In September 1992, my wife Catherine and I returned from our honeymoon in Central Australia to the news that my twenty year old cousin Johnny had attempted suicide on the family farm in North Eastern Victoria.
He was airlifted to the Royal Melbourne Hospital. I flew down and visited him with one of my brothers – that experience remains with me today. Johnny was to spend many weeks in hospital. He was sent home to the farm for a few weeks break before he was due to come back for further surgery in the new year. He didn’t make Christmas.
Once you have lost a loved one to suicide your world changes forever. At the time, I put the horror to the back of my mind as I pursued political ambitions that would lead to burnout. As I recovered, escalating rates of youth suicide became front of mind. When Daniel Petre suggested I use the internet to do something about youth suicide, and provided seed funding, he set me off on a twenty-five year journey. We established ReachOut in Australia, Ireland and the United States where I served as CEO and sat on the US National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. More recently, I continued the project at SANE Australia working with people living with complex mental health conditions whose suicide risk is 10-45 times that of the general population.
Almost every one of us working in suicide prevention has lost a loved one. Our work is often both a response to our own pain and a desire for others not to have to endure what we have endured. But in all this it is invariably an individual death which shapes our narrative. When we hear of any suicide it can cut to the core and when the ABS stats come out each year it can be overwhelming.
And because so many Australians know someone who has died by suicide, the possibility of suicide is often front of mind for so many and we become deeply concerned whenever someone we love is having suicidal thoughts.
Of course, we always need to respond to people immediately and with appropriate care and support.
We need, however, to also hold deeply the notion that having suicidal thoughts does not inevitably lead to suicide. But in our anxious state, the fear of where things might head can spiral, and in turn, feed the anxiety of others including our family, friends, colleagues and wider community.
This is why it’s so important that we bring more stories of those who have attempted, or seriously contemplated, suicide to the fore of our suicide prevention effort.
Each year around 100,000 people attempt suicide in Australia. There are well in excess of 500,000 Australians walking our streets today who have attempted suicide at some time in their life. We need to start telling more of their stories and to learn from them.
We need to communicate a message to people who are contemplating suicide that there are literally hundreds of thousands of people, in Australia alone, who have been in a situation similar to yours and have found a way to get through even though they felt it impossible at the time.It is why for many years SANE has worked directly with people of lived experience to better understand what was happening for them, what worked, what didn’t and what might have helped. It informed our approach for the Better Off With You campaign pilot that featured stories of six people who had attempted or seriously contemplated suicide and was recognised with this year’s LiFE Media Award.
People who have attempted suicide have so much to offer both those contemplating suicide and the wider community. We need to hear more of their stories.
Jack Heath finishes up as the CEO of SANE Australia at the end of 2020.