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LIFE AS I KNOW IT: What's failing our Grafton kids?

SEEING a front page and four pages dedicated to Grafton youth suicide stories in The Sunday Telegraph over your pancakes, a couple of days after RUOK? Day, was devastating. Not just because of the tragic topic or the people who have directly suffered, but also for the entire community, complacent pancake eaters et all. It was an ugly blight on our watch, our happy, healthy Clarence Valley lifestyle we like to champion and foster.

While inland regional areas like Grafton are not alone in the struggle to deal with the often complex social issues that result in youth suicide, we seem to be excelling enough that it warrants national attention.

We deserve to have it highlighted to the rest of the state and country. Maybe now the issue has travelled beyond our council boundaries, we either do something tangible about it or wear the shame of being "the NSW town stalked by tragedy” like some kind of hands-up-in-the-air badge of defeat.

Given the tragic stories occurred over a couple of years, there are lots of residents who were already concerned and motivated enough to initiate support groups, hold meetings, campaign and start petitions. It's a good effort by a dedicated few but really a flea's worth when it comes to beating the black dog and its various mongrel offspring. And like many concerned residents, I've done nothing to get involved.

When you get angry about your own slackness and lack of engagement in general, looking for something or someone to blame follows but often cited as not being constructive. Well too bad. This is an opinion piece and maybe not wise to go there in an agitated state, but expressing where you believe problems lie or stem from is better than a head in the sand approach so here goes nothing:

Our mental health resourcing and execution needs an overhaul. It's not exclusive to Grafton but we've all got a story or heard one. We don't like to talk about them but if you have mental health issues the infrastructure here doesn't reflect the demand. Despite what medical intervention or counselling we can offer here in the Clarence, the momentum overrides that resulting in the type of enormous tragedy and loss spelled out in the article. Better resources is always good but it's traditionally the band-aid solution. The rest of this epidemic or contagion as it was referred to is down to poor decision making and lack of opportunity.

Our environment is not conducive to learning and achieving. Sure we have schools. We have sporting clubs. Everyone does. But we are far from being an academic town. There's nothing beyond Year 12 at any serious tertiary level (sorry TAFE you are doing what you can) and a historic city like Grafton looks like it should offer degrees as well as certificates. Like Bathurst or Lismore or Armidale do. The people who could be leading our youth by example, instilling confidence, goal-setting and high standards, professors, lecturers, high achieving young adult students, socially progressive students, aspirational people, are nowhere to be seen.

So too is the university culture that crosses many social boundaries and trickles well beyond its walls of academia. Young people stay around longer, are rewarded for their hard work, enjoy the atmosphere of social and performance events, there are conference and hosting opportunities, academic research facilities to make new discoveries, the list is endless. Instead we have a dark cloud of what could have been extending across the community on every level. There were golden opportunities served up on a platter but rejected twice across two generations when the council forefathers saw no good reason to take up the option of incorporating a university or a campus within this city. To the people, dead or alive, who made those decisions - shame on you. That breathtaking ignorance continues to bite at the core of the Clarence Valley to this day, in particular the beachless Grafton. Its social cohesion, its prosperity, its opportunities, its reputation and its identity. Nothing will ever repair the void and damage caused by a handful of short-sighted, self-important, fear-mongering hacks. These are the philistines who put Grafton on a trajectory of mediocrity that still resonates today.

Parents who are time poor or lack ambition. There's a can of worms. Today a common option is turning to medical intervention to help ease the stress load or let's face it, keep their families together.

Why, because the drugs are there? Because it's a quick-fix solution? Okay, judging parents is one step off being the anti-Christ and it's certainly not the sole answer to this awful situation we find ourselves in. Quite often they too have been let down by various tiers of support and the people in their lives, but trying to remove them completely from the equation is not wise either. There's no one thing to blame but everything to blame when it comes to complex social issues. Anything that results in the self-inflicted deaths of young people, and older for that matter, has to receive the full gamut of investigation. Cherry picking issues to suit one group or another is senseless.

The divide between rich and poor. Yes the ol' have and have nots we like to deny exist. Of course they exist. Take a drive around any regional centre and that's blatantly obviously. But it's the growing divide of that social ditch that's the problem and the permanent nature of finding yourself on the wrong side. There's no way out for a lot of people struggling to break-free, others like it that way as long as it doesn't encroach of their existence. The refusal to give up anything to lessen that divide also ensures it will continue to widen.

The general lack of respect for our indigenous residents is entrenched and endemic here so who was shocked to see their children in this tragic list? It's almost expected in this country, so why would Grafton be any different? The responsibility of solving this doesn't rest on a handful of indigenous leaders, it falls to everyone, from their responses and attitudes towards our original residents to mentoring and supporting roles throughout the whole community. Get your act together, it's 2016.

The same applies to attitudes around our LGBIT children who face similarly testing odds as they progress through life in a regional centre like Grafton. They deserve the same rights and freedoms as everyone else, a simple concept that is made complicated by everyone else. That BS needs to be stopped in its tracks.

Then there's social media's hand in this. It's penetration is inescapable and when it's bad it can be as devastating as drug addiction. The effects of which can also be invisible to a child's nearest and dearest if they are presented without any obvious evidence of mental and emotional trauma.

There's probably more to add in this tirade and overwhelming list of problems like drugs and alcohol and poker machines but it's tiresome playing the same ol' tunes to the same end result. It's really down to you and me to do something about it.

It's easier now than ever before to get in touch with people. If a community can't reach out to its own members, what's the point of having one. Harass your federal, state and local governments, harass the media, harass your schools, join a group, talk to your kids, your family and friends about it.

We don't need another four pages down the track to remind us how badly we failed as a community.

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