“It’s a bit overwhelming how fast everything has gone,” says Paris Jeffcoat. In only two years, the 25 year old from Sydney’s Northern Beaches has gone from being a dance-loving university student to running a groundbreaking organisation that is helping save the lives of young people in her community.
Her story, sadly, starts with tragedy. It was 2017 and her community was struggling to make sense of a series of local young people who had taking their own lives. Their deaths hit Paris particularly hard. “Two of the suicides were boys who were in my year cohort from the local high school. One of them was one of my best friends,” she says. “It really threw me in at the deep end in terms of wanting to investigate the mental healthcare sector and to see what was being done, especially locally because I wasn’t seeing a lot.”
Despite having no experience in the not-for-profit sector, she approached her former high school principal for help. The idea that she and co-founder, mum-of-four Leanne Westlake, had was to try and bridge the apparent disconnect between the local community and the available services. From those first tentative steps, One Eighty, a registered youth suicide prevention charity, was born. Its goal was simple but potentially life-saving for at-risk teens and twentysomethings: “We wanted to act as a conduit between local young people and mental health care services, making sure those services were accessible and engaging,” Paris says.
At the crux of One Eighty’s work is the paradox that when people often need help the most, they are least able to take those crucial first steps to access support. The organisation’s job is to make sure that those struggling with mental illness get the help they need. “The first time many people think about accessing mental health care is when they or people they love are in crisis and it’s very distressing to have to navigate something that is quite complex,” she says. “I think people really appreciate having an extra layer of support around them.”
One Eighty’s roster of services includes a groundbreaking volunteer-run program called Open Up, which offers young people a much-needed space for connection and support. The goal? To counter the growing issue of social isolation.
“Open Up is really providing a time and place for young people to come together and to practice the skill of sharing and listening,” Paris explains. “We need to be teaching young people these skills in a really proactive way so when they do encounter difficult things in their life, they know how to handle it a bit better.”
Despite being in its relative infancy, One Eighty is already having a significant impact. “I think that it’s has really opened the gates for a lot of people to know that it is okay to start talking about their experience with mental illness and to hopefully normalise help-seeking. Being in a room with other people who are trusting you with their stories is an incredible privilege and being able to create a space where that can happen is by far the best thing to come out of all of this.”
The huge success of One Eighty and Open Up is only possible with the backing and encouragement of locals on the Northern Beaches. Funding for One Eighty comes via “community fundraising events plus donations plus government and private grants. But it’s a constant hustle,” Paris says.
Despite having spent years working tirelessly to establish One Eighty, Paris is adamant that she has benefited so much as a person.
“I get a lot more out of life by seeing I can make a difference in other people’s lives,” she says. “It is super rewarding if you are doing something for the community or other people and seeing that in a small way you can make a difference. If you help enough people, you can start to see progress in the community and that’s really cool.”
The next chapter for One Eighty is already shaping up to be hugely exciting for Paris and her team. “We have a really solid foundation for the organisation and can fund and bring projects to life. We can talk to young people and they can have really cool ideas and we hand back that and turn it into a reality. That's what I’m really excited about in the future.”
Now, Paris is eager for the next generation of youth leaders to take charge and to ensure that One Eighty continues to thrive and grow. “I really want to see people younger than myself coming on board and leading the organisation,” she says. “We need 18 to 21 year olds really stepping up and telling us where they want support and what they want help with, and getting them to design programs.”
While some people in the community might assume teens and those in their twenties are apathetic about effecting social change, Paris firmly disagrees. “I feel like there’s a lot of energy and desire in young people to help others and to really action the things they are passionate about.”
Earlier this year, Paris’ incredible work was recognised when she was named as the Northern Beaches Young Citizen of the Year.
For anyone wavering about whether they might be able to make a, her advice is simple: “The biggest thing you can do if you want to start making a difference is to just start. It’s just taking those first few steps. It might seem hard but they can lead to something really incredible.”