Matter of Public Importance - Suicide prevention
26 October 2016
26 October 2016
Ms RYAN (Euroa) — I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a contribution on this matter of public importance, which touches on the very real impact suicide has on so many within the Victorian community. The motion notes that the suicide rate in Victoria is twice that of the road toll. Suicideis alsothe leading cause of death for Australians between the ages of 15 and 44. I think it is important to acknowledge that behind every statistic there is a story. I cannot speak on this matter without first acknowledging the many families who have been torn apart by suicide. Different speakers on both sides of the house have acknowledged the prevalence of suicide within particular cohorts; we have higher rates of suicide among Indigenous Victorians, among the LGBTI community and among men. I would particularly like to focus today on the impact of suicide on young Victorians.
There is no conversation more heartbreaking than one with a mother who has lost her child to suicide. Unfortunately I have had two of those conversations in recent months. It is two too many, and I am sure it is a conversation that many people in this chamber have had with people in their own constituencies.
A number of months ago Max Avdyugin, who was a young and popular 16-year-old in the Benalla community, committed suicide. His parents are still waiting for the coroner’s findings, but it is quite apparent that he was the victim of bullying and in particular cyberbullying. The member for Gippsland East, earlier in the debate, spoke about how a suicide in a country community in particular really reverberates. That was certainly true of Max’s death. Since then the Benalla Rural City Council has taken a number of steps. It has established a pop-up space for young people in the town’s drill hall. This is a fantastic initiative, and I commend the town for it, in particular the work of the town’s youth and community development coordinator, Amanda Aldous, and the youth committee in town. They really drove that project to get it off the ground.
The member for Macedon referred to the Live4Life program, which was developed in the Macedon Ranges. I am absolutely thrilled that Benalla attracted funding recently from the Myer Foundation to roll that project out in Benalla. I understand that a project group will be formed next week and the project will be implemented in 2017 at both Benalla P–12 College and FCJ College, the two high schools in town. It will be delivered primarily to year 8 and year 11 students. The basis of that program is really around delivering mental health first aid training, with a particular focus on young people and teens. Again, Amanda Aldous from the Benalla council has been instrumental in driving that. I congratulate Amanda for seeing the need within the community and working to address it. I suppose my point is that there is still so much more to be done to address the huge gaps that I have seen in mental health services in Benalla, and more broadly across regional Victoria as well.
The government established a 1800 number in Benalla following Max’s death, but I really believe that what the community needs is on-the-ground support. Max’s mother, Donna, really wants to see more young people have access to counselling that is confidential and private. I think anyone who has grown up in a regional community understands that sometimes confidentiality and country towns do not really go together. That is why it is even more important that the government addresses those gaps.
I would like to use this debate to again plead with the Minister for Mental Health to provide some additional support to actually bolster psychology and counselling services for the Benalla community. The government is rightly proud of the investment it is making in targeted suicide prevention initiatives, but if I am to be absolutely truthful, we are yet to see that money or those initiatives reach us in Benalla or in my other communities. I think Benalla is often overlooked because the services tend to get concentrated in the large centres, and that is a bit of a problem. Rather than waiting for situations to become acute, we actually need to support people when they are starting to experience suicidal thoughts, anxiety and depression.
The real elephant in the room in relation to this matter, particularly with young people, is cyberbullying. Children and young people need to realise that they are accountable for their actions and they need to be responsible for their behaviour. Max was bullied on a website called Qooh Me. The people behindQooh Me describe the site as a social site that allows ‘your fans or friends to ask you questions openly or anonymously to get to know you better’. They say the site is fun and addictive. For some it might be fun, but for others it has had absolutely devastating consequences. I firmly believe that that site and others like it, where there is nothing to safeguard children and young people from being bullied and trolled, should be shut down.
All of us in this house have to address the fact that young people are being bullied and being victimised on these sites, which grant people anonymity with absolutely terrible consequences.
The second conversation that I have had in recent months was with Jane and Michael Cleland from Kilmore. Jane and Michael’s 19-year-old daughter, Jessica, had finished school and was planning to go on and study animal science at university. She deferred after the family’s property was burnt in the Kilmore bushfires, and her father described her in a meeting with me recently as a happy young girl who did not show signs of depression. But the Clelands’ world was changed when Jessica — in the face of a very bright future — committed suicide. There has been some media around this, but two teenage boys who were sending her messages before she died were not charged and were not questioned by the police. In the findings into Jessica’s death the coroner stated that:
… the circumstances of Jessica’s death highlight the important role that social media and other communication technologies can play in young people’s lives.
She went on to say:
I note that the physical separation of parties to a conversation through online chat and SMS creates an environment where it is easier for individuals to say hateful and hurtful things without facing the immediate consequences of doing so. The proximity of Jessica’s death to these communications makes it apparent that their tragic and unintended consequence to Jessica was an overwhelming negative self-image that she felt unable to resolve.
Like Max’s mother, the Clelands want the Victorian government to look at changing the law to provide greater protection to young people, and they hope that some good can come from their terrible loss.
I do want to finish by paying tribute to the people who spend their lives working at the coalface of mental health and suicide prevention. In my area there is a man named Ivan Lister, who has worked for many years with people throughout the community; through droughts, floods, fires, depression and marriage breakdowns, he has been there. My predecessor, Bill Sykes, told me on more than one occasion that he believes Ivan saved many, many lives through the drought, and he has spent years building trust in the community to be in a position to be able to do that. It is why he is so effective. Yet I find every year there is an ongoing battle for funding for Ivan. After the state government stopped funding him, the federal government picked it up, and this year he has lost federal funding and the council have employed him a couple of days a week. I do not think that people like Ivan should have to fight for funding. Their job is too important.
In conclusion, the stories of both Max and Jessica really are two among hundreds within the community. I think the Minister for Mental Health is quite correct in saying that much more needs to be done. Funding to ensure that the services are accessible in our communities is one element of the picture, but another is that as technology advances, which we are seeing occur at such a rapid pace, we need to make sure that the law also keeps pace.