IN the summer school holidays of 1985, Karissa Lewis's mother took her own life.
Ms Lewis was 10 years old. Her sister was 12. Her brother was three.
"She was a single mother, and she struggled with mental illness for many years," Ms Lewis said. "She was in and out of psychiatric hospitals. She seemed to have a mental health episode about every two years."
Ms Lewis said yesterday marked 35 years since her mother was found.
"We went to dads for the holidays, and it was the first time we all went," she said.
"Mum suicided the next day... In 1985, we certainly didn't talk about suicide. At all. We were told to tell everyone she'd had a heart attack."
Ms Lewis, who now works at Lifeline, has shared her story as new figures show suicide rates have risen in the Hunter New England Health region. The HealthStats NSW data shows there have been 1675 suicides within Hunter New England in the past 17 years. In 2017, the rates per population were the highest they have been since 2001.
The region's suicide rates have been higher than the state average since 2012.
Ms Lewis said growing up as a "child of suicide" was "bloody tough".
"We went to live with dad," she said.
"It was never spoken of.
"There wasn't any photos of her around the house. It was like she had just gone, like someone had hit 'delete'.
"There were no school counsellors, none of that stuff... You knew you were lying about what happened, but you didn't know why.
"Was it tough? Yeah. Big time. Mother's Day stalls, all of that stuff, was really tough.
"Thankfully, we are talking about it all more now, and there are a lot more services - like Lifeline - there to help.
"We have great teachers and schools now who are reaching out for some 'Mental Health 101'."
Ms Lewis said that for a long time, people assumed she must have been angry at her mother.
"My mother took her life because she thought our lives were better without her in it, which is obviously completely incorrect," she said. "But that's how she felt. And that is so sad in itself."
She said many people were unaware of the local services available.
Lifeline had training programs, such as Mind Your Mates, which offered a "quick introduction" to mental health in the workplace.
"People still don't know Lifeline does face-to-face counselling services out of Newcastle, and that you don't need a referral, that you can walk in off the street," she said. "So if you are in the middle of a personal crisis, we are here.
"Every single call we take here on our crisis line is a call for help. We save lives."
Mr Bryant, the suicide prevention program manager at Everymind, said the statistics validated that more needed to be done, and would be done, in suicide prevention. But it was a long term strategy that could "take a while" to be reflected in statistical information.
"Zero is the only acceptable number when it comes to suicide rates for our region, our state, and for Australia nationally, and that is what we are working towards," he said. "Suicide is complex. There is often no single reason. There is often multiple issues going on in someone's life, and contributing factors, which is why we have multi-faceted, universal prevention."
He said while the statistics made for "uncomfortable reading", there was a lot of evidence-informed and evidence-based strategies in place locally, state-wide, and nationally to address the rising suicide rates.
"We have never seen suicide prevention be of more importance, with a national suicide prevention taskforce appointed last year as part of addressing rates throughout the country," he said.
Mr Bryant said a recent study commissioned by Beyond Blue had shown more than 60-to-70 per cent of the population felt they couldn't do anything for anyone in a suicidal crisis.
"The evidence, actually, is the opposite," he said. "We know that just by someone knowing a few simple tips on how to respond to someone in distress can significantly reduce their psychological distress and their ideation in that moment. We want communities to be more actively involved in suicide prevention... We have an opportunity through campaigns like You Can Talk to encourage communities to engage with resources that have been developed so they can learn how to respond to warning signs."
Dr Scott Fitzpatrick, a research fellow at the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health at the University of Newcastle, said suicide data did tend to fluctuate.
"It is a very complex problem," he said.
"Historically we have seen ebbs and flows over the past 100 years. There was a particular spike around the 1960s, particularly among women, when barbiturate medications - like Valium - became very popular.
"It is very difficult to find causality."
Dr Fitzpatrick said people working in the suicide prevention sector were armed with more resources than ever.
"The Prime Minister has set up a national taskforce to address the issue," he said. "So never before have we had so many resources and people mobilised working at the issues.
"Sometimes the data doesn't tell us enough. It tells us how many people have died by suicide, but it's not telling us who those people are.
"NSW are looking at building a suicide register, and that will collect much more informative data about suicide.
"And that has been long called for."
Lifeline 13 11 14.
- For community information on how to support someone who may be suicidal, please visit: www.lifeinmindaustralia.com.au/YouCanTalk
- For communities and individuals impacted by the ongoing Bushfire crisis, please visit: https://www.lifeinmindaustralia.com.au/mental-health-support-for-bushfire-affected-communities
- PHNHNECC work in this space: https://www.hneccphn.com.au/programs-resources/suicide-prevention-programs/
- Conversations Matter resources: https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/lifeinmind/assets/src/user-uploads/Conversations-Matter-when-communities-are-affected-by-suicide.pdf
While you're with us, did you know the Newcastle Herald offers breaking news alerts, daily email newsletters and more? Keep up to date with all the local news - sign up here
IN NEWS TODAY
- 'We've totally dropped the ball on this': former Hunter coal industry worker on climate change
- Man charged over alleged sexual abuse of young girl at Raymond Terrace
- The last drop: government puts its faith in Hunter River water modelling
- Man charged after weapons haul allegedly found in Cardiff home
- Hunter Photography Prize 2020: a look at some of the entries