a road leading into the distance, covered by greenery. Stationed in rural NSW.

Giving rural communities a voice in suicide prevention strategies

25 March 2024
Student Spotlight: Julia Boyle
In this edition of Student Spotlight, we sit down with PhD candidate Julia Boyle. She shares her journey to the Matilda Centre, why we need more research in rural and regional mental health, substance use and suicide prevention, and what she wants everyone to know about this space.

Australia’s rural, regional and remote communities are diverse and resilient, but access to mental health, substance use and suicide prevention services can be very limited, and young people often face additional barriers to getting the support they need.

A lack of consistent mental health and suicide prevention services, particularly specialist services, long travel distances, high costs and lack of privacy mean that regional and rural Australians face unique challenges to suicide prevention. Recent data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare showed that age-standardised suicide rates for Australians living outside major cities were above the national rate for 2022. 

Julia Boyle is looking at the screen and has long, dark hair and is wearing a black shirt. She is smiling

For Julia Boyle, PhD candidate and Research Assistant at the Matilda Centre, listening to the voices of young people and their communities in rural NSW to learn what matters for their wellbeing and how existing prevention programs and resources can be adapted to meet their needs is one way we can bridge that gap.

Hi Julia! Tell us about your journey to starting your PhD at the Matilda Centre. 

I was born and raised in the Northern Beaches on Gadigal country here in Sydney, then I moved to Canberra in 2016 for university when I was 18. I started out studying law and political science at ANU, but pretty soon I realised I was more interested in psychology. In 2018 I started what I thought would be two weeks of work experience at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC), then I came across to the Matilda Centre, and five years later I’m still here.  

When I first started, I knew very little about prevention. I remember thinking at 21 that it was an empowering and exciting way of looking at mental health and wellbeing. It made me want to learn more.

I was 16 the first time I tried to get help for my own mental health. I can remember feeling dismissed, invalidated and misunderstood when I was sent away with a pamphlet. This was when I first became aware of how easy it is to slip through the cracks of our mental health system when it comes to recognising and addressing the needs of young people.  

This was reinforced when I learned about the stark differences between the support available in big cities like Sydney and Canberra compared to rural and regional communities across Australia. It’s hard enough asking for help when you know where to find it, but what do you do when there is no help available, or you don’t know where to go?

You are doing a lot of work to understand the experiences and needs of young people living in regional and rural areas of NSW. What made you interested in working in the regional and rural space?

It took ten years of trying for me to finally get the right help at 26 years old, and it’s not something I want other people to have to go through.

Service access and health equity are huge issues in Australia, especially in rural and regional communities, so I want to work towards systemic change. When I heard that Headspace was looking for a PhD student to explore ways they could improve services for young people living in rural and regional communities through prevention, it felt like the perfect opportunity.

Julia is standing in front of a poster. She has long brown hair that she is wearing out and is wearing a white shirt. The poster behind her discusses her research into regional communities.

Image: Julia Boyle presenting a poster presentation at the 2022 Western NSW Health Research Network Symposium in Dubbo.

What have you learnt about working in this space that might be helpful for other researchers?

In research, it can be easy to forget the people behind the numbers. I think it is so important to stay grounded by having conversations with people out in the community. I’ve just come back from a fantastic week of talking about youth wellbeing and suicide prevention with people from all walks of life in Dubbo, and I wish I’d done it sooner.

For me, one of the first steps has been reflecting on the language I use to describe my research. Mental health, wellbeing, and suicide prevention mean different things to different people. These meanings change depending on how old you are, where you live, and what you do for work.

I have also been driven to consider the perspectives of others with experiences different to my own, especially as someone who grew up in Sydney, working in this space. I think it’s important that we remain open to considering new and alternate ways of working so we can continue to improve how we conduct research with rural and regional communities.

So, if you want to work in this space, it’s something you need to take the time to reflect on deeply before you commit to it.

You will be spending part of 2024 travelling to regional and rural communities in NSW to get a better understanding of what mental health and suicide prevention could look like across the state. What are you most looking forward to?

While I’m looking forward to getting out of the city and going road tripping, I’m most excited for the opportunity to continue to meet people and learn from communities.  

We will be travelling to places I’ve never been before and am excited to visit. I’m hoping to get more perspective on how unique and diverse rural and regional communities and places are in NSW. I’m looking forward to hearing what young people have to say in particular.

What is something you would want everyone to know about mental health and suicide prevention?

I’m hopeful about the future, in large part because of how engaged and switched on young people are about the importance of wellbeing and mental health. I think alongside tackling broader societal issues, giving young people across the country more opportunities to learn the right skills, and to have their needs met effectively, will go a long way towards promoting youth wellbeing, and preventing substance use and suicide.

Want to contribute to the leading research on youth mental health, substance use and suicide prevention in rural, regional and remote NSW in 2024? Get in contact with the team to learn the next locations Julia Boyle and her team will be visiting for engagement.