A LITTLE under 21 years ago one of my cousins took her own life.
Of the large group of cousins in my family, she was the best of us. Smart, funny, beautiful, irreverent - she was the one most obviously destined to shine.
Instead she ended up with schizophrenia in a mental health system not able to help her effectively manage her illness.
>> If you need help with depression or suicidal thoughts, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
There is no golden era of mental health services in Australia. People with mental illnesses have been variously imprisoned, abused, and neglected for centuries.
We're a long way from the darkest days, but services still fall short.
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This simple fact is illustrated dramatically in the dry words of the Australian Bureau of Statistics' latest Causes of Death report, which lists suicide as the biggest cause of death for children, teens and young adults.
The report reveals 117 people have died by their own hand on the Northern Rivers in the past four years alone. Nationally, it says the rate of deaths by suicide among children aged 5 to 17 rose from 9.9% in 2009 to 19.3% in 2013.
These shocking figures demand immediate and strenuous action. However, experience shows we cannot rely on governments to give these figures the response they need.
In fact, a report on the issue on the front page of yesterday's Star quoted health experts saying they feared the problem was actually getting worse because of uncertainty surrounding Commonwealth funding.
That's partly our fault.
A cone of silence remains over mental health in general and suicide in particular in our community. We don't talk about it and all too often we look away when someone else does. We fear mental illness; the idea that we might not be able to trust our own minds or push through on simple willpower. We fear our own mortality.
Things have improved a little, thanks to the work of groups such as Beyond Blue, but we can't expect real change until the community demands it.
We can fix this just as we've fixed other problems, from the hospital to the highway - just by talking about it.
It is up to all of us as individuals to break the taboo on mental health and suicide. Speak to people around you; talk to your MPs, write to the paper, call the radio stations. You can share stories about mental health and suicide directly through our website's Your Story section.
Governments and society can improve mental health services. It's our job as a community to make sure our leaders know they need to prioritise it.
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