Nick Carroll: The Burden of the Beaches

31 Jan 2019 7 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Photo: Joshiest, from the CW User Photo Gallery

Photo: Joshiest, from the CW User Photo Gallery

COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL

A kid’s accidental death, and a trauma surfaces in its wake

You may have heard about it. Late last Thursday, a 15-year-old kid named Brody Hurst, who lived in Newport on Sydney’s northern beaches with his family, became the focus of a search.

Brody had gone missing without explanation. His mum posted details on social media: where he’d been last seen, what he was wearing and carrying. This was “totally out of character”, were her words.

Brody’s bike was found locked to a rail at the base of the stairs leading onto a path that winds around the top of the headland between Newport and Bilgola Beach. The next morning, his body was found at the base of the headland cliff, on the Bilgola side.

A real tragedy, especially for Brody’s family and friends.

But another kind of tragedy lurked behind the flood of responses. The police had said “no suspicious circumstances”. Nothing more was reported. Yet almost everyone — on social media, and the many people I bumped into on the street and down at the beach over the long weekend — seemed to think it was suicide.

Think about that for a second. A community in one of the wealthiest and most superficially attractive places in the world has become so inured to the idea of young people killing themselves, it’s their first reaction to an unexplained death. They assumed it. They expected it.

Youth suicide is a huge burden on Sydney’s northern beaches. This century so far, the Pittwater area has had one of the highest rates of suicide between the ages of 15 and 24 of anywhere in greater Sydney, higher than the eastern suburbs, Cronulla/Sutherland, the inner west, Parramatta or Penrith.

Until very recently, when state government funds have begun to flow into various programs, it’s been ill-served by government resources of any kind.

Two years ago, Avalon’s Paris Jeffcoat, who’d lost two friends from her year group at Barrenjoey High School to suicide, decided to find out what help was available. On the ground, she found … nothing. Lifeline, and a Headspace in Brookvale, and that was it. In response, Paris and a friend, Leanne Westlake, founded an organisation called One Eighty. Its aim is prevention — or as One Eighty’s mission statement goes, a future free of youth suicide.

She’s not surprised at the response to Brody’s death. “With young people around here, that’s the context and the conversation, there’s no escaping it, whatever the facts are,” she told CW.

Neither Paris or Leanne had any background in mental health work. They had to do a lot of their own research, delving into established organisations like Lifeline, the Black Dog Institute, Origin, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics latest Census data, along with NSW Department of Health policy and research through Paris’s job with the department at the time.

Community fundraising along with private sector and government grants has allowed One Eighty to set up a range of programs in schools and community centres. Some, like Tomorrow Man and Tomorrow Woman, are run by trained professionals and focus on helping young people express themselves more freely. Others, like Open Up, are peer-to-peer support groups, run meeting-style and designed for adults.

They also co-ordinate with Lifeline’s Accidental Counsellor training programs, and help run the Avalon Youth Hub, a crisis support centre targeted at young people — though Paris says parents often come in looking for information. And kids of primary school age who she says are starving for knowledge about the teen world they’re about to face.

“The community’s response has been incredible, which shows how much it was needed,” she said.

But this is an area full of clubs and busy social lives. There’s a lot of apparent support on show. “I think it’s in that word, ‘apparent,’’” Paris told us. “There’s still a lot of disengagement, a lot of pressure to achieve, and also to fit in. This is one of the least diverse areas in Australia. If you don’t surf…”

That’s it, isn’t it. That’s where we come in. Surf cultures can be crushingly conformist. Everybody’s perfect. Everybody is beautiful, gleaming, travelling the world, #vanlyfe, Instagram, Yoga, wooo. Maybe you know it’s all bullshit, maybe you don’t.

What if you don’t fit in?

Thing is, that wasn’t this story. Brody surfed a lot. He had a bunch of good friends. He wasn’t a current member of the local boardriders’ club, though the younger members knew him.

His death appears to have been completely unintentional – just a terrible accident.

His friends were left stranded in their grief. On Monday night, the last night of this long summer break, one of them tagged Newport Surf Club from head to toe. It was ugly yet at the same time, wrenchingly poignant. “RIP Brody”, it read, “miss you mate”, “where are you BH”.

Where are we, more like.

If you, or a young person you know, is struggling with symptoms of mental illness please contact your local headspace centre here or chat to them online, hereor call Kid’s Helpline on 1800 551 800. If you are over the age of 25 and suffering from symptoms of mental illness please contact your local GP for a Mental Health Assessment Plan or call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14. 

If you or someone you know is in need of urgent mental health treatment, call 000 immediately. Help and support is available.

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