By Paul O'Rourke

Devonport Chaplaincy has an important and unique role to play in improving mental health through chaplaincy, student and driver mentoring, education and training.

The organisation is effective in addressing the key criteria Health Minister Jeremy Rockliff outlined in a recent ABC article about suicide in Tasmania. The Minister said it was important to:

  • Reduce stigma
  • Regularly check in with the people around them and encouraging discussion
  • Give people a sense of belonging or a feeling of connectedness
  • Listen without judgment, showing compassion, and instilling hope
  • Develop skills to support someone in crisis, including to encourage the seeking of professional help.

Without being trite, we tick the boxes.

Minister Rockliff was responding to an ABC report in August which said suicide was the leading cause of death among Tasmanians aged 15-44.

Citing statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the ABC’s Annah Fromberg said there had been a 38 per cent increase in suicides in Tasmania between 2018 and 2019.

Suicide rates

She quoted various health professionals who said mental health specialists could not keep up with the demand for help.

Devonport Chaplaincy influences thousands of people each week in the North West, starting with breakfast clubs, and continuing throughout the day through chaplaincy and after-school hours student mentoring and driver training, as well as mental health education.

The goal is to make life better, one relationship at a time.

Cathrin Boerma

Teen suicides led chaplain Catherin Boerma to become passionate about teaching mental health first aid.

Cathrin, who now works in a teaching and chaplain support role with Devonport Chaplaincy, said everyone should learn mental first aid.

“Mental health is the equivalent of a physical first aid course,” she said.

“It’s about recognising the signs and symptoms of a mental health issue just as you would the signs and symptoms of a sprained ankle or broken leg.

“However, it’s not diagnosing a mental illness or counselling, but rendering first aid, recognising there is a serious problem and getting the person to the help they need.

“You get them to the ambulance, so to speak, and then play a supporting role which could be making meals, mowing their lawn or doing the shopping and paying bills for them.”

Devonport Chaplaincy CEO Andrew Hillier said chaplains worked as part of the school student care team, referring pupils to the school nurse, social workers and psychologists when appropriate.

“Chaplains and mentors are not a replacement for specialists, but act in a triage and prevention capacity.

“A lot of our work is simply building relationships over a long period of time to prevent issues becoming crises; students who may be bullied, having problems with their parents or siblings, body image or studies.

“We recognise there needs to be more money spent on mental health services, particularly for children and youth, but just throwing more money at the problem is prohibitively expensive and not necessarily strategic or effective.

“A lot of what we do is prevention, building a fence at the top of the hill instead of rescuing those who plummet to the ground.”

The 2020 Mission Australia survey of Australians aged 15-19 shows coping with stress and mental health issues are the leading concerns of teens.

In Tasmania, more than twice as many girls are stressed (62.7%) than boys (27.6%).

Devonport Chaplaincy offers accredited, evidence-based standard and youth mental health first aid training.

The chaplaincy team also delivers teen mental health education aimed specifically at Grades 7 to 12.

Cathrin is also accredited to teach gambling treatment intervention and non-suicidal self injury (self harm) interventions.

About 24 people from Oldaker Christian Church in Devonport are the latest group to undertake the mental health first aid training.

David Pearson

Pastor David Pearson said he was surprised at the interest shown when he announced the church would be running the course.

“It was encouraging to see so many people willing to come out for three hours a week for four weeks in the middle of winter,” he said.

“It shows that people are wanting to upskill to address what they know is a big issue.

“We have had people from 16 to their sixties attend. They have commented that they now feel better equipped to provide initial care to those who are struggling and facilitate getting professional help when it’s warranted.”

Cathrin Boerma said two teen deaths at a school where she was chaplain reaffirmed the importance of mental health training and education.

“At one school we had a student suicide; two months after another student died in an accident. That was a tough time trying to negotiate your own emotions, versus the teachers, versus the students.

“That was a very challenging time, but also very rewarding to be able to build relationships and restore hope in the midst of a crisis.

“It was about being a constant presence, a constant listening ear, validating their feelings without judgment.

“As a support team, we debriefed extensively to make sure we hadn’t missed anything and to reflect on what we could do better.”

The courses are now run regularly for parents, teachers and caregivers.

“While I was able to ask students about their mental health, I became more intentional about directly asking students if they were considering suicide.

“I’ve actually had students come into my office and say, “If I couldn’t see you today, I was going to kill myself’. While that may have been a throwaway line, I realised what the impact of a chaplain can be.”

Several organisations and schools have already booked mental health training and education courses for the remainder of 2021.

Devonport Chaplaincy is now taking bookings for 2022.

Call 6417 3175 or email us. To find out more or book your place.