Rachel Downie: Losing a Student to Suicide Led Me to Create an Online Reporting Platform

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POPSUGAR Australia is dedicating the month of October to featuring the next generation of inspired thinkers and courageous individuals who are building and manifesting a brighter future — because the next gen is unstoppable. We will deliver personal essays from young Australians who are making a name for themselves, as well as inspiring thought pieces and interviews with rising talent across different industries throughout the month. Find all of our pieces here and if there’s someone you think is missing, email our editor so we can share their story — [email protected].

Rachel Downie is an educator and the founder and director of Stymie — an online reporting tool for schools that allows students to submit anonymous messages that are delivered to authorised recipients. Young people can report instances of bullying, suicide ideation, sexual assault, family violence and anxiety via Stymie. It allows them to ask for help in a safe forum.

Downie was inspired to create the platform after a Year 9 boy in her care died by suicide. After his death, students came forward with information that could have saved his life, including the fact that he was experiencing anxiety, was being bullied and was being hurt by someone at home.

“I did know that something was going on in his life but I didn’t know the details, so I couldn’t get him the help he needed in time,” Downie told POPSUGAR Australia.

“To this day, I believe that we would have been able to help him if we had known these details. The students — his peers — had the information but they were too scared to come forward.”

To create a platform that would help young people when they needed it most, Downie went directly to the source for information.

“I spoke with hundreds of students, parents and staff and listened to what they said about help-seeking and the real and perceived risks associated with being the person to say something,” Downie said.

Since 2014, Stymie has delivered over 375,000 notifications and worked with over 200 schools, with Downie having contact with over 600,000 students in this time. “[I’ve] visited hundreds of schools nationally, spent months away from home, slept in my car, driven thousands and thousands of kilometres, had run-ins with emus, kangaroos and goats and really pushed myself to the limit.”

It’s all worth it though, says Downie, especially when she receives feedback from students thanking her for saving their lives. POPSUGAR Australia was lucky enough to chat with Downie about Stymie, the barriers she faced in creating the platform and the things that make her unstoppable.

POPSUGAR Australia: Hi Rachel! Can you please tell us a little about Stymie and how it functions in schools?

Rachel Downie: Stymie is an ‘old fashioned’ word (because I’m a bit old!), that means ‘to stop’. It is an anonymous harm reporting tool that young people use to get help for themselves and others. It is accessed online and available 24 hours per day.

PS: What inspired you to create Stymie?

RD: A number of years ago, a Year 9 boy under my care died by suicide. After this boy died, many students came forward with information that could have saved his life; they told us he was being bullied, that he was being hurt by someone at home and that he was struggling with anxiety.

I did know that something was going on in his life but I didn’t know the details, so I couldn’t get him the help he needed in time. To this day, I believe that we would have been able to help him if we had known these details. The students — his peers — had the information but they were too scared to come forward.

This was confronting on so many levels and I decided that I was going to do something that could give young people a safe way to ask for help on behalf of themselves or others. I spoke with hundreds of students, parents and staff and listened to what they said about help-seeking and the real and perceived risks associated with being the person to say something. 

Of every 30 young people in Australia, seven will be dealing with a mental health issue, yet only two will reach out for support. One in four kids is bullied in Australian schools. From the age of 15, one in five women will experience sexual assault and suicide is taking more teenagers from us than anything else. The issues facing young people in this country are real, and Stymie is proving to be an early intervention initiative that is changing and saving lives.

PS: What was the process of creating Stymie like? What hurdles did you face and how did you overcome them?

RD: Money mostly! Self-funding software development is a tough gig! To be honest, the processes and initial ideation were easy because I had worked in schools for so long; I had an idea about how the flow of information needed to work.

Schools have to do a mandatory Stymie Launch Day to use the platform, so I have spoken with 600,000 students, visited hundreds of schools nationally, spent months away from home, slept in my car, driven thousands and thousands of kilometres, had run-ins with emus, kangaroos and goats and really pushed myself to the limit. But, it has been worth it, especially when we receive an email that says “Thank. You. For. Saving. My. Life.” I didn’t charge schools for my time for five years, so I presented the Launch Days for free to establish trust and a strong relationship.

PS: From the idea to execution, how long did it take to get Stymie off the ground?

RD: About 18 months but it would have been less time had we not been ripped off! The first company we contracted to do the work in building the notification system for us took our money, didn’t deliver a site that worked and then refused to give us our code! So we really had to push ourselves financially and energetically to keep going. I did extra work in a Chinese restaurant to keep moving forward as well as my normal teaching load.

PS: When you look back at what you have achieved with Stymie, what are some of the most rewarding moments that come to mind?

RD: Oh wow, so many. Hearing from schools that students have used Stymie to save a life. Having parents contact me to tell me that they found out their child was self-harming and had no idea. Students contacting me saying that their school feels safer. Being given the great honour of QLD Australian of the Year.

Being asked to go on season six of Australian Survivor. Learning and growing as a businesswoman. Having great relationships with our school communities. But mostly knowing that since we started, we have delivered more than 300,000 notifications; just let that sink in three-hundred-thousand times, young people have reached out and asked for help. I feel teary thinking about that.

PS: Stymie often deals with concerns like mental health and bullying. How do you deal with criticism or bullying when it comes your way?

RD: I copped some pretty terrible trolling whilst on Survivor (@racheldownie on Instagram has the gory details) and what I always try to keep in mind when people are making bad choices about how they treat others is that “hurt people hurt people”, I honestly believe that, so I send back love.

I don’t engage. If you have a look at @nohateheremate it has some suggestions for how to be kind and assertive at the same time. Often when people are trying to have power over you by bullying you, it is about them, not you. Remember that. And P.S., you’re awesome xoxo

PS: Besides the notifications, what else does Stymie do?

RD: We are working on getting an out of hours helpline up and running so that we can help more young people, more! We need the money to do it so we are working on that right now. It is an important initiative that we need to have finished sooner rather than later. We also do workshops about consent and kindness and parent sessions about taming the technology stuff at home. 

PS: What do you hope to see for the future of Stymie?

RD: I hope we don’t need it in the future. I hope that by using Stymie, young people re-learn the power of saying something in person, bypass the anonymous notifications and start talking IRL about help-seeking.

PS: In what ways are you unstoppable in your everyday life? This could be anything from knowing when to delegate to taking time for yourself — whatever the actions are you employ to make sure you can do your job and still live a balanced life.

RD: I’m pretty strict about all of this. Up at 4.30am every day (sometimes earlier). No phone until after 7am. I do Wim Hof breathing sessions straight after waking up and then I surf, or gym or walk and I try to do Bikram Yoga twice per week.

I am terrible at delegating but I am learning. Running your own business is not a balanced life; you breathe what you do, you’re mission obsessed and run from the start to the finish of each day but recognising when you’re at that exhaustion edge is a skill you need to develop not only for yourself but for your family too. Being kind to your mind is super important as well. 

Rachel Downie is the founder and director of Stymie. For more information, head to the Stymie website and you can follow Rachel on Instagram here.

If you or anyone you know is struggling and needs support, call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14, both of which provide trained counsellors you can talk with 24/7. You can also speak with someone confidentially at Headspace by calling 1800 650 890 or chat online here. If you are in immediate danger, call 000.

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