Despite the rising number of deaths by suicide, people are still reluctant to discuss it. One young woman wants to change that.
Hayley Purdon always wanted to be a pilot. Her goal was to get her commercial pilot’s licence and fly for a living.
Then at high school she started having bouts of depression. Later when she got to university she found it hard to adjust. She’d had eating problems and they got worse. She suffered from bulimia, a serious mental illness.
‘‘I felt completely ashamed of what I was doing,’’ she says. ‘‘Bulimia is not a nice thing to be doing to yourself.
‘‘I kept it all hidden from everyone around me because I was so embarrassed with what I was doing and that I wasn’t coping. Society makes us believe that we have to achieve everything effortlessly and that achievement comes easily and I was struggling. I didn’t want other people to see that.’’
Ms Purdon, aged 19 at the time, then dropped out of class.
‘‘I was doing aviation, that was my career but it’s expensive and so I had to drop out after the first year,’’ she says.
‘‘My depression worsened after that because I couldn’t imagine what else I would do with my life. I wanted to be a pilot.
‘‘I tried going for another degree but my eating habits were really out of control and I started getting anxious when I left the house. I would drive to uni and have to turn around and come home. I couldn’t get out of the car.
‘‘I was in this massive hole and I couldn’t see myself getting out of it.’’
Then at the age of 20 she started self harming and swallowing handfuls of pills to quieten the demons.
‘‘I had so many strong and desperate feelings and I didn’t know how to cope with them,’’ she says.
‘‘I found the painkillers would make me drowsy and take my mind off things for a while. That got worse and I ended up being admitted to hospital.
‘‘That was my turning point.
‘‘My family was called. My secret was out in the open and I couldn’t hide it any longer. I was so ashamed. That really motivated me to seek help. It wasn’t like an immediate thing. I didn’t get the help I needed right then and there. I denied to the hospital and my family that it was a suicide attempt. I was so ashamed. That comes with the stigma surrounding suicide. It’s not something that you want to brag about. People think you are crazy and I didn’t want anyone to know that was me.’’
Homosexuality is long out of the closet, breast cancer is something we can discuss and even depression is something that sports stars will go public with. But suicide is the one last big taboo that society struggles to open up about according to Sydney-based Suicide Prevention Australia.
Suicide largely enters the public domain, spectacularly but briefly, when a celebrity such as fashion designer L’Wren Scott or Charlotte Dawson decides to take their own life.
Even the police have a way of talking about suicide. When Ms Dawson’s body was found at her apartment two months ago the official statement was that “there do not appear to be any suspicious circumstances”. That is a code that the public has come to understand as meaning suicide.
To try and end that taboo Suicide Prevention Australia will hold a Lived Experience Symposium in Sydney in two weeks (June 23/24) where ambassadors like Ms Purdon and others will for the first time try and influence the public debate about suicide and how it can be prevented.
Ms Purdon, now 26, has managed to turn her life around. ‘‘My doctor sent me to a psychologist with some experience of dealing with people with eating disorders and that helped me to get over my eating problems and anxiety. Then the depression eased up with that as well. A lot of it was interlaced, it wasn’t three separate things on their own, they were combined and feeding off each other.
‘‘And that’s when things starting turning around for me. I made it back to uni. I’ve just had my last class of the semester.
‘‘I am going to graduate in psychology in July next year. I got my private pilot’s licence last year.
‘‘Flying is still expensive and money’s a barrier so I’ll get a job in psychology and flying can be my side project until I get my commercial licence.
‘‘My eating is under control and I have got good strategies in place to prevent a relapse in the future and I have got a heaps better insight into my emotions. I can catch myself when things are getting bad.
‘‘We will share our experiences at Suicide Prevention but it’s not in a therapeutic way – it’s more in a ‘to make changes’ kind of way.”
Ms Purdon decided to speak publicly about suicide to try to help other people going through similar problems.
‘‘After what I went through it was something that I thought I didn’t want happening to other people. Suicide is a massive issue in society at the moment.
‘‘One of my school friends just died through suicide. It was her funeral last week. I hadn’t talked to her much since high school but we kept up with each other on Facebook.
‘‘It was a massive shock. She seemed like she was a happy person. She was successful and she had just got back from a year of working in New York and she had got a good job over here. She must have had some inner demons. Terrible …’’
That Ms Purdon knows someone else who lost their life to suicide is not so surprising when you look at the statistics.
