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Doing something useful

September 13, 2014

Today I joined a group of people on a walk around a park. It was part of a project by Lifeline called "Out of the shadows and into the light", with the aim of raising awareness and getting people to talk about suicide.

The Penrith event was organised by my friends Jay McGarrity and Jess Morton, and they have to be congratulated. I've been involved with this project for about four years now, and at the first walk all the people who attended were able to be seated around a single table at the Nepean Rowing Club afterwards for a beer and lunch. This year more than 100 people came along.

People might ask why it is important to publicly talk about suicide, with some even suggesting that mentioning it might encourage it. It's important because it takes more lives than road accidents (2,535 versus 1,310 in 2012, the last year for which comparable figures are available), but it has been a taboo subject for years. (My great-uncle shot himself, but the family mythology was that it was an accident.)

Several people who had been touched by suicide spoke to the group before we set off walking, telling their tales of personal desperation and family loss. I was going to give one of the talks, but I decided to refrain. Here is what I would have said.

I'm one of the lucky ones. I've suffered from depression for years, but I have never contemplated suicide. I'm lucky in another way, because it was averted when it came very close to claiming people I love. I hope that I never again have to utter magic words that take me and a patient to the front of the queue in a packed emergency department waiting room on a Saturday night. I hope that I never again have to hear a doctor say the words "I think we've saved her". I hope that I never again have to pass through a succession of locked doors in a hospital to get to visit someone who is under 24 hour supervision to prevent self-harm. I hope that I never again have to drive to places with high cliffs to talk someone back from the edge because they had stopped taking medication. (While driving that day I heard a quack on the radio advising people to stop taking psychiatric drugs and use herbs instead, because there is no such thing as mental illness. The word "rage" was inadequate to describe my emotion.)

It is important to talk about suicide, to bring it out as the slogan for today says "into the light". It has been a taboo for too long, but by removing the stigma it will become possible for those in the depths of despair to reach out without shame or embarrassment, for listeners to respond with sympathy and help, not criticism. At a government level, millions of dollars are spent each year on road safety but the number of suicides is twice the road toll and mental health is a low priority. Actions like this one today will help to break down the taboo and hopefully lead to this very serious social and health problem getting the attention, and answers, that it deserves. It also shows that families who have been affected by suicide are not alone and that there are others who understand and sympathise with their pain and loss.

Thank you all for coming.

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