined in the past decade, the rate of mental health disorders has not changed. It is a key reason why suicide is the leading cause of death for young people aged 15-24. In an average year 12 classroom, one person has attempted suicide.
''What we'd like to see is a continuing decline in youth suicide rates. We would also like to see a decline in things like youth violence, drug use and alcohol use. They're big, big, big things to shift. So, the things that we believe we can shift in the short-term are things like help-seeking . . .
''At the moment, 11 per cent of young men seek help. It's pretty dismal. We'd like to see that increase. About 30 per cent of young women seek help, so it's still pretty low.''
Burns is a driving force behind an initiative that aims to reduce suicides among young people. She has successfully applied to the federal Department of Innovation for $27 million to set up an organisation that will bring together academics, mental health professionals, young people, technology companies and not-for-profit organisations.
Called the CRC [Co-operative Research Centre] for Young People, Technology and Wellbeing, it will involve more than 50 organisations. Burns will be chief executive: she has had much experience in the field, including helping establish beyondblue and as director of research and policy at the Inspire Foundation, which helps young people lead happier lives.
The promotion of happiness and wellbeing is fundamental to helping young people develop resilience. Burns is keen to shift the focus away from the difficulties young people undergo.
''You see success stories in the young people we work with - hundreds of young people. The stories are up on the [mental health] reachout site. There are stories of young people who've gone though really difficult, traumatic experiences, and come out at end of it saying 'you know, I'm actually doing really well'.
''It doesn't mean they're going to be happy-clappy all the time, because that's not what life is about and we all know that. But it means that when they do go through a really difficult, challenging time, they know where to pull on the resources that they need, whether it's a resource that's online or whether it's talking to a friend, or going to a parent, or going to a professional or going to a teacher. It doesn't matter. It's about saying you deserve to get the best type of care you need and you deserve to be supported in your happiness.''
Burns and her team are going to capitalise on technology to get the information and tools to the people who need them: young people, parents, carers and health professionals. ''Technology affords you the opportunity to reach thousands of young people at any one time without a young person having to come in and sit down and go through that face-to-face one-on-one.''
Burns is empowering young people not only to seek help for themselves when necessary, but to be able to help their friends.
A common conundrum is whether to break a confidence.
''One of the big issues that constantly comes up is 'I'm breaking a confidence; I promised I wouldn't tell anyone what was going on, I'm going to break the confidence and I don't know how to deal with that'. So we've got information about what's more important - breaking the confidentiality or keeping someone safe.
''What would you rather see; your mate happy, healthy, doing well or you feeling that you kept that confidence?''
Burns's advice to us all is to talk, to investigate and to seek help when needed. Taking the first step on that path to help - and to happiness and peace - has become pretty easy. Just explore some of the links below, and you're on your way.
''Young people know when someone is doing it tough. They actually know the symptoms of depression. They know when a mate's drinking is out of control. They're not silly. What they're really telling us they're struggling with is how to make the step from knowing what's going on for a young person who's struggling and then knowing how to take that step to almost sort of lead them to help, to get help and to get help at the right time.''
The lead organisation in Burns's CRC, the Inspire Foundation, has written a declaration that gives us a fine way to start a conversation with our kids.
Our dream/ is for a world where every young/ person can stand up and say:/ I am a young person./ I am loved and I love./ There lies before me a land of endless/ Opportunity where I can learn and grow./ There lies within me a limitless ocean of/ Compassion and kindness./ I respect all people, including myself,/ For who we are.
I celebrate our common humanity and/ I honour our individual differences./ I show up for life each morning ready for whatever comes my way./ I give my best and know it will make all the difference./ I am making my world a better place./ I am happy.
Support is available for anyone who may be distressed by calling Lifeline 131 114, Mensline 1300 789 978, Kids Helpline 1800 551 800