The latest figures show that in 2012 there were 2535 suicides across Australia, almost double the number of road deaths at 1310, and a figure that Jeff Kennett, founder of Beyondblue which works to increase awareness and understanding of anxiety and depression, describes as a “national disgrace”.
That is approximately seven lives lost a day but then take into account the trauma of approximately 62,000 Australians (it is probably more) who attempt to take their own lives.
After the figures were released Mr Kennett wrote in April: ‘‘It has taken 10 years to have depression talked about openly in the community and it might take us 10 years to achieve the same with the issue of suicide, but it is a discussion that must be had.’’
Sue Murray, chief executive of Suicide Prevention Australia says there is a need to harness the wisdom and knowledge of those who have personal experience of suicide.
‘‘I have the benefit of having come from the cancer world where consumers have been very active and have changed the way research is conducted and the way the way the community responds to issues around cancer,” she says.
‘‘My particular area was breast cancer and look at what has happened to that over the last decade. When I thought about where cancer was 15 years ago, I think that’s where suicide and suicide prevention sits at the moment.
‘‘That is it is not something we want to talk about. It is not something that is encouraged in open debate. We don’t have a particular research agenda around suicide prevention. People skate around the issue. People are scared to talk about a suicide.
‘‘Rightly or wrongly they may think that if they talk about it it will promote someone to action.
‘‘There is no evidence to suggest if you openly discuss suicide with someone who is suicidal that this will influence their decision to try and take their own life.
‘‘We are looking to harness the voice of lived experience and bring it to the fore in suicide prevention.
‘‘Hearing people with lived experience who are trained and supported to tell their story is something that will really start to help breaking down the barriers.’’
Let the conversation begin.
Running his way to mental health
Carlo Laruccia was happily married and successful in a senior role in his career as an accountant.
He worked with global companies Ernst and Young and Telstra and was also involved in teaching the diploma of chartered accounting.
But then, six years ago, his world collapsed around him and he tried to take his own life.
‘‘It was multiple attempts. I felt quite helpless. I was experiencing the effects of depression and anxiety. It has taken six years of rehabilitation to recover,’’ he says.
‘‘My marriage failed. We separated after I attended hospital and then later divorced. She supported me the best she knew how and pleaded with me to accept voluntary hospitalisation and I am forever grateful for that.
‘‘I was in denial in that I didn’t need any help. My psychiatrist diagnosed with me with bipolar disorder and I was encouraged to attend day care programs three days a week for 12 weeks. I was fortunate that it was offered. If I hadn’t received any support it would have been frightening. I didn’t have a life partner to help me through.
‘‘I just lived with so much shame and guilt and stigma and fear about my suicide attempts. I guess in some ways I found it really hard to connect and I think others found it hard to connect with me as well.’’
It has taken six years of seeing a psychologist, psychiatrist and GP, among others, but now Mr Laruccia says he has gained a great insight into appreciating the uniqueness and extremeness of his experience.
‘‘My curiosity has driven a lot of my recovery. How in the world did my life end up in the situation of attempting to end it? I had a normal upbringing but to end up in that situation, I just couldn’t believe it.
‘‘I felt a bit trapped because I hadn’t heard many other people speak about it.’’
Last year came something of a turning point. He volunteered as an administrator at the Suicide Prevention Australia (SPA) conference in Melbourne.
“That was the catalyst to start talking more openly. Since then I have become an ambassador for beyondblue and Suicide Prevention and will attend their symposium in Sydney this month.
‘‘On my 40th birthday this year I asked people to donate to SPA. Friends and family responded generously; it prompted me to prepare a story of what had happened to me.
‘‘I want to, in some way, help share this with others. I really didn’t want to end my life. I just didn’t know how to live and I didn’t have the skills or coping mechanisms that I have now.
‘‘As part of my recovery I have done a bit of teaching for the Institute of Chartered Accountants but I have just done a two-day training workshop in Melbourne called Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training. I have come into contact with others who have been suicidal. It’s like a first aid course to keep people safe for now.
“With the Suicide Prevention I will be participating in workshops to share my personal experiences to provide an insight into how everyone in the community can help, from doctors, psychiatrists, to family and friends and how we can all communicate more openly.’’
For a photograph to accompany this article, Mr Laruccia suggested we capture him out exercising at Ormond Point in Elwood.
‘‘It’s one of my favourite running spots. My running and cycling has really been critical to helping me get my mental health back on track,’’ he said.
This article first appeared on ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ on 13 June 2014.