A parents’ pain as depression takes another young life

It’s the illness we don’t talk about, but depression is killing double the number of young people today than it did 10 years ago.

Perry Williams was a bright, charismatic, talented hockey player who took his own life last week. 

His family share their raw and painful story to raise awareness of the “undiagnosed cancer” of depression. 

A family’s message: Have the tough chats

A grieving mother says her son’s depression was so deep he transformed from a charismatic, charming boy to a soulless man who saw no way out of his darkness.

Angela and Grahame Williams are not shying away from a tough subject. 

Their son, Perry Williams, died by suicide last week. He was 18-years-old. 

At his best Perry was outgoing, chatty, bubbly. He had a passion for hockey and video games. He dreamed of becoming a robotics engineer. 

On his darkest days Perry went for long periods without sleep or food. He withdrew from hockey and stopped caring for himself, those close to him, and his dog.

Angela describes her son’s debilitating illness as an undiagnosed cancer that broke his mind. Angela and Grahame can see no clear trigger of the disease that engulfed Perry’s mind for three years. 

Perry’s resilience was a strength – until he became too strong, too good at locking in the pain. There were little moments that Grahame and Angela could tap into their son’s mind and speak openly. 

When Perry was learning to drive he and his mum would have long chats. But the older Perry grew, the less frequent they became.

Angela and Grahame are sharing their story in the hope that other families will not have to go through the pain of losing a son this way. 

“Why did he take his life? We will never know, but depression is a serious illness that can affect everyone,” Angela said.

“Depression has best been described by a sufferer as being locked in a windowless room, it’s dark and there’s a feeling of being unable to let the light in.” 

There were moments that Perry would appear to enjoy himself, but he rejected these moments, seemingly determined to remain sad.

“It was almost like a protection – because he didn’t want to feel. Things that used to give him joy, didn’t give joy,” Angela said. 

Angela and Grahame are calling for more support for parents who can see their child falling through the cracks but don’t know what to do. In a heartfelt eulogy Grahame called on Perry’s family and friends not to be blind to signs of depression.

“Watch, see, notice, talk and listen. Do not avoid the tough conversation. Do not yield to the barriers that are put up. Seek help and seek guidance,” he said. 

Grahame and Angela found themselves feeling helpless – watching their son fall to pieces, but feeling unable to save him.  Perry refused to see a doctor towards the end. He would not seek help and spent most of his time inside his room. 

“The way Perry manifested his pain is that he would not sleep. There were days and days were he would not sleep. It wasn’t like you could ring and say my son was bleeding,” Angela said.

Perry’s resilience meant he could put on a face, he could convince people he was okay.

“Perry’s pain, Perry’s problem was not obvious. He would work with me every day in the office – he would be happy and attentive he would be everything he needed to be,” Grahame said. 

There were windows of opportunities that Grahame feels he could have spoken to his son. 

“(But I always thought) how do I deal with that?  When he was happy I avoided the subject because he was happy and I wanted him to stay there.” 

The family has been buoyed by the wave of community support since Perry’s death. They want everyone in the community to know where to reach for help. To know who to speak to and to recognise the signs of depression. 

“Do I think we can solve this issue? No. But we can make people aware, between professional people, parents and sporting groups,” Angela said.

“Hopefully we can work towards making it better and improving the odds.”

If they can spare one family from experiencing the eternal grief they will never be free of, they will feel a sense of peace.

‘Our chance to make a change’: clubs

Sporting clubs must step up and do more to ensure the young men and women in their clubs know how to access mental health support, a club leader says.

Eureka and Golden City hockey club president Jeff Sly says the suicide death of player Perry Williams has left a gaping hole in the close-knit hockey community. 

“Perry’s death has clearly effected our club enormously,” Mr Sly said.

“There is  real feeling of disbelief that Perry couldn’t find someone to talk to share his pain with.” 

