Judie Clark lost her youngest child to suicide, and now campaigns to prevent the loss of more lives in her community.
Her son Aaron, 30, had struggled with mental illness for several years – and had received support from family, friends and health professionals – yet took his life 22 months ago.
He’d never attempted suicide prior, had never expressed his wish to die, and his parents Judie and Ron’s crippling grief was compounded by the thought that they’d missed the warning signs.
“In hindsight perhaps there were signs ... but he’d never expressed suicidal thoughts, although he had dealt with mental health issues for over a decade,” Ms Clark said.
“Diagnosed with Asperger’s when he was a child, he struggled to fit in at school and later started using pot to ease his anxiety.
“But it only exacerbated his issues and he suffered a drug-induced psychosis at 21 and spent time at Shellharbour Hospital’s psychiatric ward.
“After that, and with the help of mental health professionals, I nursed him through two bouts of catatonia – he wouldn’t speak, he wouldn’t eat, he wouldn’t move.
“The third time he became catatonic, he needed to spend additional time at Shellharbour Hospital.”
When he returned home, he seemed well on the way to recovery. He started, and completed, TAFE courses; he was engaging with family and friends and his GP was comfortable enough to decrease his medication.
“He did everything that was asked of him by health professionals, he improved out of sight,” Ms Clark said. “Then we noticed changes in him again.
“His body, his brain, just started to let him down. His medication was increased, but a few days later he took his own life. That was 22 months ago, and it doesn’t get any easier.”
It does give the Ulladulla couple compassion for others – those struggling with mental illness and suicidal thoughts, and the loved ones trying to care for them.
“Suicide is like a pebble in the water – it ripples out and effects so many people in the family and the community,” Ms Clark said.
“What I’d say to families, to friends, is to not shy away from it. To educate yourself as much as you can, to seek help for yourself so you can understand and support your loved one.
“It’s a steep learning curve for those who are struggling, and for those around them.”
Ms Clark is a member of a group to seek funding to improve safety measures at the public place where her son took his life. Where others have also taken their lives. Where he was found by strangers.
“There needs to be barriers, and the area needs to be improved so people will go and enjoy the space, so it’s not a solitary, unfriendly space,” she said.
Ms Clark, a nurse, would also like to see more training in mental health for health professionals – and their staff.
“The care and support Aaron and our family received from mental health workers in this community was great,” she said.
“However a high percentage of patients presenting to GPs have mental health issues, so all staff – even at reception – need to be able to be kind and non-judgmental.”
The community too, needs to be educated to stop the stigma around mental illness and suicide.
“It’s such a hidden problem in the community because of the stigma,” Ms Clark said. “It’s not a palatable subject for people to discuss – although I think that is changing.”
Ms Clark encouraged people to complete the QPR: Question, Persuade, Refer online training course: “The more education there is, the more tolerance and understanding.”
The Mercury, along with the Illawarra Shoalhaven Suicide Prevention Collaborative, started a campaign to get more residents trained in suicide prevention through QPR in July.
Dr Alex Hains, regional manager of the Collaborative, said the campaign had led to a “massive upswing” of people doing the course, which costs just $10.
“The more people across our communities that have done this training, the more people who are able to help each other,” he said.
Dr Hains, and the Mercury, thank all those who have contributed to the campaign.
“It’s been fantastic to have people share their own experiences of suicide and recovery in the campaign stories, and their messages of hope and encouragement are really powerful,” Dr Hains said.
“We hope the campaign has let anyone out there who is struggling know that they’re not alone, that there is help available, and that they can recover.”
If you’d like to talk to anyone about the issues raised in this article call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.