I went away last week to paint and re-vamp an old holiday cottage. As I arrived up at the Bay I received a phone call to inform me that a young woman who comes into where I work had suicided. I didn’t actually know her but it took me to a very sad place. She was only 18 (the age of one of my daughters). How does this happen? How does a young person find themself without any reason to live? Teen suicide is rising and we must ask why? She may have suffered with depression but even this is not the full answer, as most people who have depression do not suicide.
Further to this sad news, our neighbour at the old holiday cottage came out to say hello…… and sadly, goodbye, because she has been diagnosed with cancer. She is riddled with it and because they have given her 4 months to live she said she may not be alive the next time we returned. She stood and told me how she wants to fight for every extra day she can get. She has begged for chemo when doctors were closing the door on her. The tragedy here is that the health system failed her. She kept begging the doctor to investigate her pain levels but they kept ignoring her. Why? I think she probably suffers from addictions and the doctor clearly read her pain and need for pain medication, as an increased drive in her addictive needs but tragically, it was because she was genuinely in agony from a cancer riddled body and now, with three young adult children and at only 47, she is facing death. She wants desperately to live. Her children are everything to her…she can’t bear to face the fact that she won’t be around for their 21st, weddings, grandchildren. She has been a vigorous smoker and the cancer is esophageal, a cancer caused by smoking, she tells me in a monotone voice. How does she deal with this knowledge? I watch her gaunt, ravaged form and feel a complete helplessness as I can do nothing to change this for her.
Then, as always happens, we hear of a third tragedy, that a distant cousin died suddenly from cancer caused by her smoking. And I think of my son who at 21 is fighting to give up smoking. Why haven’t we banned smoking? Why with all the information do young people still commence smoking? Will my son beat his addiction to smoking before it beats him?
Suicide seems to be seated in mental health conditions, such as depression. But many people suffer from depression and do not suicide. People have even worse mental health conditions and do not choose to suicide. What makes the difference? Why do people with the worse set of life’s circumstances, suffering beyond belief, choose to embrace life? What goes on in someone’s heart and soul and mind that tell them that things are so totally hopeless that nothing but death at one’s own hand will relieve the suffering….to annihilate self seems the only resolution. Are we selling our children false kingdoms, which actually have little allure and when they can’t attain them, they can find no reason to live. By this I mean, as a society are we telling our kids they need to be successful, look a certain way, dress a certain way, be a certain size etc or they have no value. Why do they not know how extraordinarily precious they are?
There are indicators of suicide…planning, signs of depression, talking about suicide, but they can be missed? And then there are the people around this young girl and other young people who suicide…their families, friends, neighbours, those left behind, lonely and questioning. What a terribly sad inheritance for them….to live wondering about a choice which was out of their hands. They probably did all they could and more but maybe they couldn’t overcome the external messages their child vicariously received and the depression coming from the thoughts around self value.
At the end of the day, we are born and we die, some die early, some are blessed with longevity. I just feel we have to continue to ask why and delve into how we can prevent this happening. Was it that we told her she had to be a certain way, different to how she was? Was she rejected in some way and couldn’t recover because her self-esteem was so damaged? Depression is fed by negative, destructive thinking, such as “I’m no good” “No-one will love me” “I’ll never find work”We need to let them know they are God’s gifts to the world. We are here because God wanted it, wanted us on this planet and we need to see ourselves as God’s sons and daughters and by no other measure should we be judged.
We cannot turn our backs on these victims and not ask these vital questions. How might we have kept this young girl alive? We all know depression is a real illness, as is anxiety, bi-polar, personality disorder, addictions and more. These illnesses are real and very debilitating. They also carry a shame about them as society judges mental illness harshly, compared to diabetes or cancer or heart disorders. Why do we do this? Why do we favour one illness over another, feel sad for and supportive of the person with bodily pain but not so the person in psychic pain. People with mental illness don’t need the added burden of judgement and being made to feel like they are to blame. It’s time society accepts that mental illness is real, that it is no-one’s fault, that sufferers don’t bring it on themselves, that there are so often genetic predispositions to these illnesses, that they can start with abuse or stress or other illness or trauma, also not the victim’s fault. One in five suffer from mental illness of some sort and with varying severity and impact, so odds are we all know someone with a level of mental illness. I only have to look in the mirror to see one, as I have suffered with panic attacks for years following a very serious car accident which had followed a period of physical health problems. I have mostly recovered. There is always hope.
