The program tackles teen mental health head-on, in a place where suicide rates are a major concern

The program tackles teen mental health head-on, in a place where suicide rates are a major concern

Sixteen-year-old Jack Farrell knows the triggers when his mental health takes a turn for the worse.

“When I don’t exercise, I find my mental health declining,” he said.

“When I’m active and exercising and eating well and working out, I feel really good.”

A male teenager stands with his arms crossed in a boxing gym
Jack Farrell wants to see young men open up more to each other.(ABC Alice Springs: Lee Robinson)

The Grade 10 student knows all too well the devastating consequences of poor mental health, having lost several family members to suicide.

“It’s really important that guys open up about it,” he said.

“It’s not just about sitting down and having a really intense, deep conversation.

“It’s exercising, laughing, having fun, and then getting a little more serious and opening up to each other.”

Jack is one of 18 young men taking part in a government-funded, trauma-informed boxing program designed to equip high school students with the tools to deal with the challenges life throws at them.

Run by the G-Training boxing gym in Alice Springs, the Making a Difference (MAD) program is one of a series of projects being rolled out as part of the Northern Territory Government’s suicide prevention strategy.

Struggling with the highest suicide rates of any Australian jurisdiction, a monumental task awaits the Northern Territory as its government sets out to halve the suicide rate over the next 10 years.

Coach Steve Gardiner, who is running the program for the third year in a row, says he often sees a remarkable turnaround in students during the program.

A man in a boxing gym.
Steve Gardiner uses boxing as a tool to help build resilience in young people.(ABC Alice Springs: Lee Robinson)

“Research shows they are more likely to talk to their peers about issues that are happening, rather than going to see a mental health worker,” he said.

“It’s about feeling comfortable with yourself…and asking yourself, ‘Are you okay?’

“They often come in very shy…and don’t want to engage, whereas now you can see them engaging, and they feel confident asking the questions they need to ask.”

The sessions combine sparring and pads and bag work, as well as discussions on the determinants of mental health like eating well, getting enough sleep and limiting screen time.

As part of the eight-week program, students from local public schools Centralian Middle School and Centralian Senior College partner at various grade levels, helping younger students build new relationships as they transition into their senior years. of high school.

Two male teenagers training in a boxing ring
The eight-week program encourages partnerships between students from different grades.(Provided: Steve Gardiner)

A boxing teacher for more than two decades, Mr Gardiner said the combat sport had helped get him through tough times.

“It releases those endorphins, every time you come here and hit the bags or the pads, you’re doing it with like-minded people…and working towards a common goal,” Gardiner said.

“I’ve had people from all walks of life come here, and sometimes they really struggle, but when they leave, they leave satisfied.

“It’s about de-stressing yourself from your life.”

Federal government data from 2021 paints a grim picture: 18.4 people commit suicide per 100,000 population in the Northern Territory – a rate almost double that of Victoria.

An empty boxing ring, decorated with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags
Young NT men are losing their lives to suicide at much higher rates than the rest of the population.(Alice Springs: Lee Robinson)

Among young people aged 15 to 24, suicide is the leading cause of death, with men about three times more likely to die by suicide than women.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who make up a third of the Northern Territory’s population, are twice as likely to commit suicide as the rest of the population.

Built on three platforms – respect, resilience and relationships – the boxing program has seen strong community involvement, hosting discussions from on-duty police officers, a Headspace psychologist and a local cultural adviser.

For Matt Skoss, a math professor at Centralian Senior College, seeing the students positively engage with one another has been a rewarding experience.

“One of the big messages is just to be there for your friends,” he said.

“Resilience certainly fuels suicide prevention, which is a very important part of all of this, and that’s a big challenge for kids in this complex world.”

A group of male teenagers sitting on a couch having a chat.
The program addresses eating well, getting enough sleep, and limiting screen time.(ABC Alice Springs: Lee Robinson)

Although Mr Skoss does not teach most students directly, he said his relationship with the boys has also improved since their first session in October.

“I often see them at school and we stop and chat,” he said.

“I can see a buoyancy in them, and that comes from contact with another person.

“This fable of ‘it takes a whole village to raise a child’ – I think is a very important approach to take in a small community like Alice Springs.”

A group of teenagers with their trainer and teacher inside a boxing gym.
Students are often shy at the start of the program, but emerge confident.(Provided: Steve Gardiner)

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