For eight hours he swam across the dark black waters of Manly Beach, discernible only by a faint, flashing light strapped to the back of his head. Michael Teys began at midnight, lapping around to Shelley Beach and back again to the shore below Manly Life Saving Club. Support crew waited on the beach, kayaked or sometimes swam alongside.
When Teys, a 55-year-old lawyer, swims, he composes words in his head for a book he is writing before he goes into a trance where time disappears. Teys has no fear of swimming in the sea at night, even though locals attest that sharks regularly glide near by. He says he is a “shark denier” (but still used a shark shield to ease the minds of his support crew), and the only time he really gets nervous is in large swells and wild seas.
The father of four has stared down two major challenges in his life – coming out as bipolar at 40, then coming out as gay at 50.
“Ocean swimming,” he says, “helped me to turn the tide of my life.”
When he emerged from the water at 8am last Sunday, he walked through a tunnel of raised arms and cheers. Behind him on the promenade stood a tent from Lifeline, who he was raising money for, where volunteers handed out leaflets with alarming statistics about mental health issues in the area.
This fact has seriously alarmed locals, who are trying to raise collective consciences and funds for counselling and phone crisis services.
It does something to the psyche of a community, knowing that so many of their young are succumbing to the dark subterranean pull of depression; guilt, fear, anxiety and bafflement boil.
Asked about talk of a contagion in the area, the chief executive of Lifeline Northern Beaches, David Thomas, says: “There is definitely something going on.” But he doesn’t know why. He points to the pressure of body image in a young surf culture, the prevalence of eating disorders, the ugly trap of domestic violence, the burden of unsustainable mortgages and redundancies in professional services and retail jobs. The suicide rate is at a 10-year high in Australia, and is the leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 44.
None of this, though, explains what is happening with young men here.
“I wish I knew,” says Thomas. “If I could tell you that I could also tell you what the Lotto numbers are tomorrow.”
Lifeline is now running programs at local schools, surf lifesaving, rugby and football clubs to train young people to be “suicide alert helpers” identify and respond to suicide risks – which should be made mandatory, Thomas says. The message is simple: recognise the risks, respond to them and refer people for help.
Every day in Australia, eight people commit suicide – and every hour, about seven people try to. Three quarters are men. Risks are particularly high for LGBTQI people. And the female rate has doubled in the past decade.
The key to stopping contagion is educating people to spot the vulnerable.
In one remote town in Queensland, 21 people killed themselves in the space of two years; in a distant part of WA, 15 young people did the same thing over the same two years. A 2012 study found the areas with the highest number of male suicides were along the east coast, central and southeast inland; Mornington Peninsula, Bathurst and Melville islands.
Clusters are usually made up of men, who are more likely to be Indigenous and disadvantaged.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are far more likely than any other kids in Australia to commit suicide: those between between five and 17 die at a rate of 10 for every 100,000, compared with 1.8 for the non-Indigenous.
This week, another major inquiry into suicides of young Aboriginal people in WA began, looking at the deaths of 13 kids who hanged themselves with household appliances in the Kimberley. The youngest was 10. Three years earlier, her sister had also killed herself. The fact there have been almost 40 reports into Indigenous suicide in the past 15 years in WA – and nothing has changed – is shameful and shocking.
So while experts probe, inquiries dig and family members mourn, what can we do, apart from demand answers and urgent, effective action?
Teys wants us to talk about stigma; the shame of talking about suicide, of seeking help, of admitting there is a problem. It was easier coming out as gay to friends and colleagues, he told me, than as bipolar. “I was terrified about speaking out because it might affect my business or that people would judge me more. People have a lot of misconceptions about mental illness, but you can achieve significant things and function at very high levels. Some days I can’t but most days I can, this is an illness than can be managed. If more people understood that they would be more likely to try to seek assistance and not kill themselves.”
In three weeks, Teys will swim more than 30 kilometres across Catalina Channel off Los Angeles – at night. One stroke at a time.
Julia Baird hosts The Drum on ABC TV
This piece by Julia Baird was first seen on ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’ 30 June 2017.