A/Professor Alison Calear
Australian National University
24 September 2019

Youth suicide is a growing problem in Australia that has far-reaching effects on family, friends and the community.

Last month the Australian Government committed to strengthening Australians’ health through a $440 million investment in research to prevent illness and deliver better care.

A total of 298 new projects received funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

Associate Professor Alison Calear from the Australian National University, through her NHMRC Emerging Leadership Fellowship received more than $1.2 million for research into harnessing interpersonal connectedness to reduce suicide risk in youth.

At present, many young people with suicidal thoughts and behaviour do not receive help due to feelings of shame or stigma, a lack of awareness of the signs and symptoms of suicide or an inability to access services. There has been limited research in Australia, and internationally, on the drivers of youth suicide or identifying effective universal approaches to reducing suicide behaviours and risks.

A/Prof Calear will research the drivers of suicide in this population, as well as the development and evaluation of interventions that promote positive and early help-seeking in young people.

My research program aims to lower the risk of youth suicide by better understanding pathways into suicidal behaviour and testing new interventions that promote positive social connections and timely help-seeking for suicidal thoughts and behaviour, said A/Prof Calear.

A/Prof Calear aims to deliver practical outcomes, including new evidence-based programs for parents and youth, and guidelines to support the delivery of these programs in schools.

Currently I am evaluating a number of interventions to promote help-seeking for suicide and psychological distress in secondary school students. These interventions have focused on building and strengthening social connections to facilitate support in times of distress, as well as increasing knowledge of suicide and coping, said A/Prof Calear.

With this funding A/Prof Calear will expand her research to primary school aged students and parents. For both of these populations she will be developing and evaluating interventions designed to facilitate help-seeking and build protective factors to prevent suicide.

An intergenerational intervention that promotes reciprocally caring relationships between primary school-aged students and older adults will also be evaluated, with a focus on building social connectedness and belongingness to reduce suicide risk, said A/Prof Calear.

This research is important as it will contribute to the improvement of the mental health and wellbeing of young Australians and contribute to a more functional and productive society. The potential impacts of this research are high, with applications both in Australia and internationally. The funding from NHMRC will ensure that this important research is conducted in a timely and rigorous manner, and will benefit young people.

As a part of this research, I will also be working with stakeholders in the youth mental health sector to identify how we better implement evidence-based programs within primary and secondary schools to improve access to suicide prevention initiatives and how to reach, engage and support parents to facilitate help-seeking for mental health problems in young people, said A/Prof Calear.

Over the next five years, A/Prof Calear hopes that this knowledge will assist in better identifying young people at risk of suicide, identify new targets for intervention, and provide schools with a comprehensive suite of evidence-based programs to prevent youth suicide.

One of the drivers of my work in this area are my two young sons. I want them to grow up in a supportive and socially connected community in which mental health is openly discussed and promoted, and where seeking help is commonplace and accepted, said A/Prof Calear.

A full list of grant recipients is available on NHMRC’s website.