*** Content warning: this blog contains mention of suicide***
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Dear members of the ANU community,
My name is Tony Foley and I am the interim Pro Vice-Chancellor (University Experience). Today, on World Mental Health Day, I am writing to you about one of the most devastating and unspoken parts of our community: suicide.
This is a sensitive and confronting subject - and for those in our community who have been impacted by suicide, attempted to end your own life, or know someone who shows signs of self-harm - please take the time to seek help and support here, I am not here to judge.
I know that some of you will find this blog confronting to read but we cannot address mental health issues and suicide prevention if we don't change the conversation. And that means we have to talk about things that make us uncomfortable, that make us feel vulnerable, that challenge us to think differently, and to reflect on how we can all be part of the solution.
Interconnectedness is at the centre of the modern world, which sadly can also play a key part in making people feel isolated and alone - but I think it is also part of the solution. We talk a lot about creating a community that is open and inclusive to everyone - but what does that actually mean? What does that look like on the ANU campus?
To me, it means that everyone has a place here on our campus, and that we each have a responsibility to look after ourselves and one another. It means we need to notice when someone around us is not them self, and then we need to say something, or do something. My job, like yours as a staff member or student can be stressful. I have a family and personal commitments that I need to care for and nurture and like many of you, I also have days where it can be overwhelming and I feel vulnerable. I have found ways to support myself, to better cope with the challenges. I jump on my bike and ride off into the distance.
Mental health is not something we can address alone. It isn't something our Vice-Chancellor can fix on his own. It is something that we all need to take responsibility for, and be supportive of ourselves and each other.
For people aged 15-44, suicide is the leading cause of death in Australia - higher than cancer, car accidents and smoking. Many of our staff and students fall into this age range, which means our community is at high risk of suicide and suicide ideation if we don't do something - and the reality is, many of these people will not seek help or support, or don't know who to go to or what type of help is available.
But we can help. What we do know is that that self-care and wellbeing are two of the most important ways to support mental health and we need to ensure these areas are available and accessible to our community. And this must be a key focus for everyone, the VC, you and me. It must be something we value, support and encourage people to do.
The stigma associated with mental health is prevalent across our society, and in some cultures, it is still not addressed openly. Mental health is not a sign of weakness. In our own ANU community, we know that one of the most vulnerable groups impacted by mental health are our international students. For many, it is the first time away from home, and they are experiencing immense financial, social and educational challenges without their family and friends. They are sometimes lonely and homesick.
In 2019, The Victorian Government commissioned a report into suicide and suicide ideation of higher education students, principally addressing international students. One of the most heartbreaking statistics was that almost 50% of international students who die by suicide or attempt suicide have never sought any help, and have never revealed any warning signs of self-harm. Their data also showed that the majority of these students were failing courses at the time. So the warning signs were there, it's just that nobody knew what they might look like.
We do then have the foundations to make a lasting change to identify high risk individuals and provide them with support. If you learn some of the warning signs, you can add safe guards to support those in our community who need it. The university can identify and develop support for students and teachers - the people most likely to notice when something isn't quite right.
To do this, ANU will be launching the 'ANU Connections' strategy, which will address and support the prevention of suicide on our campus. This plan paves the way for how we will create an environment that better supports, educates, identifies and addresses mental health and suicide ideation. The plan is being developed by experts in our community - drawing on their expertise to guide our work.
The plan is ambitious but I am confident that together we can make a positive difference to our community. We are focused on five key areas - expanding and promoting health promotion activities; implementing a dedicated team to drive programs and initiatives to support this strategy; training staff and students so we can ensure our community is equipped to respond to distressed members in the community; introducing a stepped care model to make best use of available resources and make it easier for students and staff to access the services; and implementing additional resources for managing suicidal behaviours and critical incidents.
All that is coming. But today is a reminder to step back from our everyday lives and consider our own, and others, mental health. There are a number of events happening across campus this week, open to all members of our community. For those not yet registered, I encourage you to attend today's panel discussion on 'Creating Connections' where we will have an honest and frank discussion about ways to prevent suicide. ANU Counselling will also be holding a group workshop tonight on 'Preventing Suicide'. Understanding myths about suicide, and removing the stigma around mental health are key to supporting those in our community who struggling with their demons.
Remember, we are all here for one another, and we need to look after one another.
Thank you Tony, the stats about suicide being the leading cause of death for young people in Australia are shocking and upsetting. It is a national tragedy. Thousands of people spend sleepless nights worrying if those they love will still be with them in the morning and it's almost unfathomable that people so young, can feel so despairing.
But we mustn't look away because it feels too awkward to start a conversation with someone at risk or because we feel we're not qualified to do so. Someone's life might rest on us finding the courage. Mental wellness is everybody's business and it cannot rest solely on a health system already buckling under the weight. Like anything in life, once we have some 'tools', we can start, even in small ways to hopefully make a difference and to reverse the statistical trend.
As you've said, we must also look after ourselves and turn to the things which we know work for us and to take time out for a mental refresher. It's great to hear about the ANU Connections strategy to support our staff and students and I look forward to hearing more as it develops.
Terrific to address suicide by starting the conversation. Thank you Tony.