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Youth Suicide & COVID-19 - 25/06/2020 :: 31/12/2020

A new centre tackles suicide for those most at risk – youth

An NHMRC-funded Centre of Research Excellence focusing on youth and mental health is launched as experts prepare for a spike in mental health issues in the wake of COVID-19. 

As the national urgency of suicide prevention becomes a central focus for Australia’s health system, the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre has launched YOUTHe, a five-year Centre of Research Excellence (CRE) in suicide prevention for young people. The $2.5 million, five-year National Health and Medical Research Commission (NHMRC) project is a collaboration between some of Australia’s top mental health researchers. It comes as online and phone counselling services for young Australians face unprecedented demand.

The University of Sydney-led centre spans organisations like Orygen Youth Health, emergency services and youth advocates. It combines clinical and research experience with unique modelling techniques to plan, implement and evaluate new and emerging technologies. It aims to give every young person presenting to health care with suicidal behaviour access to evidence-based, personalised and ongoing health care.

“Young people with existing mental health disorders are particularly vulnerable and those who have lost jobs, income or dropped out of education will be at much greater risk.
Professor Ian Hickie

YOUTHe, officially launched last week,  will focus on healthcare system reform through participatory design informed by lived experience, and dynamic modelling in real time and evaluation. This can include a macro focus across Australia or drill down to the regional and local levels. Trials will incorporate workforce training for mental health services, community workshops, and assess the use of technologies for intervention and tracking.

Lead researcher and co-director of the Brain and Mind Centre Professor Ian Hickie AM,  said that after drought and bushfires and in the midst of COVID-19, the centre was launching at a critical time for young people in need of mental health care.

“We are in a period of great uncertainty,” Professor Hickie said. “Young people with existing mental health disorders are particularly vulnerable and many more young people who have lost jobs, income or dropped out of education will be at much greater risk.

“This research gives us an opportunity to ensure the health system is prepared for the consequences of the pandemic.”

Head of the modelling team for YOUTHe, Associate Professor Jo-An Atkinson, from the Brain and Mind Centre and Faculty of Medicine and Health, said the centre will set a benchmark for the field of public mental health to help deliver better outcomes.

“Our research will combine traditional research approaches with mathematical, computational, systems and data sciences; we will develop advanced-decision analytic tools and infrastructure that can be rapidly deployed, to respond to looming national and regional threats to youth mental health and suicidal behaviours,” Associate Professor Atkinson said.

“We will provide a blueprint for working collaboratively with governments, regional planners and clinicians, to flatten the curve in youth suicide by answering the critical questions of: ‘what combination of responses is required, at what time, in what sequence, targeted at whom, with what intensity and for how long?’

The first phase of research will be the development, deployment and continuous evaluation of predictive dynamic simulation models for specific primary health networks. This will enable researchers to see, in real-time, the effects of new regionally-based initiatives.


The research team consists of national leaders in suicide prevention including:

  • Professor Ian Hickie (lead researcher, University of Sydney)
  • Professor Pat McGorry (Orygen)
  • Associate Professor Jo Robinson (Orygen)
  • Professor Andrew Chanen (Orygen)
  • Associate Professor Jo-An Atkinson (University of Sydney)
  • Associate Professor Elizabeth Scott (University of Notre Dame)
  • Dr Simon Judkins
  • Professor Niels Buus (University of Sydney)
  • Professor Andrew Page (Western Sydney University)

The call comes in the latest research published in the Psychiatry Lancet Suicide risk and prevention during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The research, which was a collaboration between the Black Dog Institute, the University of Melbourne and others, shows that there were increases in suicides in previous pandemics. But while in the USA during the 1918–19 influenza pandemic and among older people in Hong Kong during the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic, it is not known if the same thing will happen after COVID-19.

“The message here is that we need to prepare,” said the Black Dog Institute Director Helen Christensen, who was one of the collaborators on the research.

The paper calls for mental health services to develop clear remote assessment and care pathways for people who are suicidal, and staff training to support new ways of working.

It states that:

  • Helplines that are already established, such as the one run by Lifeline, should be given additional support to maintain or increase their volunteer workforce, and offer more flexible methods of working.
  • Digital training resources would enable those who have not previously worked with people who are suicidal to take active roles in mental health services and helplines.
  • Evidence-based online interventions and applications should be made available to support people who are suicidal.
  • Governments should provide ongoing support for the who have lost employment and have financial issues as a result. Assistance should be given not only to individuals’ current situations but also their futures.
  • Mental health consequences are likely to be present for longer and peak later than the actual pandemic. However, research evidence and the experience of national strategies provide a strong basis for suicide prevention.


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