Alex Hains was not your average 14-year-old growing up in Adelaide.
As part of winning a Duke of Edinburgh award, the youngster chose to do some voluntary work for the Julia Farr Centre in Adelaide, which was established in 1979 under the rather grim title of the Home for Incurables.
The centre's purpose was looking after those for whom society had no answers. The mentally or physically broken who had no-one else to care for them.
Lots of people were doing great work and suicide rates were not going down and were in fact going up. The Illawarra-Shoalhaven was consistently above state averages so we had to do something differently.
So, the teenager volunteered as a career and although he didn't know it at the time, he would get a taste of what would become his life's work in suicide prevention.
"My role was to support people who had accidents that had left them physically or mentally, or both, in need of really intensive care," Alex remembers.
"One of those patients was there after she'd made a suicide attempt and she'd done a lot of damage to her body. That was my first exposure (to suicide)... not long after a friend at school's dad suicided and that was my early exposure."
Years later it would become much more personal.
"My wife and I's friend's partner suicided and we supported the bereaved partner and kids through that," he said.
"That was an incredibly intense experience and gave me such an appreciation for the urgent need to do more to prevent people from people dying with suicide."
For the past five years, Alex Hains has been a shining light for this area as the regional manager of the Illawarra-Shoalhaven Suicide Prevention Collaborative, but his time in that role will come to an end at the end next week.
Next month he will start a new role as a director of the National Mental Health Commission and split his time between the Commission's offices in Sydney and back in his home in the Illawarra where he will be hosted by the University of Wollongong.
The role will see him work with the health sector and government forming and driving the future approach to mental health and suicide prevention nationally.
A trained clinical psychologist, Alex studied at Flinders University in Adelaide before doing his honours at Macquarie University in Sydney and his Masters and Doctorate at the University of Wollongong. He was working as the mental health manager at Grand Pacific Health in 2015 when the opportunity came to establish a radical new approach to suicide prevention with the formation of the Illawarra Shoalhaven Suicide Prevention Collaborative.
"It (the Collaborative) was born out of frustration really," Alex said.
"Lots of people were doing great work and suicide rates were not going down and were in fact going up. The Illawarra-Shoalhaven was consistently above state averages so we had to do something differently.
"At the time IHMRI (the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute) had a bit of funding and was looking for something to focus on and I suggested we used the funding to establish the Collaborative.
"I spoke with all leaders in all the local networks, just trying to sell the idea, but essentially saying we'd be better to all work together and make our efforts complement each other. It was focusing on implementing evidence-based activities that were likely to work."
The first meeting of the Collaborative was held the day before World Suicide Prevention Day in September in 2015 and it consisted of 12 local leaders of organisations involved in mental health and suicide prevention. These days the monthly meetings of the Collaborative involve more than 100 people and some of the most important voices in the room are the members with lived experience of suicide and recovery.
"What the collaborative has achieved is quite remarkable... we came together with a focus on suicide prevention before the suicide prevention sector started to talk like this," he said.
What has been done and achieved in this region is now being used as an example nationally.
"Over the last five years we've seen other regions of NSW start their own collaboratives, other parts of the country set up their own, and we've been able to demonstrate the potency of working together to implement what is otherwise a complicated avenue of activities," he said
"NSW Health has committed funding to set up collaboratives around all of NSW and the Federal Government is now looking at collaboratives being set up all over the country.
"I think it's fair to say some initiatives have been modeled largely on what we are doing in the Illawarra and Shoalhaven and that's something we can be really proud of."
Among the Collaborative's greatest achievements to date, Hains lists the Youth Aware of Mental program which has been completed by more than 6000 students in the region and the joint campaign with the Mercury, Care to QPR: Question, Persuade, Refer, which last year won the national LiFE Media Award for suicide prevention.
"Over 7000 people in this region have now done QPR training and we know 75 per cent of people that do the training use to it help people in months immediately after doing it," he said.
"There is now an army of people in the community better equipped to help the people around them.
"We've had the bushfires, the drought and now the pandemic and one of the challenges with suicide prevention is there is always so much still to be done.
"But the Collaborative has us positioned well as a region to cope as best as possible with what is happening around us."
The National Mental Health Commission has already been called upon to lead Australia's response to the current coronavirus pandemic and Alex believes that shows how far the country has come in relation to suicide prevention in a short time.
It wasn't long ago it was considered the best approach to suicide was to simply not talk about it.
He takes heart people and governments now understand suicide can be triggered by life circumstance.
"Over the last 20 years there has been absolutely a greater awareness of mental health and suicidiality," he said.
"A young person is now much more likely to reach out for support than a young person 10-20 years ago. The onus is on all of us now is to make the most of that momentum. Predictions in the media of an impending increase in suicide and a mental health crisis in these disasters have an impact on communities.
"But it is also important we realise an impending increase is not inevitable. There are things we can do to support each other."
Of course, one of those things is to complete the free QPR training courses.
"I can't tell you how much I've loved working with a great bunch of people all over the region, particularly the people with lived experience who have so much wisdom and share that wisdom with such generosity," he says in closing. I'm enormously grateful for everything the collaborative members have done with me and hope to absorb that and fold that back into whatever I can contribute into the Illawarra and Shoalhaven."
And with that, this region will continue to be a beacon of hope.for this country
You can do the online QPR training course on the Collaborative's website suicidepreventioncollaborative.org.auIf you are struggling go to www.suicidepreventioncollaborative.org.au/need-help for a list of supports. Or call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467. Alex will continue to be a Mercury monthly columnist.