Content advisory: This article discusses suicide.
Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Melbourne in our Future Shaper series. We have asked a panel of esteemed judges comprising Senator Lidia Thorpe (Greens Senator for Victoria), Claire Ferres Miles (CEO of Sustainability Victoria) Pat Nourse (creative director, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival), Simon Abrahams (creative director and CEO of Melbourne Fringe), Peter Tullin (co-founder and CEO of Remix Summits) and Kate Vinot (chair of Zoos Victoria) to help us identify the people changing the future of Melbourne in the areas of food and drink; arts; community and culture; civics; and sustainability. In community and culture, one of those people is Ali Halkic for his work with Bully Zero.
Twelve years ago, Ali Halkic and his wife, Dina, went through the worst thing a parent can ever experience when their only son, Allem, killed himself. In the horrific aftermath, his parents discovered that something terrible had been happening to Allem, in secret. He was being bullied, online and in person, by someone who had once been a friend.
"He was getting online threats from someone he knew," says Ali Halkic. "Social media was just kind of kicking off 12 years ago, Facebook had just started. We didn't have an understanding of the dangers of what we were actually paying for and allowing him to use. For many years we tried to understand, we had guilt. As a parent, you have to take ownership. Naturally, people protect their kids and keep them out of harm's way, but we allowed this thing to come unto our home and we didn't understand the dangers associated with it."
Halkic turned that guilt and grief into a drive to ensure that no one else's child would have to go through what Allem went through, and that no parents would be left as utterly bereft as he was. He fought for years to secure a criminal prosecution for the bully who drove Allem to suicide, the first decision of its kind in Australia and one that would give hope to the victims of bullying and their families. He also lobbied the Victorian government to erect a safety barrier on the Westgate Bridge, as Allem killed himself on the bridge just over a week after four-year-old Darcy Freeman was murdered. The safety barriers have reduced suicides on the Westgate by 85 per cent.
Three years after Allem's death, Halkic had the idea for a charity to educate about and prevent bullying, particularly online. Five years after that, Bully Zero was created. The charity runs school-based education programs and offers resources to children, parents and teachers to prevent bullying. But it was difficult to get the word out in the beginning.
"I remember my first meeting with a school, and we had a parent-teacher one before we even started doing the kids. I think two parents showed up. That was frightening, from a school of 300 students that only two parents had the time and courtesy to listen."
But Halkic didn't give up. "One school led to another school, and a principal spoke to another principal, or a student went home and spoke to his mum. It grew by word of mouth. For me, when people saw the image of Allem, that could resonate. Momentum just shifted. And the media shifted too, acknowledging the word suicide, because you have to understand back in 2009, the media you weren't allowed to use the word suicide."
That changed when Channel Seven journalist Nick McCallum used the word on air, and the taboo around the world began to lift. Halkic says openly discussing death and suicide is key to making lasting changes that can save lives.
"The only thing that I wish I had spoken to my son about was the permanence of death, what death is, and how important his life is. The carnage left after his death, a lot of people don't see that, how it can affect family, intermediate family and friends. It scarred a lot of people, and he contributed to other people's downfall as well. People never got over it. Some took to drugs, some took to alcohol, and people could never get over that they'd lost something so special in their lives."
Halkic says open dialogue about bullying, mental health and suicide is the only way to combat the problem.
"The reality of it is, we talk about the road toll, the drug toll, but suicide claims more lives than anything. And yet, it's such a terrible word. People don't want to tackle it or take it on," says Halkic. "As a parent, one of my driving forces is the lack of awareness that I had, as he was growing up, how dangerous it was. I've always said, if a program had been at his school to make me aware of the risks and dangers, that the percentage [of suicide among young people] was that high, we would have taken other measures. And I truly believe he would be alive today."
Bully Zero works with schools to teach children not to be bystanders if they see someone being bullied, to speak up for themselves and their peers and get adults involved. The charity is working on a pilot program that it hopes to introduce into the curriculum Australia wide, to teach kids of all ages that there are constructive ways to handle grief, sadness and anger, as well as to equip them to handle online bullying. And Bully Zero wants children themselves to be part of that conversation, to talk about the tools they need to stop what happened to Allam from happening to anyone else's child.
"I’d really like to see Australia take action and not be afraid to tackle such a critical subject. It’s an issue that needs to be dealt with. Talking about it and having human connection about it and getting kids' input about it and making them aware of the roles they can play to make other people's lives different, it's a no-brainer.
"I've believed in this for many years, and I truly believe if Allam had the opportunity to live, he would have lived. The suffering and the pain that is associated with this mental part, we need to reassess what is happening with our young people. Saying hey, we’ve spoken about it, we’ve talked about real issues, what can we do to stop that from happening to anyone? It that were to happen in Australia, I think it would be amazing."
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