ALISON Fairleigh’s journey with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was tough.
She has seen rock bottom, and while she survived, she says it’s no place anybody should have to experience.
Now a leading advocate on mental health, the 2013 Rural Industries Research Industry Corporation Queensland Rural Women of the Year says suicide is ripping apart rural communities, which is a great waste because suicide is preventable.
“Unless we address the stigma we’re not going to be able to address the huge issue that exists within our rural communities,” she said.
She said drought made people vulnerable, but wasn’t necessarily any more to blame than other potential causes.
“A lot of people think it’s related to a particular event such as drought, but when we look at the statistics surrounding suicide it’s not. There is no pattern to it whatsoever.
“There are no more suicides in times of drought than there are during other times.”
Ms Fairleigh’s own experience has marked her for life, but has become an important part of how she now helps others before it’s too late.
A former teacher at a northern Queensland agricultural college, Ms Fairleigh’s ordeal with PTSD has helped give her some perspective and ability to relate to people who are suffering mental illness.
However, her first realisation of how ingrained the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health was among the community was during her time as a teacher when one of her student’s brothers killed himself.
She was taken aback, when upon attempting to discuss the situation, she was stonewalled by the community whose general response was the young man had made a “stupid decision”.
A week later she was told the victim’s best friend had taken his own life.
And just a week after that, on Father’s Day, a colleague of hers, aged 52, also took his own life.
“You can never be the same after that – you cannot – you’ll have these deep visible scars that are left. You might heal, but that will always be there,” she said.
“So what we need to do is stop suicide from happening in the first place, because it is entirely preventable.”
She has since become devoted to the cause of improving understanding around mental health and how people can prevent suicide.
She said in rural communities, farmers tended to put their own health on the backburner.
“Yet you’re the most important asset your business has,” she said.
“If we’re not travelling well, how can we do what’s right for our business?”
The first step to beating depression was to start a conversation and this meant first and foremost admitting there was a problem.
“I’ve been there – it actually is not painful (the admission). The most difficult step you will take is admitting that you need help. From then on it gets much easier.”
She said everybody’s journey through depression and their solutions were different.
“In fact the first doctor I saw contributed to the problem – he didn’t help,” she said.
“But I decided I was important enough to go an find another doctor and I did – she was my salvation.
“So if you’re having these thoughts going through your head, thoughts of suicide don’t have to be acted on.
“You don’t have to go that way... get yourself a strategy, get yourself a plan, if you don’t have a GP go and find one. If you don’t like the one you’ve got, find another one as well.”
She said for those who found themselves in a position where a friend was at risk of suicide they should intervene and be persistent.
“Don’t let them (disconnect socially),” she said.
“Just be there, a constant. Give them a phone call, check how they’re doing.
“Try to get them out and about.”
Ms Fairleigh said it took her seven years to seek help.
“I had a stigma that said if only I’m good enough, I can get over this, I’ve got to work harder, I’ve got to try more... I don’t want people to know I’m weak,” she said.
“I saw it as a weakness, but it’s far from that.
“Our whole bodies were not meant to live under the levels of stress that we put ourselves under these days.”
She said people needed to learn strategies before it was too late.
“I know what it feels like to hit rock bottom and have to get yourself back up again.
“If there’s a strategy you can put in place before you hit rock bottom, trust me, it’s a better place to do that in the first place.”
For more advice on dealing with mental health or suicide prevention, contact:
- Lifeline: 13 11 14
- Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
- SANE Australia 1800 18 SANE (7263)