Rather than being immobilised with pain and grief when her 15-year-old foster son, Ethan, took his own life, Pamela Walsh, of Toodyay, launched her own personal attack on the Wheatbelt region's suicide statistics. Initially, two years ago, she had had an overwhelming urge to run into every high school in the region and hug her son's friends and make them promise they would seek help when needed, and keep safe.
Instead, she steadied herself and concentrated on a long-term safety strategy. Mrs Walsh began working with the four local high schools to establish the Northam Youth Forum that allowed the teens to voice their fears about the "S word" in a safe environment. It also provided them the opportunity to overcome isolation, improve communication and learn where to access services in tough times.
And together the teens were able to discuss the burden and dangers of keeping secrets and list the modern-day problems and pressures, from cyber bullying and sexting through to relationship break-ups, that were making it difficult for them to cope.
Now held annually, the 300-strong youth forum, which focuses on both physical and spiritual health, is led by a core committee of 16 local students.
Participating schools had included Toodyay District High School, St Joseph's Secondary School, Bindoon Catholic Agricultural College and Northam Senior High School, Mrs Walsh said. "We realised the kids wanted to hear the word 'suicide' and talk about it," she said.
"They also wanted help to stop suicidal thoughts, be strong against mounting pressure and have it recognised that some of their problems had started way back in primary school.
"We were still with our pain but we just forged ahead on our own. And the people who knew my son sponsored the first summit."
Her key message to the teens was that suicide did not stop pain and suffering. Instead, it just triggered a greater ripple effect that could overwhelm and deeply hurt friends and loved ones. Not content with the progress made in the Wheatbelt, she and her husband, Karl, have begun lobbying for other WA school districts to follow in Northam's footsteps.
"I want all WA schools to do more to look after the whole welfare of their students, including their mental health and addressing bullying," she said. "Once this happens, they will be in a better frame of mind to learn."
In many ways, Mrs Walsh believes she is following the wishes of Ethan, describing him as an "amazing" indigenous teenager. He had always had an eye out for his mates' welfare, whether it be when they voiced their emotional pain online or were in need of someone to listen to them or a bed to sleep in, she said. The day Mr and Mrs Walsh travelled to Lockridge to first meet Ethan, then aged four and having difficulties finding a foster home, he walked up to them, smiled and said: "Where have you been? I've been waiting for you."
Further funding is needed to support the Northam Youth Forum and ensure more schools can take part.
- Marnie McKimmie *