Ballarat continues to be a city excessively impacted by the trauma of suicide.
With several high profile incidents in recent weeks, the community is banding together to repeat the message that it must talk about it and look after each other.
The Courier takes a look at some of the broader costs of this health issue, not only for sufferers but those who have to deal with it in serving the community.
Most of all, Ballarat is a community crying out for solutions to the complex mental health issues.
The good news is there are more and more programs and support groups to aid those who seek help but the path back to life must start with a frank recognition of the problem.
Community leaders and medical want everyone to take an active role in speaking openly with those who are close to them about the subject as the first step in an intervention that might avert a tragedy.
The help is there.
AN IN-DEPTH, cross-sectional push to dramatically reduce the state’s suicide rate has Ballarat in its central focus. Ballarat is a trial site for a government suicide prevention program, led by Western Victoria Primary Health Network, working to identify and fill the gaps in health and crisis support services across the region.
The pilot program aims to improve links between active suicide prevention work already in place, to reduce the rate of suicide and suicide attempts and improve community well-being.
Ballarat has the highest suicide rate in Victoria, which is the fourth highest rate of the nation’s biggest cities with 16.7 deaths per 100,000 people each year, according to a federal government snapshot released in December. This figure does not take into account the lag in coronial findings or unclear deaths.
The national average suicide rate is 11.8 deaths per 100,000. But data also showed 96 per cent of Ballarat people felt there was someone outside their household who could help – and this was the highest response nationwide.
The Victorian Government aims to halve the state’s suicide rate by 2025 from 624 lives lost in 2016 with investment in suicide prevention.
As part of this, Ballarat Health Services (including Horsham) was this week made part of the Hospital Outreach Post-suicidal Engagement program extension. HOPE reinforces practical outreach support for people leaving hospital after a suicide attempt.
BHS chief executive officer Dale Fraser said program would be tailored to individuals’ needs.
Ballarat and District Suicide Prevention Network will equip another 150 community members in alertness workshop safeTALK.
Lifeline program manager Michelle MacGillivray said it was vital everyone be encouraged to have open and honest conversations if concerned someone might be having thoughts of suicide.
Ask directly and be prepared to listen to listen to the answer without judgementMichelle MacGillivray, Lifeline program manager
“We’re not going to influence them by putting the thought into their mind. Most people just want someone to listen to them and listen to their pain.”
Ms MacGillivray made clear to stay with the person if they are having thoughts of suicide and link them to professional help, like Lifeline or a general practitioner. Anyone can also call Lifeline for advice in how to open a conversation: 13 11 14.
How Ballarat and beyond grapples with the ripple effect
As Ballarat comes to terms with an unusually high suicide rate, it also signals an ever-extending ripple effect, which organisations are trying to counter.
After two rail fatalities on Ballarat’s line within one week in August, thoughts moved to the impact it would have on unintended victims – transport workers, emergency services, witnesses.
Rail, Tram and Bus Union Victorian secretary Luba Grigorovitch said such rail fatalities happen “far too often”, with post traumatic stress disorder crippling drivers, inspectors who attend the scene, cleaners and human resource workers.
“One fatality is obviously awful for the person that has suicided, but it affects so many more lives,” she said. “From what I’m told, it’s the scariest thing that any driver can think of.
“There’s a lot of after-effects that come with it … their sleep is absolutely affected afterwards, because they keep seeing it happening and reliving it.”
She said in 2015, the union secured up to ten days of trauma leave for all transport workers, separate from annual leave and sick leave.
“I have to give credit where credit is due, V/Line and Metro came up to the plate when we said to them, ‘hey, it’s not just the driver that this affects’.”
Closer to home, Ballarat residents have been willing to share their grief in displays of solidarity and strength.
Walking Off The War Within is an annual event founded in memory of Ballarat firefighter Nathan Shanahan, who lost his battle to PTSD in 2016. The walk presents a powerful motto – walk as one to share the burden.
The Stomp out the Stigma Cup, played the honour of footy fanatic Matt Steenhuis who died by suicide 13 years ago, is an initiative sparked by his wife and Survivors of Suicide founder Kristy Steenhuis.
As the chairperson of the Ballarat and District Suicide Prevention Network, Leading Senior Constable Des Hudson said it was important to be frank about suicide as the city tries to understand why it’s so prevalent here.
There are more completed suicides in every state than the road tollLeading Senior Constable Des Hudson
“And the facts are we have a higher rate than other areas.”
“We need to discuss the topics and begin to talk about suicide and ideology, and try and take away the stigma.”
Terrifyingly, the suicide rate in Ballarat – which is considered the highest of any city in Victoria – could be worse than recorded.
Leading Senior Constable Hudson previously told The Courier that suicide rates were always complex to definitively gauge due to lags in coronial findings, and the fact is that for some deaths, it would always be unclear.
The network’s annual Beat ‘N’ The Blues fundraiser will return on August 25.
Emergency services live with the hidden cost of suicide
EMERGENCY services say you never get used to suicide, regardless of how many times you have seen it.
