‘I’ve lost too many friends to suicide’

Home Health ‘I’ve lost too many friends to suicide’
‘I’ve lost too many friends to suicide’

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.

A young woman wearing a red hoodie and black shorts stands next to a telegraph pole on a suburban street.
Nattaya, 15, tried to take her own life two years ago. (ABC: Alice Walker )

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.”

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.
Dawn breaks over Shepparton

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.

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.

A teen in a red hoodie poses under a blue sky with her arms crocce
Nattaya got help from headspace in her first year of high school.(ABC News: Alice Walker)

“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.”

The national conversation

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.

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