I know this blog is all over the place and that’s kind of deliberate because I’m all over the place with grief and frustration. We do need to be open to discussing their problems and loving and accepting them so they don’t feel the only choice is to suicide. The parents and family need to be loved and supported as they probably tried everything to overcome the sadness in their child’s life.
I carry these people in my heart and prayers and those family members affected by the suicide and other death and illness. It’s all I can do. I carry a need to be more supportive and loving of every young person I come across. I need to hear and be present and full of love and praise for their efforts. I need to spend whatever time I can with my own. I need to be present and mindful around every human being. I need to listen closely and be very attentive to anyone who mentions feeling down and especially when they speak of having plans for suicide. That MUST set an ALARM bell off. Suicide prevention training teaches us to ask questions if concerned. The next thing is to assertain whether they have made a plan for suicide and then aim to get them help after you have them agree not to act on their plan until you can seek help. If you are someone contemplating suicide PLEASE seek help, talk to someone, your doctor at the very least. We need you in this world…you have a very real role to play
I want to finish with the story of the Death of the Angel of The Gap: the man who saved the suicidal from themselves (from the Sydney Morning Herald)
- May 14, 2012
Don Ritchie, the man credited with preventing hundreds of suicides through his vigil at The Gap over more than four decades passes away.
For almost half a century, Don Ritchie would approach people contemplating suicide at the edge of The Gap, just 50 metres from his home in Watsons Bay, his palms facing up.
Mr Ritchie told his daughter Sue Ritchie Bereny he would smile and say: “Is there something I could do to help you?”
Don’s story touched the hearts of all Australians and challenged each of us to rethink what it means to be a good neighbour
“And that was all that was often needed to turn people around, and he would say not to underestimate the power of a kind word and a smile,” said Ms Ritchie Bereny.
Mr Ritchie, sometimes known as the angel or watchman of The Gap, is acknowledged to have stopped about 160 people from jumping to their deaths.
He died at St Vincent’s Hospital on Sunday, surrounded by his wife Moya, 85, daughters Jan, Donna and Sue, and four grandchildren, who travelled from across Australia and from Indonesia to Sydney to see him. He was 85.
Mr Ritchie was born on June 9, 1926 in Vaucluse, and studied at Vaucluse Public School and Scots College.
When World War II broke out, he served in the Royal Australian Navy on HMAS Hobart, and was on the ship in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered in 1945.
From his 30s to his 60s, Mr Ritchie worked for a multinational firm and built up a significant career in the corporate world, Ms Ritchie Bereny said.
In 1964, the former life insurance salesman moved into a house on Old South Head Road across the road from Jacobs Ladder at the southern end of the Gap Park. It was his home till the end.
From that time, Mr Ritchie started to rescue suicidal strangers.
“Things were different way back then. It was before there were police rescue vans, before there were more sophisticated mechanisms like hotlines. In those days, he got a bravery medal for saving somebody at the cliff – he actually tackled somebody on the edge of the cliff,” Ms Ritchie Bereny said.
“He is famous for bringing people back to the house for tea or breakfast.”
In 2006 Mr Ritchie was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his rescues.
His actions touched so many hearts that, in 2010, he and his wife were named Woollahra Council’s citizens of the year.
Last year, he was given the Local Hero Award for Australia by the National Australia Day Council.
“In a situation where most would turn a blind eye, Don has taken action … With such simple actions Don has saved an extraordinary number of lives,” the National Australia Day Council said.
Today, Woollahra Council and the National Australia Day Council praised Mr Ritchie for his dedication.
“Don’s story touched the hearts of all Australians and challenged each of us to rethink what it means to be a good neighbour,” the acting chief executive of the National Australia Day Council, Tam Johnston, said in a statement.
“Don was a true gentleman with a smile that could light up the room.”
The mayor of Woollahra, Susan Wynne, called Mr Ritchie a great man whose “courage delivered small miracles”.
Mr Ritchie had joined mental health advisers and the federal Liberal member for Wentworth Malcolm Turnbull in supporting the funding of suicide prevention measures at The Gap.
Mr Turnbull also praised Mr Ritchie.
“His work lives on forever not just in the lives of those he saved but in his heroism and example of public service,” he said in a statement…….
Last year, when he was involved in the launch to promote the Australian of the Year awards for 2012, he was asked to take one letter of the word Australia and pin to it a story that inspired him, Ms Ritchie Bereny said.
Mr Ritchie chose the story of Simpson and his donkey.
“I think that epitomises him. It’s about an everyday person who did an extraordinary thing for many people that saved lives, without any want of recognition.”………
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MAY SHE REST IN THE PEACE SHE COULD NOT FIND HERE