Steve Gibbeson lost one family member to suicide – then a month later another.
It highlighted to him how suicide can have a ripple effect, and the need to help those left behind who may be vulnerable and distressed. And it prompted Mr Gibbeson to play his part – by using his role as a longstanding member of Thirroul Surf Club to reduce the stigma around suicide and help support community members who may be struggling.
“My nephew Jason died in November 2015 aged 29 – in December another member of our family also took his own life,” Mr Gibbeson said.
“Jason had struggled for a long time and had attempted suicide when he was about 18. He wanted help, he wanted answers but they never came to him despite the support from family, friends and professionals.
“And then another loss for our family, which reinforced the need to be very careful with suicide, the importance of talking to people about it and trying to help them get the support they need.”
Mr Gibbeson has helped create a supportive culture at the surf club which encourages conversations about mental health and promotes a healthy lifestyle. It’s helped him cope with the loss of loved ones, and it’s helping members – young and old – to open up if they need to.
“Some people don’t want a counselling session – but they still need people to check in on them – and we do that informally,” he said. “We have board paddling groups, free yoga sessions, swimming – all of which are great for our mental, as well as physical, health.”
Meantime Jason’s legacy is a positive one, thanks to his brother Ben Woods who has raised over $300,000 for the Black Dog Institute through his Ride for Jase initiative.
In June 2017 Mr Woods cycled 20,000km around Australia to raise money and awareness for the approximately 3000 lives lost to suicide each year.
“The brothers always talked about doing this together,” Mr Gibbeson said. “Now Ben’s making a difference for others.”
Employers have a key role to play
By tackling the ‘hidden health problem’ in workplaces, employers can reduce absenteeism and increase productivity says Coordinare CEO Dianne Kitcher.
A member of the Illawarra Shoalhaven Suicide Prevention Collaborative, Coordinare – the South Eastern NSW Primary Health Network – has a multi-pronged approach to reduce suicide.
Suicide rates in the region remain higher than NSW averages, with 40-60 suicides reported each year.
Ms Kitcher said employers had a key role to play in raising awareness, and helping to prevent, suicide.
With one in six Australian workers suffering from a mental illness at any one time, and the highest numbers of suicides by people of working age, mental illness is a massive workplace issue.
Ms Kitcher said by prioritising the mental health of their staff, employers could avoid absenteesism, and improve staff morale and productivity.
“Not all people who suicide have a mental illness but it is a significant risk factor,” she said. “So there’s definite benefits for employers to promote better awareness around mental illness as it’s a hidden health problem in workplaces.
“Helping people feel more comfortable about saying they have a mental illness, putting supports in place and reducing stigma around suicide has a massive impact on employees.”
Ms Kitcher said one way employers could be proactive was encouraging them to give staff access to the QPR: Question, Persuade Refer suicide prevention training course.
The Mercury, along with the collaborative, is running a campaign to raise awareness and get more residents to undertake the online course. The cost is $10, however NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard has made 1000 licences free for local residents.
Illawarra resident Nieves Murray is the new CEO of Suicide Prevention Australia. A Lifeline phone crisis counsellor for seven years, she said while emotional problems were not as visible as physical problems, they could be equally as debilitating.
“The impact on productivity, on the workplace, on all workers is enormous,” she said.
“Workers – who spend most of their waking hours at work –are in a great position to look out for their colleagues and identify when they’re under stress or their behaviour has changed.
“Because of OH&S training, staff wouldn’t walk past a trip or an electrical hazard; with more widespread mental health and suicide prevention training, they wouldn’t ignore someone struggling with mental illness or suicidal thoughts either.”
Internetrix managing director Daniel Rowan has purchased QPR licences for his entire team in Wollongong.
“You don’t have to look too far to find people who have been impacted by suicide, and it has touched people in our organisation,” he said.
“Considering that, Internetrix is more than happy to support the campaign, and it also fits in with our mission statement and values which focus on caring for our people.”
Mr Rowan said the one-hour course was convenient for employees, who could do it online in their workplaces or at home.
“Building awareness around suicide can help every organisation, and their staff,” he said.
To secure one of the 1000 free QPR licences, 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.