‘It was the worst day of our lives’: Bereaved parents say we must talk about youth suicide

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By ANDREA THIIS-EVENSEN

This story is part of MOJO News campaign #HearMeOut to have a Federal Minister for Suicide Prevention appointed *

As John Bradley kept vigil by his daughter’s hospital bed for six days he did nothing but hope she would open her eyes, smile at him and give her father a big, long hug.

Instead, he sat by her side for six long days until his daughter’s life support was turned off and she took her last breath, while holding her father’s hand.

What made everything so hard to comprehend was how beautiful, flame-haired Heather Bradly had chosen to end her life, at the age of 26.

“You just don’t expect it to happen to your own children. It’s not the right course of events to bury your child,” Mr Bradley said.

“She had a history of self-harming, it all started after her mother died, she blamed herself for her mother’s death,” he said.

After also losing his daughter Mr Bradley felt alone, he felt like he couldn’t mention her name around people, but one day he went to a suicide support group, and everything changed.

“It made me feel secure that it wasn’t on my own, and it was a place where I could mention Heather’s name.”

Father and daughter, John and Heather. PHOTO: supplied.

The Compassionate Friends is a support group for parents and siblings of a child who has died. At the meetings, Mr Bradley carries a nametag, and under his own name, it reads: ‘Heather, 26’.

Ever since the day he walked through those doors, Mr Bradley has dedicated his life to helping other parents who have gone through the same as him.

He is now the President of Compassionate Friends Australia.

John wears a name tag with a picture of daughter Heather to every meeting. PHOTO: Andrea Thiis-Evensen

Suicide is the leading cause of death for Australian children, last year, more than 100 Australians under the age of 17 took their own life.

Suicide rates among Australian youth are increasing, despite 20 years of suicide prevention strategies and government investment.

Kids Helpline service manager Tony Fitzgerald said more must be done in terms of suicide prevention for young people.

“Something we are seeing is that there is an increasing contact from kids that are younger and younger,” Mr Fitzgerald said.

Jenny Purvis lost her son Stephen to suicide when he was 15 years old. Two years earlier, when he was just 13, he had his first attempt.

“You don’t think a 15 year-old would have those thoughts and not show us, but he must have just felt so helpless that life didn’t offer him any joy,” she said.

“The take away is that you really don’t know what’s happening inside someone’s head, we were trusting parents.”

Compassionate Friends supports parents and siblings of a child who has died. PHOTO: Andrea Thiis-Evensen

Ms Purvis is now the facilitator for the parent-of-suicide group with Compassionate Friends and says parents tended to blame themselves.

“You need to believe that you gave your child all that you could, and, really believe that, but (it) is hard to do,” she said.

“It’s really important knowing that your love for your child was true, believe that what you gave them was enough.”

After Stephen’s first attempt he phoned the Kids Helpline, an organisation which has answered more than 8 million calls from children and young people since 1991.

The Kids Helpline responds to a call from a child or young person every 1.8 minutes. 17 per cent of these calls concern someone seeking help for issues surrounding suicide and suicidal thoughts.

Mr Fitzgerald said there has been an increase in suicide-related contacts, which has increased three per cent since 2012.

“We need to take a community approach and have a look at all those different areas where young people are interacting and what trust and support can be made available for them,” he said.

The picture wall of members’ loved ones greets you as you walk into the office of Compassionate Friends. PHOTO: Andrea Thiis-Evensen

Schools have been identified as a significant source of stress for young people, which can contribute to anxiety and depression.

According to the Black Dog Institute, problems at school has been ranked as the second most-significant issue of concern for young people aged 15-19.

A survey carried out in June highlighted a major gap between the needs of children and young people in Victorian schools – and the resources required to meet those needs.

Teachers expressed their concerns at the difficulty in accessing the support and services to meet the growing incidence of mental health issues among the student body.

Heather Rigby’s son, Shannon, had just finished high school and was about to embark on a gap year. On Valentine’s day 2015, soon after turning 18, he came home late at night with a group of friends. The next day, he vanished.

Ms Rigby and her husband went to the police station after he had been gone for hours, and reported him missing. Police officers sat the parents down and told them a young man had been found dead.

“When we were told it was him, I was just numbed and my husband was screaming on the floor. All I could think about was how I had to go and tell his twin brother,” Ms Rigby said.

“We just did what we had to for the next few months, you take it minute by minute, the whole world goes down to surviving the next hour, surviving the next 10 minutes.

“It was the worst day of our lives.”

Mr Rigby stood up during Shannon’s funeral and told everyone that they have to ‘talk to everyone, talk to your neighbour, your dog, everyone’.

“Suicide is a terrible blight on society, we can’t keep this under the carpet, we can’t be ashamed,” Ms Rigby said.

Shannon was a seemingly happy teenager, always surrounded by friends. PHOTO: Supplied (Heather Rigby).

“From a parent’s side, you just think that it’s your job to protect your children, and to think that he couldn’t be in his life is very hard to live with as a mumma.”

There are things to look out for as parents, if your child stops doing what they love, starts talking about death, or cuts themselves off from others.

But then, there are the signs of someone who is just a teenager – young people who talk less to their parents, change their activities, get easily frustrated.

“He had none of the signs people were talking about, he had the most fulfilled life, the best social life, biggest number of friends,” Ms Rigby said.

“Everyone said he was there for them mentally and emotionally, he put himself out there for people he barely knew, no one knew he was suffering.”

Sandra Green is another bereaved parent. She lost her son Jarrod when he was 21 years old, just after he moved out of home.

“When Jarrod died it was like a part of me had gone as well, I wasn’t the same person as I used to be,” Ms Green said.

“It’s just an initial shock when you get that telephone call from the police, or a knock on the door to tell you that your child had died by suicide.

“It’s a horrible nightmare. It’s a shock.

“I felt very alone in my world, that no one understood how I was feeling, no family or friends really got it, what it was like to have lost a child to suicide.”

Ms Green attended a suicide support group with the Compassionate Friends, just like John Bradly had.

“It was a great relief knowing I was in a room where everyone else there had been through the same and would understand what I was going through,” she said.

“I think the lived-experience of these people at Compassionate Friends was what helped me, I felt like they were my family.”

Ms Green started volunteering for Compassionate Friends in 2003 and has worked with the organisation ever since.

Sandra Green always carries a picture of her son Jarrod. PHOTO: Andrea Thiis-Evensen

“I was getting stronger in my grief and could then help other people and explain to them how you get better over time,” Ms Green said.

Ms Rigby said people often can’t even mention the word “suicide”, and that there should be a toll for suicides kept, similar to the National Road Toll, to highlight how many Australians die by suicide each year.

“We gotta change it, it was a taboo thing, and it’s becoming less stigmatised, but we still have a long way to go.”

* Please sign MOJO News’ petition to have a Federal Minister for Suicide Prevention appointed here.
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