A ‘MATE HELPING MATE’ APPROACH TO SUICIDE AWARENESS
By Andrew Pearson
THIS CHRISTMAS will mark 10 years since Bec North-Gargaro lost her husband to suicide. In the last 12 months, two close friends have also completed suicide.
“We have lost six people to suicide in Hay [in the last two years] and that’s six too many,” Bec says.
It’s a trend that’s testing the resilience of a close-knit country town and its 3000 residents. It’s a trend they want to stop.
Hay, in south-western New South Wales, is your typical rural town. What it lacks in size and facilities, it makes up for in its ‘mate helping mate’ mentality. It’s also striving to make a difference.
The Community Action for Suicide Elimination (CASE) committee has been established and a group of local residents are fighting to cut the toll.
CASE is the brainchild of local bus driver and former Hay Shire Council mayor, Peter Dwyer. After four suicides he’d had enough.
“The fourth one was a young girl who used to travel on my bus... she was 14 years old and that sort of took me by surprise, hit me pretty hard.”
Like Bec, Peter had also lost a good mate just 12 months before.
“I was sick and tired of people telling me that once that [suicide] mindset’s there, there’s nothing you can do. It’s about trying to get them before they get that mindset, get them in the depression stage and try and work with them and talk them around.”
AWARENESS is at the forefront of the committee’s push to drastically reduce the number of suicides.
It’s providing heavily subsidised one-day suicide intervention courses to the public and aim to have 200 community members trained to detect mental health warning signs.
“People will be trained in Hay to be able to answer calls that we receive when people feel they need to talk, because in the end talking helps,” Bec says.
“We’re not professionals, we’re not there to counsel people; we’re there to talk to people and try and get them to go down that road of going to see a counsellor or a GP, or someone else in the health profession...” Peter explains.
The courses are facilitated by the Community Response to Eliminating Suicide (CORES) program, which has provided services to over 25 communities throughout the country and provided training to over 3,500 people.
CORES was developed in Kentish, Tasmania. The small, rural community, not dissimilar to Hay, began the program following ten suicides in the space of 3 years, including 5 in one year.
“Talking openly about suicide is the best thing we can do. We know when people are struggling, we see the changes, we need to ask them directly if they are suicidal. If they say yes we need to know where to get them help, professional help is important,” CORES executive officer Coralanne Walker says.
“It is very important to have people in the community trained in what to look for in their friends, family and the people around them as they are the people who notice changes. It also empowers people and gives them confidence to ask “are you thinking of suicide” then teaching them where to go for help.”
Bev Wilson is a local Hay resident and member of CASE. Although she hasn’t had a “close family association” with suicide, she says the committee is a vital resource for providing those in need with a point of contact.
“This is a huge thing we are doing. We are taking ownership of our community's problems and doing our best to solve them by training and educating the community.
“Helping a mate out is the background of small communities like ours – it’s how we have functioned for decades and I'd doubt many ‘Hayites’ would have it any other way.”
Peter agrees. “We’ve got the professionals out there and they’re doing a wonderful job but they are very limited on how far they can travel and who they can reach... it’s about mate looking after mate... standing by your mate when they’re in a fight... and their fight is for their life. They do reach out but sadly sometimes it falls on deaf ears and it may be just a very small yell for help.”
The community nature of groups like CASE means the promotion of suicide awareness messages is more likely to succeed, according to local mental health officer, Nicola Barrie.
She says they are also providers of initial support or “mental health first aid” and fill the gap while a person waits to receive professional help.
“...if a 'mate' was considering suicide, then they are at the point where they do require skilled professional help. It may be the mate that helps them get that help.”
BEC ADMITS that she’d never heard much about suicide and depression before her husband’s death. It’s for this reason she’s more determined than ever to be there for others in need.
“Suicide has been brushed under the carpet for too long and it’s the same with depression. Our aim is to get it out there that it’s ok to talk and it’s ok to ask someone if they are ok.”
Peter knows there are still concerns within the community, but is content to “keep plugging away and hopefully make inroads”. His hard work is beginning to pay off, as he explains of one success story:
“A lady in one of the local shops had noticed a fellow just behaving different to what he normally is and she said come over and have a cup of coffee with me, we’ll have a bit of a yak... They had a yak for about half an hour, three quarters of an hour and the fellow thanked her and went on his merry way.
“He came back three weeks later and thanked the lady... very passionately thanked the lady. She said ‘well we only had a cup of coffee’ and he said ‘no I was going to complete suicide and you saved my life.”
Peter wonders how many more people contemplating suicide are out there in his community.
“I don’t know. I know there could possibly be three or four and we’ve got to try and reach out to these people... make them realise that there’s more to life than maybe just that one problem that’s driving them, or number of problems, that’s driving them to even contemplate [suicide].”
IT'S NOT even a year old, but the Hay community is already reaping the benefits of the CASE committee, even amongst its own members.
“I have actually opened up to people about my experience in losing someone to suicide. My aim is if I can save one life, then to me my whole journey has been for a reason,” Bec says.
At the end of the day, Peter says small communities try to keep an eye on each other.
“It just hasn't been working in Hay lately and we need to get back on track.”
“We’ve got to try and educate the community and also the people suffering that it’s an illness, there shouldn’t be any stigma attached to suicide, get out there and talk about it.”
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