Three teenagers from the same area are believed to have taken their own lives in the past three weeks, sparking a national reckoning with the tragedy of youth suicide.
Lauren Rafferty, 12, from Wagga Wagga was found dead on May 9 – Mother’s Day – her heartbroken mother Rachelle grieving her ‘sweet, strong and kind’ soul.
A 14-year-old from nearby Narrandera, died on May 17, leaving behind his four siblings.
And a 17-year-old girl from neighbouring Griffith, described as a star Year 12 pupil, was found dead in bushland at Scenic Hill on Sunday.
The triple tragedies have sent shockwaves through the NSW Riverina region and an outpouring of emotion Australia-wide, coming three years after the death of Northern Territory bullying victim Dolly Everett, 15.
Lauren Rafferty (pictured) tragically died on Mother’s Day after battling mental health demons for the past two years in the NSW Riverina town of Wagga Wagga
Her heartbroken mother Rachelle told Daily Mail Australia that numerous attempts were made to help Lauren (pictured) but the family struggled to find the support they desperately needed
Helen Dalton, the MP for the seat of Murray, represents one of the grieving families in the NSW Parliament.
Ms Dalton told Daily Mail Australia that regional suicide is an epidemic ‘nobody talks about’, arguing small towns have been ‘neglected’ by mental health services.
‘The Murrumbidgee region has a suicide rate almost three times that of Sydney. But we have far fewer mental health services,’ she said.
Some 20 years ago the suicide rate was about the same as the major city, she said – but now it is much worse, at 20.9 per 100,000 people to Sydney’s 7.8.
Meanwhile, not one hospital in her electorate, an area of 107,000 square kilometres, has a dedicated mental health unit.
‘As Government neglects small towns and centralises services in Sydney, mental health problems in the bush increase,’ she said.
Grieving Rachelle Rafferty puts a human face on that problem, saying losing Lauren ‘has shattered and devastated our family.
‘As parents, we thought we were doing everything right by our children, and tried daily to do our best.
‘Since Lauren’s death on Mother’s Day, and subsequent thorough investigation, we now know how far the cumulative effect of systematic failure contributed.
‘Numerous attempts over the last two years were made to help Lauren.
‘We had difficulty navigating and accessing mental health support for children, especially in regional areas.’
Lauren is pictured visiting the elderly at Christmas time in 2020 (left) and strawberry picking with her brother (right)
There has been widespread conjecture from in the tight-knit community that Lauren was a victim of bullying at her school.
But Ms Rafferty said that while her daughter did experience bullying, it was no more than the typically cruel behaviour levelled at most girls her age.
‘Lauren suffered the same level of bullying that any girl of her age does- which is still unacceptable,’ her mother said.
‘It’s our responsibility to improve the human race mentally and environmentally so that we all can shine instead of suffer.’
Parents Brent and Rachelle, who also have an older son Owen, say they believe the lack of access to the support their daughter deserved only worsened her struggle.
Although the Kooringal High School student was a ‘sweet, strong, kind, quick-witted, creative and beautiful soul,’ her mother said she struggled to shine in an increasingly ‘cruel’ world.
‘Lauren had a greater sadness than any of us could fathom, which spiralled and deepened,’ Ms Rafferty said.
‘Lauren’s sweet, strong, kind, quick-witted, creative and beautiful soul struggled to shine in this world that is ever increasingly cruel and relentless.
‘It is our wish that the world could have more peace, kindness and generosity towards one another – starting with our own community.’
Ms Rafferty said Lauren only suffered the same level of bullying that any girl of her age does. Pictured: Kooringal High School where she was a Year 7 student
Lauren’s school principal, Helen Schmetzer, said the past two weeks have been ‘sad and challenging’ for Kooringal High School.
‘As we grieve the loss of one of our Year 7 students, we would like to extend our thoughts and deepest sympathies to her family and friends at this time,’ she said.
‘Our Wellbeing team has been a fantastic support for both students and staff alike and we cannot thank them enough for their efforts.’
A GoFundMe page has now been set up on behalf of the grieving family to raise money for a ‘beautiful and respectful burial and memorial’, you can donate here.
If you or anyone you know is in need of mental health support you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.