The suicides of some year 11 and 12 students have prompted mental health experts to warn that Australia must act quickly to counteract a growing sense of hopelessness among HSC students.
Parents and teachers are increasingly worried about the welfare of senior students as their rites of passage are cancelled, the job market shrinks and the tertiary education sector faces a financial crisis due the coronavirus pandemic.
The coronavirus is causing a spike in anxiety among year 11 and year 12 students, parents and teachers warn.
There have been suicides among year 11 and 12 students in northern Sydney and regional NSW this year, including two at one school in less than a month. The Herald has chosen not to report further details at the request of the schools involved.
Ian Hickie from the Brain and Mind Research Institute has done modelling suggesting there might be a 12.5 per cent increase in suicides among 15- to 25-year-olds due to COVID-19.
"[For years 11 and 12] it's not about exam anxiety," he said. "It's about the rites of passage, the loss of their future.
"Their issues are not in the national dialogue. They're not being seen as part of the solution, they're being seen as one of the problems."
The chief executive of the National Mental Health Commission, Christine Morgan, said the community must rally around HSC students, reminding them that the coronavirus crisis would pass and the future was theirs to shape.
Struggling to cope? Here's where you can find help
Beyond Blue: provides immediate mental health support, plus resources for all age groups. 1300 224 636 or www.beyondblue.org.au/
Lifeline: a 24-hour telephone crisis and suicide support service. 13 11 44, or www.lifeline.org.au
Kids Helpline: a 24-hour telephone counselling service focused on five- to 25-year-olds. 1800 551 800 or www.kidshelpline.com.au/
Headspace: focuses on early intervention for 12- to 25-year-olds, with physical centres, telehealth services and an online and phone support service. www.headspace.org.au
Reachout: an online mental health organisation for young people. Offers practical tips to get through tough times, including study tips https://au.reachout.com/
The Kidman Centre: mental health research and treatment centre for young people aged from five to 25. www.tkc.uts.edu.au
"Give them hope," she said. "Stay balanced, stay connected, we're here to help and we'll pull you through to the other side, establishing that sense of connection, saying, 'We value you, we want your voice.' "
But Professor Hickie wants governments, businesses and communities to go further, and invest money in creating opportunities for the class of 2020 and their year 11 peers, who will face similar uncertainty next year.
University degrees should become cheaper and easier to access, rather than more expensive, all levels of government should invest in projects that create jobs, and businesses should think about how they could harness this youthful workforce.
"Telling people to be hopeful doesn't help," he said. "You have to create structures that are hopeful — support for education, training, for social ventures they can invest their time and energy in, to be connected with your local community.
"School does that, but the moment school finishes, you're out the door. People have to have something to do. We need to paint a different picture of the future."
Professor Hickie said the thousands of students who would not travel nor be able to find jobs could be redirected to other areas of deep need in the community, such as environmental projects or care jobs.
"There are communities willing to create these opportunities if they have that support, and the funding," Professor Hickie said. "There is a workforce [of school leavers] that is really nice, enthusiastic and capable. They're just not in charge.
"That enthusiasm needs to be directed elsewhere, and quickly.
"Their country needs them. And they can do something for their country. It's not the self-indulgent, travelling the world. But they will do useful things, and they will be supported, and they will get different kinds of things out of it."
Rachael Murrihy, director of The Kidman Centre, said HSC students had been struggling with motivation, energy and focus, and feeling a sense of pointlessness about their studies as the things they looked forward to during and after exams were cancelled.
"We need to rally around," she said. "The first thing is recognising that, while we're all hit by this pandemic, there are some groups that are hit harder than others. Our teens are hit harder, in particular year 12."
In July, calls to the NSW Kids Helpline were up by 38 per cent on the same month last year. Headspace found 74 per cent of young people said their mental health was worse since the outbreak of COVID-19.
This month, Victorian hospitals recorded a 33 per cent rise in children presenting with self-harm over a six-week period, compared with a year earlier. NSW does not have comparative statistics.
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