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Saturday, April 5, 2014

Suicide in young people should never occur - Ever! So what should we do? (2: Let's Change Schools)

I had a lengthy conversation the other evening with a school counsellor from a country school. They had received three copies of our small book ‘Seeking Solutions: a Guide for School Staff’, which has now been sent free of charge to every high school in Australia for which we could get an address. Just for the record, we also sent one copy of the companion books ‘Seeking Solutions: a Guide for Parents’, and ‘Seeking Solutions: a Guide for Young People’. The development of this series is solidly grounded in a qualitative research program we did several years ago, interviewing and videotaping over 60 young self-injurers and over 40 professionals about their opinions about what needed to be done. It also follows a dozen, more traditional, cross-sectional studies and a 3-year longitudinal study, as well as our 2009/10 national epidemiological study.
OK, back to our counsellor. They had read the booklets, but had more questions. Great. “How do you manage the parents of someone currently self-injuring?” “How do you manage the friends of a person who is self-injuring?” “How do you get back-up resources for the school, and links to mental health services?” We worked our way through those, and got to ‘school ethos’. The person was new to the school as a counsellor, and struggled to tell me about the values on which school teaching programs were based.
We began to discuss the sort of programs that could be embedded in the school curriculum that might help young people to develop resilience and optimism to protect them from bullying and some of the problems deriving from abuse in the home. They had not heard of ‘MindMatters’ (, and were pretty sure it was not part of their school. Nor had they heard of ‘KidsMatter’ (, and did not believe it was part of their junior school. They originated from another country, so we did some basic discussion around the idea that improved resilience might improve learning outcomes. That seemed to be a bit of a novel idea, and I cast around for something they might of heard of like Social and Emotional Learning ( for which there seems to be a solid research base. SEL seems to be gaining ground in Government Education Departments like Queensland ( and Victoria, and of course provides some of the basic thinking behind ‘KidsMatter’.
So, by this stage I was feeling a bit despairing, and fired off the names of several programs for which there is a strong evidence base, and that might have been heard of, like ‘Friends’ ( or the Resourceful Adolescent Program ( Blank...
Now, look, I realise this may have been a new person, recently trained, (they didn’t sound like it), or perhaps they were in an environment that did not discuss these things (difficult to imagine). I have done many, many hours of presenting to individual schools’ staff, groups of school counsellors, school based youth health nurses, over many, many years. I have been to AGCA conferences ( I was part of a national committee for MindMatters, and later on the Evaluation Subcommittee for many years. At the end of the extended phone call, I was left speechless (pun intended). I was left deeply concerned for the welfare of the children at the school, and seriously worried about my post yesterday on this blog Suicide in young people should never occur - Ever! So what should we do? (1 Facts and Figures and a challenge)” and the challenge to schools that I raised.
Am I spitting into the wind? Can schools ever manage to take on the training of resilience, optimism, and wellness necessary to provide a serious level of Mental Health Promotion capable of undermining depression and suicidality?
One issue is clearly about having staff members who understand the issues about the power of Mental Wellness to undermine development of ill health. A special issue is about counselling staff being in sufficient numbers to help schools understand these issues, and train them into all staff members.
And what about principals? I remember in our discussions during the emergence of MindMatters, that the program was ‘optional’. That is the school did not have to take it on. The decision seemed to be at the level of the Principal. Is this still the case? I do not know. I am not an educationalist; there is probably an immense amount about which I am ignorant. But let me put up a proposition... One side issue first...
I have become sick to death of all of the public newspaper and radio discussion about NAPLAN ( I work with kids and adolescents in therapy. I have listened with concern to them all talking about how their whole school program seems to be taken up by training for NAPLAN, how stressed the teachers are about NAPLAN, how boring the whole NAPLAN exam is. I have discussed the issue with some teachers who resent the power of intrusion that NAPLAN has to disrupt the process of learning anything other than numeracy and literacy. Personally, I think this is bureaucracy gone mad trying to set up competition between schools in some vain effort to improve standards.
And it is all so back to front. It does nothing for suicide prevention. I suspect it ultimately does little for how future generations will lead their lives.
Can we develop a massive national bureaucracy to monitor how many schools have taken up any social and emotional wellbeing programs? Can we use that bureaucracy to measure and report on just what is being taken up, and just how well it is being taught? Could we ensure that every teacher and every counsellor in Australia is well versed in whatever the program, or programs are? Could we measure the emotional health and mental wellness and social skills of every young person in a school, and compare them year by year, and compare schools on the basis of how successful they were in developing Mental Health, and lowering anxiety, depression, bullying, and school dropout.
I believe we could turn Australia’s current pathway to disaster around, and begin to reduce negative outcomes from family abuse of all sorts. I believe we could give the young people in our charge, the best possible skills for the rest of their lives to avoid even the merest thought of suicide.
If the SEL research is correct, Australia would be able to compete successfully with any country in the world in terms of quality of education, and skills in all the so-called core subjects.
We could call the program something clever like WELLPLAN, or OPTIPLAN, or Schooling for Health, or MindfulEducationforLife.
For anyone remotely interested, the Seeking Solutions books are available from Family Concern Publishing (, for the enormous cost of about $2.00 each (plus p&p, of course).

But then, if we had MindfulEducationforLife, no-one would be remotely interested such books, because Non-suicidal Self-injury (NSSI) might have been eradicated as well. Bad luck Graham...


  1. Graham - I wonder whether one problem is that the mental health, education and child protection issues are handled by three different departments (at least at Commonwealth level)? There again, each state runs its own state schools and is only obliged to teach whatever is in the national curriculum, which is already very 'crowded'.

    So, it is a multi-faceted problem, I suspect. Each department, school, principal, even teachers, will view the issue through a different prism and for some, it will be seen as a problem for individual students and families, rather than something that schools should need to address 'en masse'.

    The question for me is, how to make it into a national conversation? How do we draw it into the public consciousness in the same way that domestic violence has been highlighted of late? To me, the issue of child abuse within the home is in a similar position to that of domestic violence around 20-30 years ago - that is, overlooked as a 'private' matter - something hidden and a bit shameful and, ultimately, regarding *children*, who have scarcely any voice in our community and are subject to the sphere of control that is behind closed doors.

    Many of the most affected young women I speak to have been the subject of abuse in their homes - the worst from a very young age. These young people don't have an understanding of a 'way forward' because they were so young when the abuse occurred, for them it is normal to feel worthless, guilty and unloveable. Learning that they are worthy and valid human beings, equal to others is like flying to Mars.

    My point is that abused children need the same kind of advocacy as DV victims and all children need both the knowledge and ability to trust *someone* to be able to tell their story very early, before the abuse becomes ongoing. The power of perpetrators to silence and intimidate their child victims needs to be undermined by public conversation, so that children understand that it's okay to talk about it without shame and understand that they will be believed.

    I fully support your push to have schools more involved - the question is, how do we get a nationally-accepted program, nationally applied? I think it's part of the bigger picture of where kids fit in society and the 'solutions' are at once simple and mind-blowingly complex.

    I'm grateful that someone has started this conversation - I think I will have to at least try to get it into the right hands.

    1. I agree with your analysis Aj. I think we have been trying to get individual schools to work on this for 30 years, and it has not happened. My argument is, that if we can get a national process going around Maths and Literacy, why can't we do the same for Wellness and Resilience, which have been proven to improve learning outcomes (an incidentally would give young people the skills to manage the whole of their life much better. NAPLAN is so primitive and short-sighted....