Grafton High School student Emma Powell who took her own life after a four-year battle with depression.
Grafton High School student Emma Powell who took her own life after a four-year battle with depression.

Emma Powell's mother speaks of her family's pain

EMMA Powell's mother Shannon has spoken about her family's pain in the hope to spare other families the sadness.

Grafton High School student Emma Powell, 16, drove off in the family 4WD with her dog Indie on December 19. Her body was found four days later.

The death of the outgoing teenager has rocked the Clarence Valley community where six teenagers from three local high schools have committed suicide in the past year.

Emma's mother Shannon said the eldest of her two daughters had battled bouts of depression since primary school, although her struggle was hidden from many by her "joyful" nature.

Mum Shannon doesn’t want ‘beautiful soul’ Emma’s death to be in vain
Mum Shannon doesn’t want ‘beautiful soul’ Emma’s death to be in vain

The night before Emma went missing, Mrs Powell said her daughter had "taken a turn", but an ­attempt to have her admitted to hospital in Grafton failed.

Emma's father Michael said his daughter appeared normal when she arrived at hospital.

"When she turned up, she was calm and so they didn't even assess her," he said. "We were told a ­mental health worker would call us the next day, but nobody did.

"It's like fighting a war you can't see. Emma had no physical signs and so we were told to go home."

The following morning, Emma appeared to be her usual self as she filled out an application for a ­uniform after getting a casual job at McDonald's.

"We were working out whether she needed a size 10 or 12 uniform," Mrs Powell said.

"All I can say is that she must have been in a terrible place when she left. She was so happy and joyful, but when she was down she was all consumed.

"There are just no words. It is such a tragic waste. All I want for her is to come back."

Mrs Powell, said the deaths of the other teenagers had affected her daughter greatly, especially that of her friend Courtney Telfer, from neighbouring Maclean High School, whose photograph she carried on her phone.

Being a close-knit community, all the teenagers knew each other even if they didn't attend the same schools, she said.

Four months before taking her own life, Emma delivered a speech at school revealing that her struggles with depression had begun at eight after being bullied.

While her mother had helped ­rebuild her confidence, she said she was forever plagued by self-doubt and anxiety.

In her speech, she revealed her time spent in a mental health unit and urged her peers not to be ashamed to reach out if needing help.

"My message to each of you is: If you have had thoughts of ending your life, please reach out, please don't be afraid to reach out and say 'I can't do this, please help'," she said.

"I felt weak and a failure that I needed help with school and my mental health. We all need to understand that getting help isn't a sign of weakness, it's a sign of strength and realisation that you are overcoming your ­demons."

Emma is the sixth teenager from a Clarence Valley school to have taken their own life in the past year, although Lifeline believes the toll is much higher with not all deaths confirmed as suicide.

A series of city and regional forums have also been held as part of a campaign to break the taboo surrounding talking about youth suicide and ­mental health.

Mrs Powell said her daughter had tried to overcome her depression by immersing herself in nature. Her funeral will be held at her favourite spot by the Clarence River.

While appreciative of the mental health workers who had worked with her daughter, Mrs Powell said more needed to be done to prevent other teenagers from doing the same thing.

"I don't know what the answer is. If I did, Emma would still be here," she said. "But I know that by the time these kids are calling mental health lines, for some it is too late.

"Maybe we need mental health education in primary school, to teach kids how to be resilient and get through the dark times.

"I don't want Em's death to be in vain. I don't want other families to go through what we are. These kids are screaming for help and we need to listen."

Lifeline North Coast chief executive officer Allister Donald said the situation was a "national emergency".

The organisation recently joined with education, health and mental health representatives on a steering committee to tackle the "contagion", although Mr Donald said it was a race against time.

At a public meeting on December 12 the committee discussed a raft of strategies to prevent further deaths, including training those on the frontline such as surfing, football and netball coaches to identify teens who may be vulnerable.

"It is very easy to get it wrong, and so we are working through this in a way that we hope will make a difference," he said.

"We cover a large area, but we are a small community. Every time there is a death, everybody feels it. It is not just here in the Clarence Valley. This is happening across Australia. It is a national emergency."

Originally published as: "It's like fighting a war you can't see."