'Take the time for a kind conversation and you might help save a life'.
The words of Ann Frankham, lived experience member of the Illawarra Shoalhaven Suicide Prevention Collaborative, are ringing in my ears as I emerge with mixed emotions from lockdown and gear up for the Christmas period.
Ann's wise words are charged with layers of meaning for me. I hear them through the lens of suicide prevention - work focused on stopping people from experiencing such intensity of emotional distress that they think taking their own life is the only way to end their pain. But what conversations should we be having as we emerge and look to the future? We're starting to see increasing public discussion acknowledging the mixed feelings many of us are experiencing adjusting to post-lockdown life. Beyond Blue recently released survey results from 1600 Australians where more than half said the pandemic had negatively affected their mental health. Survey respondents encountered new and mixed feelings like 'happy flat' and 'worry hope' which they found difficult to express and unsettling.
We can start by having kind conversations with ourselves - they are important! Taking the time to reflect on your own mental health and what you can do to improve your wellbeing is the usual go-to conversation, and it's one worth having. Reminding people to take the time to look after their own mental health and making sure they know where they can get help is vital.
Locally, COORDINARE - South Eastern NSW PHN and Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District are encouraging people to 'Be kind to your mind this festive time', acknowledging that for some the festive season can be a time of emotional distress, anxiety, sadness or loneliness. For many people, the coming months bring complex relationship challenges, financial pressures, and experiences of exclusion. If you do find yourself needing support through the Christmas and New Year period, the new Head to Health pop-up service can help connect you with the right supports in your postcode (phone 1800 595 212). The Wollongong Safe Haven will continue to operate as usual and 24/7 crisis services such as Lifeline (phone 13 11 14) remain available.
But if we end the conversation there, we'll be missing Ann's point.
It seems clear that the physical distancing measures of the pandemic disrupted our daily ways of living. For the first time in many of our lifetimes, social disconnection was experienced by the masses rather than by the minority. We miss seeing the smiles now hidden behind masks. We miss the small gestures of kindness and care.
The spotlight is turning to the importance of social connection and humanity.
The spotlight really is turning to the importance of social connection and humanity. As we emerge from lockdown and before we get caught up in new routines, the time is ripe to have conversations about how we can nurture a kind, connected community. Through the suicide prevention lens, this looks like having a safety net to help us cope with the effects of life's stresses - unemployment, relationship breakdown, insecure housing, financial troubles, and so on. A kind, connected community ensures everyone feels valued, included, safe, has a meaningful way to contribute to society, and has enduring connections to other individuals, peer or cultural groups, or community organisations.
Many people assume that the skills and knowledge to recognise and respond to the signs that someone might be thinking about suicide lie in the domain of specialists like psychologists, psychiatrists and peer workers. But it's in our daily social interactions - not in once a week one-hour appointments - where the opportunity really exists to notice the signs that someone might be thinking about suicide. Reaching in, letting someone know you've noticed that they don't seem to be travelling well, and listening with compassionate curiosity can be a powerful act of suicide prevention.
This type of kind conversation doesn't take a degree or years of on-the-job training. What it can require is overcoming your own fear of saying the wrong thing (tip: how you listen is more important than what you say) and having the confidence to ask the question 'are you thinking about suicide'. If you're keen to learn more, join the Suicide Prevention Collaborative's free, online Community Forum on December 8, and hear directly from Ann about just how powerful a kind conversation can be.
When it comes to conversations it's not the number of conversations you have that's important, it's about the quality. Take the time to really listen - to yourself and to those around you. You may just find yourself in a kind conversation that could help save a life.
- Jo Riley is an Executive Member of the Illawarra Shoalhaven Suicide Prevention Collaborative.
The Collaborative's online suicide prevention community forum is on Wednesday, December 8, 6:30-8pm. More information at www.suicidepreventioncollaborative.org.au/get-involved-2/communityforum