Talk helps keep black dog at bay


Mental issues: The room was filled to capacity for the Peninsula Voice-organised forum on depression and mental health of teenagers at the Peninsula Community Theatre, Mornington, on 8 March, above. Speakers and organisers of the forum, below, from left, Peter Dawson and Shona Wills, of Headspace, Kerrie McMillan, psychologist Di McGreal, Peter Orton, Peninsula Voiuce chairperson and Patrick McGorry.

CONVERSATION and communication within families and the wider community is the most readily accessible way of detecting and tackling depression among teenagers.

This message was brought out by speakers and organisers at a forum in Mornington earlier this month designed to help young people “stay mentally healthy”.

The forum follows the findings of a report commissioned by the Mornington Peninsula Shire Council which found 25 per cent of peninsula teenagers suffered from depression, six per cent higher than the national average.

The shire has listed “youth and teen mental health first aid training” as one of seven priority projects in its proposed $2.6 million in its proposed 2017/18 budget.

“This sobering statistic prompted us to run a large public forum to discuss how this might be turned around,” chair of community organisation Peninsula Voice Peter Orton said.

“The forum discussed basic strategies parents could use to help their children maintain good mental health.”

“Talk to your children around the dinner table and talk often about their anxieties and fears,” said Mt Martha resident Kerrie Mc Millan, who lost her 20 year-old-son Sam, to suicide in 2011.

Mr Orton said he supported Ms Mc Millan’s suggestion adding there was a need “for greater communication and connectedness across the community”.

“Not only is depression devastating for families, friends and local communities, but it works against the health and well-being of all residents of the peninsula,” he said.

Psychiatrist and former Australian of the Year Professor Patrick McGorry and psychologist Dr Di McGreal outlined to the 550 people at the forum basic strategies parents could use to help their children maintain good mental health.

A report on the forum was broadcast the following day on the ABC’s The World Today program.

Professor McGorry said he the felt the federal health portfolio was in good hands under Flinders MP Greg Hunt.

“Literature, government intervention and day-to-day anecdotes indicate youth depression, even just on the peninsula is a huge issue, and complex solutions are usually beyond families left on their own. They require a whole of community response,” Mr Orton said.

He gave six “sharp insights” that could “guide action … and generate constructive conversation” on the peninsula:

  • Clearly name who is primarily responsible for action and support them.
  • Align federal, state and local government plans, budgets and actions.
  • Coordinate specialty care to be delivered in the local community.
  • Support parents, and suffering young people, locally and communally.
  • Local politicians must help parents navigate political labyrinths.
  • Practitioners and local politicians must demonstrate practical solutions.

For support and information about suicide prevention, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

Why is my son dead and we are alive?

KERRIE McMillan speaks about the love she shared with her son Sam and the questions that remain over his decision to take his own life.

This is an edited version of a talk KERRIE MCMILLAN gave to the Mornington forum on the mental health of teenagers. It deals with the suicide of her son Sam and her search for answers to prevent it happening to others.

I AM a victim of suicide. I know all of the horrible statistics, but the most important one to me is that, on average, eight people die from suicide each day.

On 12 May 2011, the most devastating statistic for me, our friends and family was that one of them was my beautiful son, Sam.

It was nine days before his 21st birthday. A birthday he had been planning and looking forward to. A birthday he should have made.

I’d like to say I can give you answers, clues or signs to look for – but I can’t. I don’t have them. God knows I wish I did and maybe Sam would be alive.

After Sam died, I became obsessed with finding answers. I researched and studied: websites, books, you name it. Every piece of literature I found started with “Dealing with anxiety and depression”, but I couldn’t find anything that helped me understand why.

I had no idea why I should have been dealing with it. We were a strong family, a family that talked and shared – in fact sometimes Sam and his wicked sense of humour meant that he shared things that I didn’t need to know.

But we did talk; he wasn’t isolated or alone; he was totally loved and supported. This wasn’t meant to happen to us.

I’m one of the local kindergarten teachers, for heaven’s sake. We are blessed to live in a community where we have very few degrees of separation. Pretty much everyone in Mt Martha knew of me or my kids – we were living the dream – this definitely wasn’t meant to happen to us.

But why not? God, I was so arrogant. You see this shitty “thing” isn’t terribly selective – it will take anyone. It doesn’t discriminate. It sneaks into your life without you even realising it’s there. It messes with your mind and makes you believe, with every fibre of your being, that the world, your world, is better off without you.

Sam, my Sam, my hilarious, loving, crude and rude, protective, no nonsense, caring and loyal, dedicated and completely adorable Sam, would never have done this to us. At his best, which was most days, he would have done anything to protect us from his death, anything to save me from being the one to find his body.

But my completely adorable Sam wasn’t there on 12 May. A sad, lost, broken version had taken over, probably temporarily but, unfortunately, long enough for him to believe the lie that the world would be better off without him.

It’s not.

Sam had been through some tough stuff in the year leading up to his death. He had broken up with the girl he believed was the love of his life. He had broken his leg and was frustratingly off work and incapacitated for a week. He had crashed his car and was looking at the financial implications of replacing it.

These are all fairly commonplace occurrences and many people dealt with one or more of them.

So, why is my son dead and we are alive?

I’m not for a second suggesting that Sam was weak and couldn’t handle these setbacks. He was one of the strongest kids I know, both physically and, I believed, emotionally. But I was wrong.

I found out after he died that he had been suffering for a while. Too long. He had the incredible strength to keep it from his brother and I. He loved us so much and wanted to protect us from his battle. He was literally fighting for his life and yet his biggest fight was the one involving keeping it all from us. Hindsight is an amazing thing.

Sam left us a note.

If such a thing can be said, it was a beautiful note, but I remember telling some of Sam’s friends that it existed and they could read it if they felt they needed to. To my horror, I soon realised that at least one of his good mates knew about it.

I was beyond angry: how could they know and not have told me? But what I’ve come to realise is that his friends were helping him protect me and thought they were helping. But they weren’t equipped with the necessary skills to truly help.

When Sam felt “it” overwhelming him I would get a “hey mum, I’m staying at Bill’s tonight” call and they would take him out for a beer and tell him it would be all right.

Again, I’ve come to realise that we possibly need to focus a little less on talking about suicide prevention and start talking about early recognition of depression and anxiety. That perhaps we also need to remember that it’s great to ask your friends if they’re OK but we need to teach our kids the necessary skills to get help.

We do first aid courses for our bodies. Maybe it’s time we looked at mental health first aid. We need to put money into programs that help our kids talk about what helps them with the business of growing up; what helps before the big problems kick in, the ones that could kill you.

Maybe we need to teach lessons on recognising signs and getting help; that it’s not disloyal to seek help for someone you’re worried about.

We need to learn to focus on wellness and wellbeing, on how to deal with the influx of “stuff” that comes with growing up in an age of social media, on dealing with all the crap that may be your mind and body letting you down.

But this alone is never going to work unless the help we teach them to seek is available. We need to put more resources into ensuring that there isn’t a three-week wait to see a counsellor; that any resources that aid mental wellbeing are easily, readily and financially available.

I feel I should be able to give bullet points on all of the clear signs that will guarantee you are able to keep your friends and family safe. But the simple truth is until we get the funding; until we make discussions about making mental health a priority; until these conversations are as commonplace around our dinner tables as those about sport; until we start taking this issue seriously; and until we find some answers, we will all be victims of suicide.

For support and information about suicide prevention, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

First published in the Mornington News – 28 March 2017


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