How Beyond Blue’s ‘Way Back’ program went national

Nick Place Fri, 6 Oct 2023

The aftercare offered to someone following a suicide attempt was woefully lacking only 10 years ago. Beyond Blue, along with an entire ecosystem of philanthropic support, community members, government and primary health networks tackled the issue in 2014 and developed the Way Back program. Earlier this year, the successful scheme was handed over to federal and state governments to run, with more than $150 million in funding, called Universal Aftercare. Ahead of World Mental Health Day on 10 October, we look at how it all came together. 

The CEO of Beyond Blue, Georgie Harman, uses the example of a car crash. A person badly injured in a vehicle accident will be sent home from hospital with all kinds of support: nurses, home help, wound care, psychological services.  

But as an equally life-threatening event, a suicide attempt was not offered the same level of after-care. Often, people would be patched up and sent home to the same situation and feelings of hopelessness where ending their life seemed the only option for reducing their psychological pain.  

“They might have a piece of paper saying, here’s your psychology appointment in a week’s time,” Georgie said. “Nobody would follow up. We know the highest risk of suicide is somebody with a history of attempts, and in the first three months after an attempt, yet people would be discharged into … nothing. It was a massive gap.” 

Beyond Blue, along with an entire ecosystem of philanthropic support, advisers, community members, government departments, primary health networks and other interested parties, decided to take on the issue in 2014, armed with a $100,000 philanthropic donation from the Northern Territory, to address suicide prevention in that part of Australia. Beyond Blue researched, sought advice, created a plan and developed what would become known as ‘The Way Back’ Support Service, partnering the Royal Darwin Hospital and local provider Anglicare. From the start, the service was evaluated, pulled apart, tweaked, and proven to be effective to scale.  

“With that evidence behind us, we got a real fire in our belly and got seed funding from the Movember Foundation, which we also added to through other donations,” Georgie said. “We set up a small number of pilot sites and kept evaluating.” 

By 2018, the evidence of effective support in The Way Back Service was building and the Federal Government committed $37.6 million over four years to grow it, on the condition all states and territories matched that funding.  

“Even then, Beyond Blue put $5 million of our own fundraising revenue into the project, so we still had skin in the game,” Georgie said. “We wanted to be free to take risks that government couldn’t, or to push into certain areas that weren’t funded to be pushed.” 

The Paul Ramsay Foundation and NSW car rally fundraisers Trish and Peter Fehon were other philanthropists to become involved and the support service thrived, eventually helping 20,000 at-risk Australians. 

A simultaneously proud, happy and sad day for Beyond Blue was 30 June 2023, when the organisation handed the entire program over to federal and state governments to manage, now embedded under a new national agreement for mental health and suicide prevention, along with more than $150 million in federal and state and territory funding, titled Universal Aftercare.  

“It gives me goosebumps, every time I think about what the team has done, because that was our ultimate goal, along with everybody who worked with us,” Georgie reflected. “We’ve achieved system change. We achieved our advocacy goals.” 

Beyond Blue is working on other long-term streams of work to attempt end-to-end system change but this was the organisation’s first success of creating such a system, and always with the realisation that evaluations might have judged it didn’t work and should be shelved. It was a risk, and one only philanthropy could take.  

“Part of Beyond Blue’s strength is that we can attract the resourcing and apply our influence and brand to be able to try different things and to take risks that perhaps others can’t take, and to stand up and incubate new models of care and to attract non-government funding to try new things,” she said. “That’s a really big part of our DNA, and I think The Way Back is a really great example of how we’ve been able to do that.” 

“The Way Back also shows what can be achieved when governments, philanthropy, service providers, researchers bring their unique strengths to the table, put politics and self-interest aside, think outside of current structures, with humanity and really listen to the community and evidence.” 

If you experience emotional distress as a result of reading this story, please reach out to someone you trust and/or call Beyond Blue’s support service on 1300 22 4636 Lifeline on 13 11 14 at any time. If life is in danger, please call 000.