After losing a brother and a father to suicide, and then suffering her own dark thoughts, Jessica McWilliam is fighting for mental health to be taught in schools.
The Dubbo resident was chosen for the ABC’s Heywire Regional Youth Summit. Ms McWilliam has spent the week in Canberra, learning leadership skills and developing a proposal for mental health to be added to the school syllabus.
On Thursday she will present it to members of Parliament with the goal of making the plan a reality.
“One in three young people will suffer with their mental health which is a huge, huge statistic and suicide is the leading cause of death for 15 to 25-year-olds in Australia. To start in schools and educate people on how to help themselves, how to help others, I think that’s the best way to start,” Ms McWilliam said.
“You know that saying ‘give a man to fish and he’ll eat for a day but teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime’? If we teach young kids in schools they’ll be able to cope better with their emotions and help their friends in tough times.”
Ms McWilliam said when her 15-year-old brother completed suicide there were a lot of dark days in her family. She thought the world was too hard and stopped being able to cope. Thankfully, Ms McWilliam said she had people around her who could help.
She spent two weeks at Orange hospital.
“Even sort of now when I say my father and my brother both completed suicide, people sort of take a step back but the thing is I wrote a story about it, I’m ready to talk about it and making change starts with a conversation no matter how hard it is. If I had people who were more aware of what depression was it would have made my life a lot easier in school,” Ms McWilliam said.
Mental health was something everybody had, she said, and something everyone needed to look after.
The Dubbo resident said hearing from other people who had been through similar situations was one of the main drives for her to continue to push for the mental health education.
“Once you have these conversations you realise so many more people put up their hand and say ‘me too’. Once I published my story I had people message me saying ‘hey, me too, this has also happened to me.’ Two people I had never spoken to,” Ms McWilliam said.
Speaking about it also reduced the stigma around suicide, she said. A representative from headspace speaking to the Heywire winners said 20 years ago speaking about suicide was completely taboo. While it was now spoken about more openly, Ms McWilliam said there was a long way to go.
If Ms McWilliam is successful in her pitch, she said she would like to see the program firstly piloted in areas where there were no mental health resources for young people. From there it would hopefully spread into other schools.
“My story is big, but this happens to people every day. I’m not special, I’m not unique, this is happening every day and just to be a voice for those people has been incredible. I never thought people would want to listen,” Ms McWilliam said.
“If I can help one person, if I could make a difference in one person’s life that would mean the world to me. That would make it a bit easier.”