Christmas is coming and with it an horrendous spike in car fatalities and suicides. Sometime in early January, you’re bound to read a headline something along the lines of:
38 DEAD ON OUR ROADS THESE CHRISTMAS HOLIDAYS
Nowhere, however, will you find one that reads:
42 DEAD FROM SUICIDE THESE CHRISTMAS HOLIDAYS
Yet more Australians die from suicide than car fatalities each year, and not just at Christmas. It’s our hidden shame. Even subjects as sensitive as paedophilia are now publicly discussed but suicide remains taboo. I blame four key groups for this:
- Australians affected by mental illness
- Australians not affected by mental illness
- Australia’s media outlets
- Australia’s mental health institutions
I’m not much of a mathematician but I think that accounts for probably every man, woman and adolescent in the country.
So, let’s take a look at group one, of which I am a card-carrying member. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that 20% of adult Australians suffer from some form of mental illness in any given year. Worse, 65% of us never raise our hands for help. Astonishing hey?
That’s a shedload of Aussies not feeling great but who are too polite, ashamed, macho, shy, afraid, meek, ill-informed or just too plain stupid to say anything. Surprisingly, given how we whine at the first sign of man-flu, men are by far the worst offenders. Go figure.
One in every five Australian adults could make for one massive voice, if only we’d open our mouths. But since most of us don’t, we remain unheard and knowledge of mental illness remains pretty shallow. Sure, there’s a blip on the radar during mental health month but 31 days later we’re all off growing moustaches and talking about prostate cancer.
If those of us who are depressed or anxious don’t speak up how can we possibly expect the rest of Australia to understand anything about mental illness? They may be our mates but they’re not mind-readers. Worse, why would anyone who’s feeling suicidal speak up when the rest of us are running around pretending there’s nothing wrong? Mental illness is an alienating experience but by speaking up we can let others worse off than ourselves know they are not alone.
I was once at a dinner party where talk of a local suicide came up. One of the more outspoken women declared that, “suicide was an act of cowardice”. I thought to myself suicide may be a number of things but it’s not an act of cowardice. Can you imagine how deep and dark the pit must be for a person to believe there was no other way out than to take their life? To genuinely believe their partners or children or friends would be better off without them?
The thing is I thought all of this but I never said a word. I kept my mouth pathetically shut and in so doing dishonoured the man we were talking about, his family and every person suffering from suicidal thoughts. I also missed an opportunity to educate some friends who clearly knew nothing about mental illness. Sadly, I was the coward. Please, whatever you do, speak up.
As for you Aussies out there who have never had a sniff of mental illness, stop looking so bloody smug. The least you can do is ask a friend or family member how they’re doing from time to time. You know, really ask. Don’t be embarrassed, you’re not going to put your foot in it. Imagine if I asked you if you were okay? That I thought you might be looking a bit down or not your normal self? Even if you were as mentally fit as a Mallee bull, you’d think I was I a pretty good bloke for caring enough to ask. Better still, if you were feeling like warmed over crap, then you might just think I was the Australian of the Year.
As for you media people and our wonderful mental health organisations, I know your intentions are great and you’ve thought long and hard about how best to report on suicides, but it’s time to think again. Not for a minute am I suggesting tabloid sensationalism but there has to be a better way. I remember when Dan Vickerman died earlier this year. It took me a few days to realise he’d taken his own life. Apparently, to have reported the truth would’ve been to glorify suicide for young men.
Quite honestly, the way it was handled, I think a lot of them may have thought that this was further proof that suicide in particular, and mental health in general, is shameful and not to be discussed. To my mind, that’s like 1950’s parents not telling how their kids how babies end up in bellies. Much better for us all to keep those despairingly dark feelings to ourselves. Unfortunately, the rates of suicide suggest this may not be the best approach.
So, come on Australia, let’s make a start. Let’s grab that ugly little issue we dare not mention out from under the Christmas tree and give it the damn good kicking it deserves. We’re a nation that prides ourselves on mateship. Maybe it’s time to prove it.