"Silence is thunderous" and that is why Ann Frankham wants people to talk about suicide.
Story by Natalie Croxon, Photo by Robert Peet, Illawarra Mercury.
It is 50 years since Ms Frankham tried to take her own life and she knows how vital a conversation can be when it comes to suicide prevention.
Ms Frankham, a lived experience member of the Illawarra Shoalhaven Suicide Prevention Collaborative, said this importance could not be overstated.
"We hear the expression oftentimes, 'silence is golden', which it is, but it can also be thunderous when people don't speak to other people or initiate a conversation," she said.
She encourages people to reach out and have what she calls "random conversations" with those they worry might be struggling.
On the first Black Summer anniversary, Ms Frankham attended a memorial service at Washerwomans Beach near Lake Conjola and simply asked a man beside her: "Are you local?"
That sparked a conversation in which the man opened up to her about needing help, giving Ms Frankham the opportunity to share the work of the Collaborative and the support available to him.
He got help, and Ms Frankham believes he is now doing well.
- If you are feeling distressed and in need of immediate assistance, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, 13YARN on 13 92 76, or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467. If you or someone else is in danger, call 000.
"So it can be as simple as saying 'Are you a local?' That's what I mean by random conversations," she said.
If it was someone you knew who you thought was struggling, she said, "just ask the question - be open, be honest".
"What's the worst that's going to happen to you? You're going to be wrong, and you've got a little bit of egg on your face? Well, thank goodness for that," Ms Frankham said.
How you can play a part in suicide prevention
The Mercury and the Illawarra Shoalhaven Suicide Prevention Collaborative have partnered to launch the 2023 Care To QPR campaign, raising awareness of suicide prevention and giving people free access to a course that will equip them with the skills to have these vital conversations.
QPR (question, persuade, refer) is a one-hour online program that teaches people how to identify the warning signs that someone might be thinking about suicide; confidently ask a person if they are thinking about suicide; and connect them with appropriate support.
The Mercury has joined forces with the Collaborative to help train up members of the community to have those conversations. As part of the partnership 500 free QPR Gatekeeper training courses will be provided to members of the public who sign up online.
Over the course of the coming weeks the Mercury will tell stories of those directly impacted by suicide.
Collaborative member and program manager suicide prevention at the primary health network COORDINARE, Jo Riley, said people with lived experience of suicide often spoke of how important it was when someone noticed something was happening and had the courage to ask, "Are you thinking about suicide?"
Ms Riley said this signalled to the person that someone was willing to listen, and simply talking helped relieve distress.
Relaunching #care2qpr, she said, was important because suicide was an issue that needed vigilance from the community.
"Sadly, we know that there are people in our community today who are thinking about suicide," Ms Riley said.
Based on a five-year average, 55 people are lost each year to suicide in the Illawarra Shoalhaven.
The causes are complex, and over a third of people who suicide do not have a mental health condition. It affects people from all backgrounds and social groups.
"Suicide really is everybody's business. It doesn't discriminate, it can happen to anybody," Ms Frankham said.
The #care2qprcampaign launches ahead of World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10, and in the coming weeks we will share the stories of people who have been touched by suicide and work with the Collaborative.
To sign up for one of 500 free QPR courses, visit www.suicidepreventioncollaborative.org.au/training/question-persuade-refer.
What is the Illawarra Shoalhaven Suicide Prevention Collaborative?
The Collaborative was established in 2015 by a band of community members who recognised the "unacceptably high" number of suicides and today it comprises more than 70 people, including representatives from 30 organisations, community members, and people with lived experience of suicide.
Ms Riley said lived experience was "fundamental" to the work of the Collaborative.
The "generous and courageous sharing of people's stories", she said, shone a light on what needed to change.
"It really does bring you back to the heart of things, what's important and what will make a difference," Ms Riley said.
She said it also gave people affected by suicide a place to contribute meaningfully.
The "resilience, courage and determination" of these people, Ms Riley said, also sustained everyone doing the hard work of suicide prevention.
"That in itself is an act of hope and hope-building, and hope is so important when talking about suicide," she said.
Members also agree to work together in collaboration, and their work is evidence-based and evidence-generating.
The work of the Collaborative runs across four streams: prevention and community; responding to suicidal distress; 'postvention', ensuring those bereaved by suicide are empowered to access support; and data, evaluation and research.
'Fifty years of sunsets and sunrises'
When Ms Frankham had her suicidal crisis, she had lost her mother - for whom she'd been primary carer since the age of 14 - about a year and a half before.
She said everyone was wrapped up in their own grief and she felt like she was all alone, but suicide was something that "came out of the blue".
While she can't be sure, she likes to think that if someone had checked in with her, it would have been enough to help; however, "50 years ago, it was just be staunch".
Back then she was living in Scarborough and not even her GP spoke to her about what happened.
"It was a close-knit community and no one said anything. That's the silence being thunderous, which people absorb, and they take on all this stuff about themselves," she said.
Instead, Ms Frankham said, compassion was vital in the aftermath of a suicide attempt.
She said people needed to offer a gentle, non-judgemental ear and "hear what people are saying, not what you think they are saying".
For those experiencing thoughts of suicide, Ms Frankham said they needed to know "they are worthwhile, they are valuable, their lives matter".
She also wants people to know that a suicide attempt does not define them and they they can go on to live a "rich, fulfilling life".
"I've had the highs, I've experienced love, I've experienced loss. I don't have children myself, but I've had the joy of kids around me," she said.
"I've had the joy of seeing 50 years of sunsets and sunrises. Just the joy of life in general... Some of it's been great, some of it's been shit, but that's what life is."
- You can find someone who will listen without judgement at Wollongong Safe Haven (open 2-10pm Wed-Sat, 55 Urunga Parade, Wollongong), Lifeline (24/7, phone 13 11 14) or 13YARN (24/7, phone 13 92 76). For those who have lost a loved one by suicide, StandBy Support After Suicide (24/7, phone 1300 727 247) and Thirrili Indigenous Postvention Support (24/7, phone 1800 805 801) offer emotional and practical support.
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