“Someone once said the best antiseptic is sunlight and I think that’s very much the case with mental health and suicide,” says Wollongong’s Bruce McMillan.
“Things won’t get better if we don’t get them out in the open, if we don’t talk about them.”
The 52-year-old has found that out the hard way. For too many years he kept his struggles with mental health and suicidal thoughts to himself, and without any diagnosis or treatment they morphed into drug and alcohol problems.
“I was orphaned at the age of two, and my siblings and I then lived at (a relative’s) house,” he said.
“It wasn’t an environment where grief could be explored or expressed or worked through very effectively.
“By primary school I had obvious symptoms of clinical depression, which was left undiagnosed and untreated. By adolescence I had developed substance abuse issues.
“My life was built on that foundation of unresolved grief and that’s how I was set up to engage with the world as an adult – and I wasn’t very good at it.”
Relationships proved difficult and his marriage broke down; he found it hard to keep down a job and substance abuse wove a pattern through his life.
Then 12 years ago, he finally got the help he needed – and is now helping others as a mental health peer support worker with Grand Pacific Health.
“I realised the wheels were falling off and got myself into rehab,” he said.
“I was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety, and complex trauma, and as well as avoiding drugs and alcohol, I’ve had long-term counselling with psychotherapy.
“Now I’m able to use my experience to meaningfully help other people with complex mental health issues and suicidality.”
Not all people who die by suicide have a mental health problem, and not all people with mental illness are affected by suicidal behaviour. However people with mental illness are more likely to die by suicide than the general population.
“I’ve had friends die by suicide, cared for a partner who was actively suicidal and experienced suicidal thoughts myself,” Mr McMillan said.
“When I face adverse circumstances, it can still be one of the first things that occurs to me – but while I can still fall into a hole, thanks to the supports I have in place, it’s a shallower hole and easier to get out of.”
Mr McMillan works on two federally funded programs – Partners In Recovery and Integrated Recovery Services – to help those struggling in the community.
“I let people know that mental health and suicide are not things we can’t talk about, and that it can be very helpful to explore what has led to this type of thinking,” he said.
“It’s often about rightsizing a person’s problem – problems can seem enormous and insurmountable and it’s difficult for people to see alternative solutions.
“The single most important thing is to engender hope for the future – because things won’t stay the same and there’s every chance that when change comes it will be for the better.”
‘Talking therapies’ help to reduce suicide
Psychological support, or ‘talking therapies’, are accessible, affordable and effective for those experiencing suicidal thoughts.
Grand Pacific Health suicide prevention team leader, Adam McRae, said it was important for people to keep seeking help until they found the best fit for them.
“Psychological treatments can help change habits in the way we think and cope with life’s challenges,” he said.
“As well as supporting your recovery, talking therapies can also help people stay well by helping them to address unhelpful thoughts and behaviour.”
There were many types of psychological treatments available, Mr McRae said, as well as different delivery options.
Some people preferred to work one-on-one with a professional, while others got more out of a group environment. A growing number of online programs, or e-therapies, were also available.
“People may lead busy lives with work and family commitments so many psychologists now offer extended or after hour appointments, allowing people to book in at a time that suits them best,” he said.
Mr McRae said a GP was a good place to start, and could offer treatment, support and ongoing care – as well as referrals to other services and specialists.
If a person had a referral from a GP, some of the sessions with a psychologist could also be covered under Medicare.
The Mercury, with the Illawarra Shoalhaven Suicide Prevention Collaborative, is running a campaign to get more residents trained in suicide prevention through the QPR: Question, Persuade, Refer online course.
As part of that, NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard funded 1000 courses (usual cost $10). To secure one of the 250 remaining free courses visit www.suicidepreventioncollaborative.org.au/QPR
For support call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Mental Health Line on 1800 011 511.