My first experience with suicide was the death of a colleague when I was 17. We worked together in a child care centre and he was one of my favourite people to work with – always happy with a big smile for everyone. I had moved overseas for a year when my mum called to tell me that he had suicided and I was in shock. I didn’t really know much about suicide and I just couldn’t comprehend how someone so outwardly cheerful could secretly be in such a dark and terrible place.
Not long after coming back to Australia, I was again struck by the sadness of suicide when a number of people my younger brother knew suicided within a couple of years. Even though I didn’t know them I felt desperately sad knowing that these people who should have just been beginning their adult lives felt so alone and helpless. I didn’t know what supports were available for people but and I used to think of ways we could provide better support for young people but I didn’t know where to start. At the time I was trying to decide on a new course for uni, I ended up choosing degrees in Arts and Psychology.
Whether it was my study or just the fact that I was getting older, I began to learn more about a relative who had been diagnosed with Schizophrenia for most of her life. The two of us had always had a good relationship even though we lived interstate from each other, and we grew even closer over the following years. When I was younger I had never known she was ill, I just saw her as a creative, funky and sometimes quirky relative – a free spirit.
Now I know about her struggles with her illness, and everything that comes with that – employment, relationships and other difficulties. Yet, when she manages her illness she is fun to be around, funny and energetic. She’s thoughtful, generous and enthusiastic about life. It doesn’t matter whether she’s going through a good or bad patch, I love her and I want to support and help her because I see the wonderful potential and good in her.
There have been suicidal thoughts the need for professional support. The most emotional time for me was a few years ago, when I called her and she started crying – admitting she was sitting in her room about to suicide but thanking me for calling at that very moment. We talked about how much our family all loved her and wanted to help her and she agreed to stay safe and get help. I have never been more scared than during that phone call – I had a Psychology degree and was working for a community organisation, but I had no idea whether I was saying or doing the right things. Now though, I can look back and know that in that moment I did do the right thing – I was there for her, I was willing to listen without judgement and we were able to have an honest conversation that meant she was willing share her pain and fears and take her own actions to stay safe and get help.
Last year was the first time I shared our story with anyone other than family and a close friend, when I gave a presentation at my work for Mental Health Week. During the presentation I was overcome by emotion and began crying. But afterwards I realised how important it was for our communities to talk more openly about mental health and suicide – many of my colleagues spoke to me the value of hearing real stories with real emotions. When we’re willing to talk about these things we make it ok for people to reach out for help when they might be struggling. It’s important to remember that there are real people, real emotions and real struggles behind all the statistics and numbers we hear.
In January 2011 I started work with Lifeline. Being here, I have really begun to gain an understanding of suicide and the impact it has on so many people in society, both the people who suicide and attempt, and the family and friends of those people. I have had the opportunity to read and hear many stories from people around the country who have been impacted by suicide in one way or another and I am constantly amazed, inspired and humbled by the people who work and volunteer in suicide prevention in our communities and around the world. I completed an ASIST course and it both confirmed for me that I had done the right thing in that phone call and gave me the confidence to know that I could support someone at risk in the future. As sad as it is thinking about those lost to, everyone who struggles with suicide, I find so much hope amongst the people and organisations who are committed to suicide prevention and who every day work towards a society where people can feel safe and supported and where we are all willing to talk about suicide with anyone who needs a kind ear to listen or a shoulder to cry on.