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Catholic teacher says staff are on the frontline of youth suicide prevention

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Major concern: “The report, released by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, surveyed 3318 Australian teenaers, aged 14 to 15 into self-harm and suicidal behaviour. “

HIGH school teacher Elizabeth Chilnicean knew something was wrong when a student started isolating himself from his peers.

He was by her standards a well-behaved student who associated with a healthy group of friends that maintained positive relationships with their teachers.

Then he started showing problems focusing in class, displaying a lack of emotions and not spending time with his usual friends.

Mrs Chilnicean reported the student’s behaviour in an email to the school principal, with a warning that the teenager may be at risk of a suicide attempt.

“But I felt nothing was done about it,” Mrs Chilnicean said.

Weeks later the male student attempted to take his own life.

He was only 14.

As a teacher who has worked in state schools and one Catholic school in Brisbane, Mrs Chilnicean said education staff were often the first people to notice warning signs that teenagers were either considering suicide or self-harming.

“It’s the teachers that are on the frontline,” Mrs Chilnicean said.

“We are seen more as quasi-parents because we are with the students for six hours a day, and often times we see them more than their parents.”

Having seen multiple cases of teenagers self-harming or having suicidal thoughts, Mrs Chilnicean said a new report into self-harm and suicidal behaviour in teenagers painted an accurate picture of Australian students at risk of suicide.

The report, released by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, surveyed 3318 Australian teenagers, aged 14 to 15 into self-harm and suicidal behaviour.

The survey found that 10 per cent of teenagers reported they had self-harmed within the previous 12 months and five per cent had attempted suicide.

When it came to questions about suicidal behaviour, 12 per cent of girls and six per cent of boys reported having suicidal thoughts.

The report found that girls were at a greater risk of self-harm and suicide than boys.

The report said sexual orientation, particularly students who were same-sex attracted, was a major risk factor among teenagers, but noted as major influences depression, anxiety, feelings of unhappiness, or peer pressure and victimisation by peers because of health, skin colour, language and religion.

AIFS director Anne Hollonds said the survey findings indicated suicidal behaviour and self-harm was “a serious and often hidden problem that may be under-recorded in official statistics”.

But for teachers like Mrs Chilnicean, self-harm and suicidal behaviour are no longer a hidden problem.

She said the percentage of teenagers reporting about self-harm and suicidal behaviour in the AIFS report were similar to the number of students presenting with cases in one of her previous schools.

Mrs Chilnicean estimated that within a cohort of 1200 students at one school, around 120 girls and more than 60 boys were self-harming, numbers that nearly match the percentages from the AIFS report.

Among the types of self-harm witnessed, the most common were food depravation leading to eating disorders, cutting, and burning the skin with cigarette butts.

Sometimes the activity was done in groups.

“I had a group of Year 8 girls, probably four or five, who were mentally unstable… and had come to class after cutting together as a group activity,” Mrs Chilnicean said.

“It was the result of classic girl bonding paired with mental illness.”

While not all teenagers were at risk of suicide, Mrs Chilnicean said many of her students knew parents, friends or siblings who had taken their lives.

This prompted Mrs Chilnicean to use trigger warnings, or critical disclaimers, before showing any items related to suicidal behaviour in her classroom.

Mrs Chilnicean said one risk factor that did not appear in the AIFS report was the impact of poor nutrition and lack of exercise and sleep.

She said teenagers who were sleep deprived still retained toxins in their brain that would normally be released through proper sleep, and this affected concentration, mood and happiness.

Sitting inside for long periods of time also meant teenagers had less endorphins, which are naturally produced during exercise, and were having less exposure to Vitamin D, which research shows reduces depression.

“I constantly teach zombies,” Mrs Chilnicean said.

“They are irritable, more likely to be depressed, and can’t think cognitively.

“This is bad for anyone in a highly stressful situation.”

Mrs Chilnicean, who is a parishioner at Mary Immaculate parish, Annerley, said she didn’t believe state schools and Catholic schools dealt with suspicion of suicidal behaviour differently.

Mrs Chilnicean said acting quickly to report any changes in a student’s behaviour could save a life.

Headspace school support defines self-harm as “when somebody deliberately injures themselves” and can often be referred to as self-injury.

According to Headspace, common forms of self-harm are cutting, burning and scratching.

Brisbane Catholic Education offers school staff and students support in their Student Wellbeing office.

Between August 21 and 25 all BCE guidance counsellors participated in a one-day intensive training with Lifeline’s Suicide Prevention and Intervention Initiative.

BCE Student Wellbeing senior education officer Anita Smith said she was unable to confirm accurate rates of self-harm or suicide attempts as some cases may occur outside of school or not reported to a school.

“We would presume that BCE numbers would be comparable to the reported results in the wider community, as reflected in this study,” Mrs Smith said.

BCE does not consider drug use, alcohol abuse, anorexia or bulimia as forms of self-harm.

Mrs Smith said some risk factors that presented within BCE schools included mental health issues, family conflict or breakdowns, childhood trauma and abuse, relationship problems, serious illness or disability and problems at school.

“Some groups are more vulnerable, for example Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islands, and LGBTIQ students,” Mrs Smith said.

“However, any group from any demographic can be affected.

“BCE guidance counsellors are in the ideal position to educate staff, parents and students to prevent child and adolescent suicide and related problems.”

Mrs Smith said there was no reason to believe that state and Catholic schools had different rates of self-harm or suicidal behaviours.

BCE has developed a Suicide Postvention Guideline to support communities responding to suspected, attempted or completed suicide.

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