When Ann Frankham returned to her work in the rag trade after a suicide attempt, she found the word ‘hypochondriac’ written on her garment presser.
It was 1974, Ann was 24 years old and living in Wollongong’s northern suburbs, still grieving the death of her beloved mother two years prior.
“For me it wasn’t premeditated. It was a reaction to my ongoing grief over the sudden loss of my mother for whom I’d been the main carer,” she says. “I just thought ‘I can’t deal with this anymore’.
“I had to have surgery at Wollongong Hospital, and in the aftermath I just remember feeling this shame and feeling very misunderstood.
“When I returned to work – to see that word on the presser – I could just feel this energy of disapproval.
“Yet I also thought ‘I’m going to show you guys, I’m going to bounce back, I’m a rubber ball.”
It took some time – and the support of friends and family – for Ann to bounce back, but she’s now using her lived experience to help others experiencing suicidal thoughts.
As a consumer representative with Grand Pacific Health, the 68-year old – who now lives in Bomaderry – is working to stop the stigma that remains around suicide.
“A lot of people do still shy away from the topic of suicide,” she says. “Even recently a friend said to me ‘some people just don’t want to know’ and I replied ‘yeah, and those are the ones I want to target’.”
Today the Mercury, in collaboration with the Illawarra Shoalhaven Suicide Prevention Collaborative, is starting a series of articles, and sharing personal accounts like Ann’s, as part of a campaign to reduce the number of lives lost to suicide in the region.
All community members are encouraged to play their part by raising awareness, helping to reduce stigma and, importantly, undertaking an online suicide prevention training course called QPR, or Question, Persuade, Refer.
Suicide rates in the region remain higher than the state average, with around 40 to 60 suicide deaths each year over the past decade according to new figures released this week by the Collaborative.
Dr Hains, regional manager of the Collaborative, says research suggests that for every suicide death there are more than 30 attempts, and an additional 200 people seriously considering suicide.
“It’s worth noting that suicide is unlike any other death in the way it affects communities,” he said.
“Research has found that there are 130-plus people significantly affected every time there is a suicide death, sometimes resulting in further suicides.
“As a result, the crude number of suicide deaths should really be considered the ‘tip of the iceberg’.”
Nationwide, Dr Hains says, there was an average of 2795 deaths in the five-year period from 2012 to 2016 – equating to around eight people dying from suicide a day.
“Suicide has overtaken traffic accidents as a leading cause of death, with twice as many Australians dying by suicide than in car accidents,” he said. “Three out of four suicide deaths are male and more than a third (37 per cent) of people who suicide did not have a mental health condition.”
The local data for the Illawarra Shoalhaven shows that suicide affects every social and economic group and people from all sexual orientations and cultural, religious and language backgrounds.
“We now have access to the best data we’ve ever had on suicide – giving us a clearer picture of what’s actually going on in our region,” Dr Hains said. “What it shows is that there’s no one unique profile for those who die by suicide or attempt suicide.
“And while suicide rates are highest among middle aged people (41 to 55 years), there is no age group immune to suicide, including people aged 65 years plus.”
Which is why “suicide is everyone’s business” says Dr Hains, and why the Collaborative is using the data to inform a range of evidence-based suicide prevention activities across all sectors.
“We see that suicide is preventable, and we also see that right now this region has a fantastic opportunity to have a significant and sustainable impact on suicide,” he says. “While there’s lots of services doing really good things, what we’ve learnt is that in order to reduce the suicide rates for our region, we need to work more collaboratively with each other.”
That thinking led to the formation in 2015 of the Collaborative – which brings almost 40 organisations from across the region including health and education providers, local councils and businesses, and support and emergency services.
“We want everybody in the community to understand what role they play in suicide prevention – and feel confident and competent to play that role,” Dr Hains says.
In 2016 the Collaborative became one of four trial sites in NSW for LifeSpan, the nation’s largest integrated suicide prevention program developed by the Black Dog Institute.
Dr Fiona Shand of the Blackdog Institute is the research director for LifeSpan, which combines nine strategies into one community-led approach.
“Over the last two decades there’s been a gradual increase in suicide deaths so it was clear that what we were doing was not enough,” she said. “So we wanted to take an integrated approach and a regionally driven approach using the nine strategies.
“Some of them focus on people already at risk, others focus on ensuring people don’t get to that point in the first place.
“And the evidence suggests by implementing all these strategies at the same time we can expect to reduce suicide deaths by 20 per cent and suicide attempts by 30 per cent.”
For people like Ann, the integrated measures to reduce suicide are a “monumental step forward” in the way the community views, and works to prevent, suicide.
“I’m very lucky that I didn’t die on that particular night and that I managed to muddle through despite the stigma around suicide, the lack of access to support, at the time,” she said.
“My ongoing recovery has been helped by the support of good friends, by keeping connected with my community, and by my involvement in the arts – such as Bundanon’s community program.
“And I know I’m now making a difference in other people’s lives – just by having conversations with them, just by listening with no judgement. Because more often than not, people don’t want to die, they just want someone to listen – and that can be the hardest thing.
“So I'd say to people ‘Listen to what I'm saying, and what I'm not saying; look at me and see me, not just what you want to see’.”
Over the next nine weeks, in the lead-up to R U OK Day on September 13, the Mercury will run a series of articles outlining what is being done in the region to save lives – and what help is available for those in crisis.
To secure one of the 1000 free QPR licences, current for three years, community members should go to www.suicidepreventioncollaborative.org.au/QPR
If you’d like to talk to anyone about the issues raised in this article call Lifeline on 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 or MensLine 1300 789 978.