This time of year is always one of reflection as we approach World Suicide Prevention Day once more. I have previously shared my family story about suicide, however this time I’d like to provide some of the back story to what I believe may have driven my mother, Ann, and both her parents, William and Myrtle, to suicide.

Some of what I share is my take on the causes, as I wasn’t allowed to discuss my Grandmother’s suicide and I wasn’t born when my Grandfather died.

I’ll begin with the story of my Grandfather William. After the two World Wars, the Australian Government ran Repatriation  Programs, whereby parcels of land along the River Murray were opened for fruit growing, irrigation and construction projects and water control for the Riverland. The Government was focused on providing vocational support for returned servicemen, but was not focused on their mental health. The horrors these servicemen had seen was not seen as a potential health issue.

My Grandfather William and one of his brothers took up these vocational options, and they moved to the Riverland to set up their fruit blocks, with William heading to Berri. He took my Grandmother Myrtle there, and that is where my mother Ann and her two brothers, my uncles, were born.

During their time in Berri, William struggled with depression and did not experience the success he longed for for himself and his family.

Finding it hard to cope with his depression, he had an “accident” in which he sustained some serious injuries that required immediate hospitalisation and treatment. It was then, whilst still suffering depression and having received treatment for his injuries in Berri, he was transferred to Glenside, the hospital dedicated to addressing mental health issues. Sadly for William and his family, he died in Glenside a short time after, with the cause of death being listed as pneumonia, not as a result of his “accident”.

After William’s death, his family relocated from Berri to Rosewater, with my Grandmother Myrtle becoming the bread winner, working in the woolsheds of Rosewater as a cook. My mother Ann was the eldest of their children, so she helped with the raising of her two brothers whilst Myrtle worked. After my mum married my dad Bob, and my sister Leonie and I were born, we still remained a close knit family. We were so close in fact that we called my Grandmother Myrtle, Mum. She was the centre of the family, the real matriarch. It either all happened at Mum’s house, or she was in the midst of it, and organising for it to happen at someone else’s, even if it meant heading back up to the river for family reunions.

Myrtle was always a strong fit woman, so when she became unwell with a general malaise at age 66, her whole world started to spiral downward. She had never been sick in all the time I had known her, and she herself did not know what to do. Myrtle became increasingly depressed because of her illness, and it became apparent that she would need some extra assistance. Her doctor had spoken to her about spending some time in GlensideHospital also, just for a rest.

It was the month of November when these discussions were had. My Grandmother Myrtle told my mum that she wanted to do some Christmas shopping, before she was admitted to Glenside for her rest. During this shopping visit, Myrtle said to Ann that she needed to go to the ladies, and would be back. After waiting for a while, Ann became concerned for her mother, and began looking for Myrtle. She went to all of the centre’s toilet facilities, calling out for Myrtle, and Centre Management also put out a call through the Centre, but she was nowhere to be found.

Myrtle had left the Centre at some point soon after leaving my mother, and ventured to a nearby area where she suicided. She had decided that she did not want to be a burden on the family, and that she didn’t want to go to Glenside where her husband had died some years before. Seemingly without other options, she took her own life.

The very fact that she had died and was no longer here was devastating on the family. Further, many of our family and friends did not know the truth of her death. It was many years later when discussing our family with a cousin, that I told him the truth of Myrtle’s death. Even though he was many years my senior, his parents had decided not to tell him the truth at all.

For myself, I learned the truth slowly. I knew immediately that she had taken her own life, but I was unaware of the exact mechanism for some time.

My mother Ann was the hardest hit, and the guilt she felt was overwhelming. She blamed herself, as Myrtle was in her care when she suicided. My mother could not be convinced that it was not her fault, but that it was Myrtle’s decision. In her desperation and grief, my mother attempted suicide a couple of months after Myrtle suicided. Somehow during the process, she called for help, and was taken to Glenside for medical treatment.

