by Blake Sharp-Wiggins
Recent studies by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) show that suicide is now the highest cause of death among Generation Y. The ABS recorded a total of 214 males and 110 females between the ages of 15 and 24 committed suicide in 2012. The ABS also shows that from 2008 to 2012, Queensland had the highest rate of youth suicides and that young Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders are almost five times more likely to take their lives. While the rate of suicide has decreased slightly over time, the statistics indicate the rate is has reached a plateau rather than a decline.
According to Martin Pearce, psychologist and family therapist at the Cerebral Palsy Alliance, Generation Y has high expectations placed on them by older generations as well as themselves but are often thought of as lazy, needy, materialistic and narcissistic.
“There’s this obsession with narcissism and the ‘selfie’ combined with the feeling that they aren’t what other people would like them to be. So they either diet on fad diets or guys who go to the gym might take steroids in order to look good. They’re caught between opposing forces: in one way be yourself, but be like everyone else,” Mr Pearce says.
But are these expectations a contributing factor to young Australians taking their lives? Brian Graetz, general manager of research at Beyond Blue, a national organisation raising awareness of anxiety and depression, says, “The number of options they have to consider, and their choices in life, are so numerous that it actually makes life pretty difficult. Their expectations of success are much higher than what older generations were.
“Success is pretty clearly defined in the media and gives them a fairly homogenous view – it is money, fame and glamour. It is certainly different from what it was for previous generations and I think they’ve got inherently difficult challenges which are probably quite unique in a historical sense,” he says.
While mental health issues are not the sole cause of suicide, Jenyfer C. Locke, from Mindframe, a national media initiative that encourages responsible, accurate and sensitive representation of mental illness and suicide, says, “Depression is certainly a contributing factor to suicide.” Mindframe asserts that mental disorders such as major depression, psychotic illnesses and eating disorders are associated with an increased risk of suicide.
However, there seems to be a taboo around confronting mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Brian Graetz says society struggles to come to grips with mental health issues.
“There is still a bit of a ‘toughen up’ mentality – everyone deals with problems so you need to ‘toughen up’.” Mr Graetz says many people who have not experienced depression think it’s simply about feeling a bit “down” when the reality of depression is profoundly different.
The stigma surrounding mental health issues can make it difficult for young people to talk to their family and friends. “Most young people don’t seek help; they just want to be normal like their friends, they want to fit in and have a normal teenage life. Having a mental illness – they don’t see that as being normal,” says Bridianne O’Dea, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Black Dog Institute, a not-for profit institution that offers education on mental health issues.
According to Dr O’Dea, the lack of discussion among young people suffering from mental health issues relates to the lack of research in what is “a major public health problem”.
She says the difference between a young person dealing with mental health issues and an adult in the same position is that, in the majority of cases, for a young person it is the first major event in his or her life that could be potentially damaging.
“The research around suicide is quite new and we really don’t know a lot about what the risk and causal factors are; we need to understand what’s been happening to young people in the last year before their deaths that would lead them down that path,” she says. “Usually 75 per cent of mental illnesses emerge between the ages of 15 to 24.”
Researchers are still trying to figure out whether or not it is a pathway to mental illness, she says.
Organisations like Beyond Blue and the Black Dog Institute are educating people on the seriousness of mental health. The Black Dog Institute runs a program called ‘Youth Presenters’ whereby volunteers who have experienced mental health issues, or have lived with someone with mental health issues, visit schools to teach students about the importance of mental health awareness.
Dr O’Dea says good communication and cultural awareness help reduce mental illness and the suicide rate. “We have a responsibility to look after our youth and to foster their growth so they have really a good foundation to have a healthy life.”