Youth suicide was so rife in Grafton many in the jacaranda-lined town were at a loss over what to do.

In the eight years to 2016, young people in the region were four times more likely to take their own life than those in Sydney.

And long-time Grafton locals who were worried about their young grew frustrated when they donated to charity only to see their money spent elsewhere on mental health.

Enter 28-year-old Emma Joseph, an animal sciences TAFE teacher with a burning drive and bright ideas.

After managing her own fight against depression when her father died, Ms Joseph founded the Black Tie Ball in 2017, an annual party which has already raised more than $30,000 for mental health services solely in Grafton.

Ms Joseph told The Daily Telegraph she wanted to start a grassroots charity to reverse the frightening suicide trend in her idyllic hometown on the banks of the mighty Clarence River.

"I was finding organisations would disperse (donated money) across the country - I thought that's not really helping children (here)," she said. "It's very new still but we've had such a positive effect. I can't say we've fixed the problem, but we've made a massive change and you can see that."

Ms Joseph said she was proud of her hometown after people began talking about mental health more openly and money started pouring into local programs instead of other places.

"It's very true that Grafton had a cluster of suicides. However, what we did in response is what makes this community unique," she said.

"I feel the focus should be on wellbeing and early intervention. All of us have dealt with grief and loss, whether it is from suicide, bushfire, drought, particularly here in rural in NSW, the death of a loved one, relationship breakdown - the list goes on."

The Black Tie Ball was postponed this year due to bushfires and COVID but Ms Joseph plans on being back bigger and better next year.

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Last year, The Voice judge Guy Sebastian sent the ball a video message of support and Ms Joseph hopes one day the singer can perform for them as a champion of mental health.

Hayley Telfer, whose sister Courtney suicided in the area in 2016 when they were teens, said her sibling's death will never leave her.

"(It) is something that consumes my mind on a daily basis - I will think about it all the time," she said.

"The pain feels like it was honestly a week ago. I don't know if that's because we were so close … only 13 months apart."


Reach out and get help by contacting Lifeline on 13 11 14.


Originally published as How Grafton fought back from a youth suicide epidemic

Emma Joseph in Grafton this week. Picture: Nathan Edwards
Emma Joseph in Grafton this week. Picture: Nathan Edwards
Courtney Telfer, who suicided in the Grafton area in 2016.
Courtney Telfer, who suicided in the Grafton area in 2016.