R U OK? It’s an important question to ask every day

by MICHELE STERNBERG

From the creation of apps to help people cope with stress through to hosting free community training days, the USC’s Thompson Institute has been recognised for its world-leading research into suicide prevention.

And at the recent 2021 Sunshine Coast Business Women’s Network Awards, the institute’s general manager Elise Jione was honoured to be named Young Business Woman of the Year.

“Since winning the award, I’ve really seen it as a privileged position to be able to use this as a bit of a platform as a community call to action,” says Ms Jione, who was born and bred on the Sunny Coast.

Statistics show one person a week is lost to suicide on the Sunshine Coast, and for every loss 100 people are impacted.

“Everyone has a role to play in mental health and mental health doesn’t discriminate – it really affects a lot of people, especially in our region,” she says.

Three years ago, Ms Jione launched the Alliance for Suicide Prevention – Sunshine Coast, which now has 125 member organisations and more than 2000 people trained in suicide prevention.

As part of this year’s R U OK? Day activities, the alliance ran a free four-hour safeTALK suicide alertness workshop offering practical knowledge of how to identify someone at risk of suicide and link them to life-saving services.

It also included hands-on skills practice and development, as well as an introduction to the TALK steps: Tell, Ask, Listen and KeepSafe.

The institute has also this month partnered with the Caloundra Chamber of Commerce to provide local business owners with mental well-being support, an initiative Ms Jione hopes will spread to businesses across the region.

“Mental health is a very complex issue so being on that proactive side of taking action is so important,” she says.

“The Caloundra Chamber of Commerce collaboration is a real example of that, so Brady (Sullivan, CEO) has been really proactive in being responsive to the mental health of his community.

“Through collaborative actions with us, the Sunshine Coast Council, the Queensland Mental Health Commission, all of these key players coming together is now resulting in that action. 

“That’s being able to provide much-needed training for our community, for people to be able to safely deal with these mental health issues both at work and at home as well.”

The Thompson Institute has three areas of focus – research, education and community training and engagement. Ms Jione says the coronavirus pandemic has affected so many people, particularly on the Sunny Coast, that they are seeing more people facing mental health issues.

She says the Emerald Program is “really tackling this new cohort of people who may have emerging signs of anxiety or stress that could be linked to the pandemic”.

“These are people that may not have had a mental illness before but due to financial issues, relationship breakdowns or employment concerns, they’re really experiencing more anxiety and stress in their lives than they ever have before,” she says.

“We’ve been really trying to provide supports and programs to support this new cohort of people who may be experiencing these issues which, if those emerging signs and symptoms that they have go on to develop a mental illness, they’re then entering a mental health system that’s already at capacity.

“We’re trying to lessen the pressure on that to help the larger mental health system at play at the moment – that’s hospitals, GPs, psychologists.”

Ms Jione says training one person has a domino effect and is an effective way of spreading awareness through the community.

“We provide training to just one person but that one person then goes back home, or to their sports team or they might be part of other groups and committees or church groups, and friends,” she says.

In terms of research projects this year, the Thompson Institute has launched the Healthy Brain Ageing Clinic; performed clinical trials into low-dose ketamine for chronic suicidality, with 69 per cent of participants reporting improvement after six weeks; began the chronic fatigue study; and the longitudinal adolescent brain study reached a milestone with 100 participants at the halfway point, looking at teenage sleep and anxiety.

In the pipeline is a clinical trial for post-traumatic stress disorder.

“What makes us different is that we are an integrated centre so we’ve got our research activities which look at suicide prevention, youth mental health, ageing and dementia, PTSD and eating disorders – Australia’s most pressing mental health concerns,” Ms Jione says.

“But we also have our clinicians in house and on site as well as our professional team. So really that combination of finding those new treatments and then being able to translate that into clinical practice rather than research just for research’s sake is our point of difference.

“It’s that practical application. The research that universities are conducting really have to have meaning and purpose and an impact in the regions that they operate in.”

Those wanting help can download the free My Coping Plan app or tap into one of the free community well-being programs.