Perry, who played representative hockey for WestVic, was a leader. He coached juniors and was a well-respected senior. 

“By the number of people at his funeral you could see he was loved and respected. It breaks our hearts that he didn’t realise that.” 

An Orygen report found clusters of suicide were far more likely to occur among youths than adults. Mr Sly said Perry’s suicide was a “genuine wake-up call for the club” and would drive its leaders to do more to ensure young people felt supported.

“(Mental health) has to be a greater focus for the club. One of our roles as a club is helping those who are at-risk. It is a genuine wake-up call and we have to look at what we can do,” Mr Sly said.

“One of things that is really obvious is that Perry’s happiest times were when he was playing hockey. We need to be providing support not only in season but also outside of the season.” 

Immediately, the club is providing counselling to its players. In the long-term it hopes to establish more social gathering to engage young people. Psychologists have already extended services to the club, but Mr Sly said leaders needed to make sure they understood the signs of depression and knew where to direct players and members who might need assistance.

Rising rates of youth suicide

We simply cannot afford to let the nation’s youth suicide crisis go unnoticed. 

Experts have called for the community to stand up and take notice. 

Young men and women are taking their lives at a higher rate than 10 years ago. 

A third of all young people who die between 15-24 years-of-age die by suicide. While twice as many young women took their own lives in 2015 than in 2005, Orygen research shows. 

“Suicide rates among young Australians are at their highest in 10 years and rates among young women have doubled during this time,” head of Orygen’s suicide prevention Dr Jo Robinson said.

“We simply cannot afford for this to continue and a new approach to suicide prevention is clearly needed.”

Young people are also self-harming at an alarming rate, with one in four young women aged 16–17 years having self-harmed in their lifetime.

“Young people told us loud and clear that we should be less afraid to talk openly about suicide, including in school settings,” Dr Robinson said.

Beyond Blue’s research and evaluation leader Dr Stephen Carbone said signs of depression and anxiety were sometimes hard to spot as they build up and are gradually accumulated over a period of time.

“Some of the changes are often subtle and progress over a period,’ Dr Carbone said.

“The core symptoms of depression are a deterioration in mood – (someone might be) sad and unhappy and blue and almost a bit empty day after day.”

There is an associated loss of interest, pleasure and enjoyment in usual activities. The person starts to be more moody, irritable and then withdraw. 

But for parents and friends it is often hard to pick up on a loved one’s depression. 

“It can be confusing for parents trying to understand what’s going on,” Dr Carbone said.

“The key thing is – it’s reasonable and important to check in and enquire.

“One of the best places to start is to express a concern –  maybe, that they’re not going out as much as usual, don’t seem as happy as usual.

“It important to think about opening the door (to conversation). It’s sometimes about being a good listener. Making it clear you’re interested that you care about finding solutions.” 

Sometimes these actions won’t work. The young person won’t be accepting, this means it’s time, Dr Carbone said, to ramp up involvement. If needed, call mental health support lines.

Sometimes, as a last resort, a critical assessment team needs to be called.

“If a person is not willing to be seen – there is a CAT team and that is there. Sometimes a last resort is what can be life saving.” 

Who to call for help? 

The only way to reduce the occurrence of suicide is to talk about it, leaders say. 

Lifeline Ballarat program manager Michelle MacGillivray previously told The Courier people need to start having more open conversations with family, friends and colleagues.

“It's raising our awareness about when we recognise when somebody may be in distress and working out how to approach them and encourage them to seek help,” Ms MacGillivray said. 

She said it was particularly important to ensure men reached out to services as traditionally they are far less likely to speak out than females. 

Lifeline is continuing to invest in new resources and will roll out a text-line this year. The current online chat model allows the service to engage with a different, younger demographic than the traditional phone model. 

DO YOU NEED HELP?

For 24/7 support, contact:

Lifeline 13 11 14

beyondblue 1300 224 636

RUOK? ruok.org.au

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