The hands of a young person experiencing trauma.
Psychologists say young people who've lost someone to suicide need age-appropriate support. Image by AP PHOTO
  • mental illness

Grieving families find help in new program

Farid Farid May 15, 2022

When Noreen’s former husband took his own life at the end of last year, she used the resources provided by a charity to explain the traumatic loss to her nine-year-old daughter.

“I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth,” says Noreen, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy.

The father, 43, had been struggling with mental illness for decades.

“Having that element of someone dying by suicide – it’s an additional complexity, there is just nothing compared to it.”

Months after the suicide, Noreen and her daughter are attending a grief support camp for children and young people aged between seven and 17, the first of its kind in Australia.

The partnership between NSW charity Feel the Magic and the state government comes after a virtual pilot project was trialled last year during the pandemic.

The Sunday gathering, with a mixture of grief education and fun activities, is being held at picturesque Stanwell Tops, a coastal and forest location between Sydney and Wollongong.

“These camps are not only a place of comfort and learning for children but for their parents and carers, who are often called upon to answer the tricky, complex question: ‘why did they die?'” says the group’s chief executive Adam Blatch.

Minister for Mental Health Bronnie Taylor said the camp will provide a safe space for children and young people to discuss the pain.

“Losing a parent or sibling to suicide is devastating” she says.

“Not only do these children miss out on creating special memories with that family member, but it also makes them much more vulnerable to suicidal thoughts”.

Psychologists agree there’s an increased risk of self-harm or suicidal behaviour if the right support for different age groups is not given.

“There is a common response called ‘survivor guilt’ whereby someone bereaved ruminates over things like ‘I should have done more’ or ‘why didn’t I see this’ or ‘why didn’t they say something to me’,” University of New England psychologist Warren Bartik told AAP.

“Someone’s attribution about these sorts of statements can increase their own level of risk, and particularly if they do not themselves have adequate support”.

Noreen says her 17-year-old son was hit the hardest as he was living with his father and grandparents at the time the suicide took place.

She says he has complex feelings and acted out a bit, and she’s tried to emphasise that grief takes time.

University of Melbourne’s Karl Andriessen says death by suicide is a life-altering event that needs specialised support programs tailored for children and young people.

“Support should acknowledge…the agency of the adolescent. They need a psychological safe space to make up their own minds about what support they might need … at their own pace,” Dr Andriessen said.

After initially not showing enthusiasm about attending a camp that would bring up painful memories of losing her father, Noreen’s daughter is excited.

“I said to her this camp is designed to help people going through the same thing as us.”

“Not all of our friends that we have now have this in common so it’s quite hard to relate to them on on that level.

“And now she’s so excited. She said I want to do it now mum.

“I want to go and meet some people that I know have had sad times like us”.

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Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 (for people aged 5 to 25)