While the family of a victim undoubtedly goes through the most when a loved one chooses to take their own life, for respondents, be they police, fire, ambulance or the SES, the after effects live on day-to-day.
For police, while they understand that death is part of the job, for many first respondents, suicide is hitting hard.
Recently, police have attended two suspected suicides on the Ballarat train line.
Inspector Trevor Cornwill said while dealing with immediate aftermaths was tough, the hardest part for officers was delivering the devastating news to family.
“You become emotionally invested in helping family through what is the most difficult time,” he said.
“It takes a lot of effort to compose yourself when delivering the death message. It has an enormous impact on the members. We had a recent example working alongside the SES where we had to walk the track, we had to gather evidence, it’s incredibly hard for everyone involved.”
Inspector Cornwill said police were getting better at understanding signs of concern in their officers.
Your body is a cup and if you keep adding drops to it, eventually it becomes full
“We’re getting better at it in the police force. We’ve got a great police psychology area, it’s important members can discuss the trauma in the first 48 hours,” he said.
“It can be very difficult to talk to colleagues and family members about what you have seen.”
Inspector Cornwill said in his 30 years of policing he had seen numerous occasions of post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and even the loss of members to suicide.
“There has always been a thought to just get on with the job,” he said.
“I wouldn’t say that police are now more sensitive than we used to be, but it is about providing treatment along the way.”
Ballarat has one of the highest suicide rates in the country
“I don’t know why it is, it’s a combination of factors coming together,” he said.
“It has been discussed that in Europe winter seems to be a higher rate, lack of sunlight can leads to feelings of depression and can cause issues. There’s not doubt people feel happier in summer.
“We also have high family violence rates in Ballarat, there’s also historical incidents with institutions that must play a factor, the unemployment rate, modern pressure on life.”
He said while there was no set group most at risk, men aged in their 40s and sadly, teenagers were among the groups police saw often.
“The pressure on kids is far greater now than when i was growing up, there’s always a lot of bullying on social media,” he said.
“It’s good to see people in the community are more willing to discuss suicide.
“Years ago nobody spoke about it, by talking about it, it adds more awareness and hopefully it will prompt more to get help.
“Suicide was a criminal offence, not anymore. It’s accepted today as a health condition.”
Ballarat SES deputy controller Craig Elliott said peer support was always the key to getting through difficult situations.
“The best support is the person you work with, they are the first people involved and you have to always looks after each other,” he said.
Greg has a space for Ballarat men to share their feelings – or not
TALK or not talk. Men’s Circle facilitator Greg Govinda does not mind. It does intrigue him though, why men are less willing to share their feelings.
Mr Govinda is putting it out there that he will show up in Ballarat, lead with a mindfulness exercise and open a safe place for men to speak without interruption.
Men’s Circle started in Daylesford, where he lives, last October and he has fielded strong interest in Ballarat.
“There is a little cross-section of people who come along. Most are ready, they’re aware they need a little help. It is interesting when they talk, it’s like they’ve been waiting for years,” Mr Govinda said. “...We’re not in a hurry, you don’t have to talk. It will happen when the timing is right.”
Mr Govinda has informally studied male psychology and well-being for about 40 years. He said he had experienced plenty of life’s hurdles from heartbreak and homelessness to grief and depression.
He felt men had generally become confused about who they had to be through history, moving from chivalry and stoic expectations to uncertainty about whether or how to be sensitive and honest.
The group aims to create a place for men to share what is important to them without pressures or judgement. Others are there just to listen.
Mr Govinda uses a talking stick so each man has his chance to speak freely and be heard.
Each session also includes sitting in peace, learning how to find this when life gets busy.
“The main principles are respect for themselves and each other, confidentiality and harmlessness,” Mr Govinda said.
Daylesford’s Men’s Circle continues to surprise Mr Govinda how quickly participants grow in the sessions. In turn, he has learned a lot in facilitating the sessions.
Mr Govinda will host an information session for men, aged 18-plus, at Phoenix Studio (101 Sturt Street) on Wednesday, 6.30-8.30pm. He said this was a way men could see if the sessions were for them.
It’s never too late to seek support
You are not alone.
There are a wide variety of numbers you or friends and family can call for crisis support and professional help.
Lifeline: 13 11 14 or lifeline.org.au
Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636 or beyondblue.org.au
headspace Ballarat for youth: 5304 4777 or eheadspace.org.au
Kids Help Line: 1800551800
Suicide Callback Service: 1300 659 467
MensLine: 1300 789 978 or mensline.org.au
Ballarat and District Suicide Prevention Network: suicidepreventionBallarat.com.au
QLife: 1800 184 527 (support for LGBTI community.)
Emergency Services: 000 (triple zero)
SANE Helpline: 1800 187 263 (talk to a mental health professional weekdays, 10am-10pm)
Have you signed up to The Courier's daily newsletter and breaking news emails? You can register below and make sure you are up to date with everything that's happening in Ballarat