At 23, Rhiannon Mackie is excited about her future – she’s engaged to be married, she’s studying for her dream career and ready to make a difference as a social worker.
The Wollongong woman wishes she could tell her 18-year-old self that life would get better, that all hope was not lost.
Back then, her ongoing struggle with depression and anxiety had been exacerbated by the loss of her mother to cancer, and she’d felt isolated and alone. And, after writing notes to those close to her, and laying out her funeral instructions, she’d tried to end her own life.
“I’d felt so hopeless and alone, and had so much grief over my mother’s loss and I didn’t want to deal with the pain anymore,” she said.
“But I think my mother was looking over me that night, and my attempts at ending my life didn’t work.”
After her hospitalisation, she finally got the support she needed through emergency counselling. “To this day I believe that’s what kept me going – I was finally given the tools to cope with anxiety and panic attacks, the tools to handle my grief,” she said.
Ms Mackie then felt comfortable seeking ongoing support, and still calls on a GP and a headspace counsellor when needed.
“I have everything to live for now,” she said. “And I want others to know that after a suicide attempt, life can get better.
“You will have goals and achievements and dreams – those things you didn’t have because you were in a dark space will develop as you get better.
“But you need to reach out for help, and you need to keep going until you get the help that is right for you.”
Ms Mackie urged those struggling with mental health and/ or suicidal thoughts to visit a GP, who could help them access free counselling sessions.
Dr Fiona Shand, of the Black Dog Institute, said people with suicidal behaviour frequently paid visits to their GPs in the weeks or days before suicide, making them ideal candidates to identify those at risk.
“Up to 45 per cent of individuals who died by suicide saw their GP within one month prior to their death, and up to 20 per cent saw their GP within one week before death,” she said.
“Excellent GP care has been shown to significantly decrease deaths and attempts, particularly when integrated into a multifaceted suicide prevention program, such as the Lifespan systems approach.
“The decrease in total suicide rates related to excellent GP care for suicide is between 22 and 73 per cent, suggesting that education and capacity building for primary health care professionals is one of the most promising interventions to reduce suicide rates.”
To that end, a new project called StepCare has been introduced at three GPs (see below) locally with many more keen to get on board.
Coordinare (South Eastern NSW Primary Health Network) is also working with practices across the region to provide suicide prevention training for all staff – call 1300 069 002 for details.
Meantime the Mercury, along with the Illawarra Shoalhaven Suicide Prevention Collaborative, is running a campaign to get community members to complete the QPR: Question, Persuade, Refer online suicide prevention course.
QPR licences usually cost $10, but NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard has funded 1000 courses. To secure one, visit www.suicidepreventioncollaborative.org.au/QPR
Get a mental health check-up while you wait
Patients at three general practices across the region can get a mental health check in the waiting room.
Their answers to an electronic screening survey are swiftly relayed to their GP, who can address any issues during their consultation.
Thirroul Medical Practice GP, Associate Professor Ann Ellacott, said the new screening tool – called StepCare – helped identify those at risk.
“Like most general practices, we’re seeing increasing numbers of mental health issues presenting to us,” she said. “But often they don’t present until a patient is quite debilitated by the disorder.
“Now we have a way of screening for mental health issues so we can have the conversation and do some preventative management.”
The StepCare project is run in conjunction with the Black Dog Institute, as part of its LifeSpan suicide prevention program. If issues are identified, the institute works with the GP to provide ongoing support to the patient.
LifeSpan director Dr Fiona Shand said evaluation of StepCare revealed thoughts of death or self-harm were relatively common among people presenting to GPs.
“Half of these people were not attending the GP visit for mental health reasons, and 40 per cent of which had never gone to a GP for their mental health,” she added.
Thirroul practice manager Kerri Haines said patients supported the initiative. “We introduced the project because we understand the need for improved mental health care in our community. As a practice we want to do whatever we can to capture any issues early on.”
Better Care Medical Centre, Fairy Meadow and Kiama’s Terralong Street Surgery also run StepCare.
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.