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July 31: Mental Health

July 31: Mental Health

By David James 

Suicide remains somewhat of a taboo topic within our community. We mourn those lost. We remark at the tragedy. Those affected by it face a future that will never be the same.

Death notices read “tragically” or “unexpectedly”. And while significant advances have been made in the awareness, treatment and support of those of us at risk of suicide, most people are afraid or feel unprepared to discuss the topic openly.

In 2016, 2886 people took their own lives. Research suggests that up to 100 times this figure have attempted suicide. Additionally, it is believed that up to 25 per cent more of this figure are deaths mistakenly attributed to other reasons. Let’s crunch those numbers: 2886 + 25 per cent x 100 = 360,750. This may very well be the number of people who have either completed or attempted suicide in one year. More than 300,000 sons or daughters, mums or dads, brothers or sisters. This number boggles the mind. It is unlikely that any one of us has not been touched. And yet, we still feel uncomfortable talking about it.

Those contemplating suicide have their reasons to consider this as the only option available to them. The plight of our farmers is well understood. Unemployment, health, relationship breakdowns, financial stress, are among many other factors. We often think the only people who are at risk of suicide are depressed or suffering a long-term mental health illness.
Someone contemplating suicide may only exhibit some changes in behaviour; acting out of character or withdrawing from family and friends. And while we may notice these changes in behaviour, we may only ask “are you OK?” and take them at their word. We may miss signs of someone at risk of suicide. Or worse, we may dismiss them.

Experience tells us many people contemplating suicide do not readily volunteer their thoughts, but are looking for an invitation to talk, and are reaching out for help. Would you be comfortable asking someone outright if they were thinking about it? Most will answer no. We fear “putting the idea in their head”. We fear “making things worse”. We fear embarrassing the person we are asking if they are, indeed, OK.

But why? If someone knew me well enough to recognise I was not well, I would appreciate the genuine concern for my welfare. And I don’t believe any one person has that much influence to cause me to take my life after asking me this one question.
We are lucky to live in a city with such an abundance of support groups and services available: Lifeline, Ballarat Health Services, Suicide Prevention Network along with many others. But these services can only help those who take the first step and pick up the phone. Of the 2886 people who took their own life, how many may still be alive today if given help? This is why it’s so critical we shed our fears and ask, “are you talking about suicide?”. If we ask this question, and the answer is yes, there is no expectation that we solve the reasons for someone contemplating suicide. But this answer will empower us to seek the help of professionals, such as Lifeline or a GP, who can offer the required help and support.

Participants of Committee for Ballarat’s Leadership Ballarat & Western Region program recently spent a day learning about the issue from several people directly affected by suicide. Professionals also offered tools to identify those who might be at risk, and how to best help them. It became clear that we need to treat suicide as an illness, as we do for any other illness such as diabetes or asthma. There needn’t be a stigma attached.

Statistics show a significant percentage of our population will face mental illness within their lifetime. And as with all illnesses, the first step is to identify that the illness exists, and then seek appropriate treatment. We do not associate shame with arthritis or high blood pressure, and most of us will speak openly about such understood illnesses.

We can each play a part in removing the stigma associated with mental illness. Most employers offer access to Employee Assistance Programs, usually in the form of counselling. I certainly ensure the EAP offered by my employer is promoted and its use encouraged.

Talk to your GP about your own health and wellbeing or seek advice about any concerns you have for another. Speak with your family about the importance of maintaining good mental health. As we talk openly and honestly about the importance of mental health, the stigma will decrease.

If you do notice a change in someone’s behaviour, mood, appearance – or if they give you cause to be concerned about their welfare – feel empowered to simply ask “are you talking about suicide”.

One question may save one life, and the heartache of many.