The Stymie Spirit
Bullies, trolls, reality TV, the Australian outback and years of hard slog to get an innovation in child protection off the ground: Rachel Downie is a capital ‘S’ Survivor. Bec Marshall shares her mission to empower people to leave a mark, not a scar.
Stymie. It’s a strange word. You don’t hear it much. And when you do, there’s an urge to search the thesaurus for a reminder, or a discovery, of what it means.
Clues come in nouns and verbs: stalemate, standoff, deadlock, bewilder, confuse, hinder, block, thwart, frustrate, stupefy, bamboozle and stop.
If you’ve ever had, or known of, a child who has died by suicide or been bullied, abused, self-harmed or discriminated against, suddenly that word ‘stymie’ – and every single one of its meanings; is not strange at all. It’s the only right word to use.
The trick is the timing. When to use those words to fuel an action that has the fate-changing power to cancel a tragedy and stop all its awful consequences from rippling across lives.
Can you stymie harm before it goes too far? Can you say something before it’s too late? Can you stop kids from getting hurt?
Rachel Downie, the creator and CEO of Stymie, with a capital S, knows without a doubt that with her online harm reporting platform for young people – you can.
“I received an email from a student last week that said ‘thank you for saving my life’,” Rachel said from her Buderim home. “It was anonymous and that was all that was said.
“Parents ring me or find me on social media, and they tell me they had no idea their son or daughter was engaging in these behaviours, but they know now because of the Stymie notification, and now they can help them,” she said.
“With Stymie, we haven’t just built a piece of technology, we’ve built a community. We put a human face on it and we build relationships with schools and young people. What we’re trying to do is to get kids to say something.
“In a funny way, I actually don’t want them to use Stymie. I would prefer they had the courage to find a responsible grown up who will listen and help them access the services they need; or to say ‘I need some help’ or ‘this person needs some help’ – but unfortunately that’s not the land we live in.”
Hundreds of schools across Australia, New Zealand and the United Arab Emirates are subscribed to use the Stymie notification system. Rachel, a teacher for 30 years, is particularly proud of the 100% subscription renewal rate.
To introduce the platform into a new school, Stymie presenters visit in person on launch day and speak to each year level about empathy, kindness and how to use the platform “respectfully and honourably”.
Students log in and fill out a short online form to make a notification about themselves or someone else. They can
be anonymous and once submitted, notifications are encrypted and sent to the school to investigate and follow-up.
“Last year we delivered 66,000 notifications,” Rachel said. “About 25,000 were about bullying, the rest of them were about family violence, sexual harassment and assault; cyber bullying, self-harm, suicide ideation and discrimination.
“That’s 66,000 times over the last 12 months a young person reached out for help for themselves or somebody else.
“This year, it is almost double that. That’s not because we have double the amount of schools, COVID has spurred this silent pandemic with mental health. I don’t think we have experienced the fullness of that in our youth here in Australia yet.
“This year I have seen some of the worst cases I have seen in my 30-year career of peer-to-peer harm in schools. At the centre of it has been the sharing of it on social media, so that shame is exacerbated and almost infinitely repeated, which makes it horrific.
“A lot of kids are finding it hard to feel hopeful. And that’s deeply concerning because hope pulls us out of places that we sometimes find ourselves in.”
Rachel’s advice to parents or carers worried about their kids?
“All we can do is talk to them and know that we are always available for them to speak with us,” she said.
“Speaking up is important but we don’t model this for kids very well. We need to get to a place where we can say to our mate ‘look, I love you, we’ve been friends forever but your racist joke or your homophobic joke? I’m not putting up with them anymore’.
“We have to model that courage and resilience to let them know to say it is ok to say something, and there is a way to say things that is kind and assertive.
“I started a hashtag called #nohateheremate. It lets that person know they’re out of line.
“Australians suck at that, we enable poor behaviour every day. That’s why one in five women experience sexual harassment and one woman every nine days is killed by a current or former partner.
“We are asking kids to do big things, but we seem to lack the courage to model that for them. It’s great to have a conversation, but is that translating into supportive action?”
Rachel’s advice to kids to create a kinder world?
“If they see something, they need to say something,” she said.
“Listen to your gut. Those butterflies in your tummy? That’s your body telling you that you need to do something or that something is not right. Even if you are afraid, do it anyway.
“Also, ‘stop’ and ‘no’ are complete sentences, they don’t need explanations.”
In 2022, Rachel plans to grow Stymie to have presenters in every state, develop an online launch module that retains that personal touch and to add an after-hours helpline to Stymie to enable kids to speak to someone whenever they need to.
Stymie won the Sunshine Coast Business Award Health and Wellness (small) in November. In the same month Rachel received the University of Southern Queensland Alumnus of the Year and Outstanding Alumnus in Education awards. Rachel, who was the Queensland Australian of the Year in 2020, was also a contestant in the most recent season of reality TV show Survivor. She finished 10th, was the oldest person in the group, confirmed George was as annoying in person as he appeared on screen and said the experience was “heaps of fun”.
“I would do it again in a blink. I learned a lot about myself and my life.”
THE STYMIE STORY
A handmade ceramic bird with a broken wing sits in Rachel Downie’s office.
It’s a colourful, tangible motivator that encourages her to keep going with her work.
But it has a story that breaks just as many hearts as it inspires.
The hands that made that bird belonged to a Year Nine boy Rachel taught in art.
He died by suicide, permanently ending the bullying at school and the hard times at home.
Amidst grief, shock and anger over the missed ‘if onlys’, Rachel came up with the idea for Stymie.
“He was such a gentle, kind and loving young man,” Rachel said.
“I guess that’s why he got targeted, he didn’t know how to stick up for himself and he didn’t have peers who were prepared to do that for him.
“Looking at that bird every day, knowing that if we had that information about that young boy ahead of time, my gut, my heart and my brain still tells me every day that he’d still be here – that’s what kept me going.
“I didn’t want this to happen to another community.
“I think he would be just happy that there was an opportunity for others to get some help – even though he couldn’t get it himself.”
WATCH THE VIDEO ANIMATION On a Thursday in May to hear Rachel talk more about the boy who inspired Stymie.