Ann was in Glenside for about six months, receiving counselling and therapy for her depression. There were times I can recall where I hated going in to visit her. I was 17 years old at the time, and I can still remember the drab wards, the other patients who were all in similar states to her. The whole atmosphere felt just so wrong to me, it was as if the whole place was trying to drag me down too.

Mum continued to decline however, and there was a period of time where she did not recognise Dad or myself, and during some of these visits, she would sit shrivelled and shaking in the corner of the room on her cot, scared of the strangers who had entered her space.

She received ECT, electroshock therapy, as no other treatment was working or bringing her back to us. Eventually, between a combination of ECT and drugs, Ann came back to us, and was cleared from Glenside to return home. Dad and I, falsely I guess, believed that everything would now be ok. There was an extended period of adjustment when she returned home, but eventually we thought we had her back, and we were a family again. We had our challenges over the years that all families experience, but none of these caused Ann to become severely depressed again, or so we thought.

During this period, Leonie was living on site at Bedford Industries, and they were assisting her to develop the skills she needed to be able to live independently. She knew that Ann was in Glenside, but we kept Leonie’s visits there to a minimum, especially when Ann was at her worse, in an effort to protect or shelter her from the reality.

Time moved on. I married, and several years later, my wife and I had our first child. Ann loved her. Ann had worked her entire career with children, starting as the very first Teachers Aid in South Australia, and had always cared for the kids she worked with. Other family members had also had children, and had spoken of leaving the kids with the grandparents and the bonds that had developed between child and grandparent. Ann had been looking forward to this stage in her life for a long time and always ensured that there were books and activities in the house for our child.

Being a Grandmother did not fill her whole life, however. Around this time, a series of Government ads were released, advising that they were clamping down on Centrelink cheats, and that those taking advantage of the system would be caught and prosecuted. This sparked my mother to check her investments, and when she did so, she realised that both her and dad not declared to Centrelink the interest earned on some of their investments. I still do not know now why this had such a massive effect on her, but it became the breaking point for my mum.

I was unaware of the investment issue until my parents asked me over to have a chat. I think Dad had been trying to talk with Mum for a while, but she was not listening. When I got there, I could not believe what I was hearing from my mum. The consequences she believed were coming from her mistake were extraordinary. She was calling herself a cheat, saying that the police would come and arrest her, that they would take away the house, that there would be nothing left for the kids because the Government would take it all, and that all of their neighbours, friends and family, would spurn them because of the horrible crime she had committed.

I sat with her for a very long time, talking through all of these issues, trying to calm her down, to remove some of the deep seated fears that she was holding on to. When I left, I felt convinced that I had reached her, that she would let me help, and that first thing on the Monday morning, she would let me fix the issues with Centrelink, and that it would all be resolved.

I am so glad that the last thing I did before I left that night was to hold her close to me, and tell her just how important she was to me, and how much  loved her. That was to be the last time I would see her.

Sunday morning came, and to my father she appeared to be looking better, much calmer and more relaxed. She said to Dad that she wanted to go out for a drive for the day, to get some fresh air. She went to the river to feed the ducks while he had a shower. Dad became concerned when she did not return, and went out looking for her on foot, but could not find her. He called me, and told me that Ann was missing.

I jumped in my car, and drove to their place, extremely concerned and fearing the worst. Whilst I was driving, Dad had taken the car out to look for her, this time venturing further, and was stopped by the police who had blocked a nearby road. His heart sank. He knew. He spoke to the police, explaining his wife Ann was missing, and they informed him that there had been a body discovered on the banks of the river. They told him of the circumstances and this confirmed for my dad what he already knew deep down, that she was gone. There was no looking for her, no saving her, no chance for me to help and resolve some of the problems.

The police and the Coroners Office were all extremely supportive. Staff from both offices spent time with us, and helped us as much as they could. Due to the circumstances of my mother’s death, we had to wait about a week for her status to be changed from missing to deceased, and it was a little longer than that still before her remains could be released to the funeral home.

Even Centrelink were amazing when we went in to sort out the issues with them. It turned out that they do not even consider interest income when calculating a pensioner’s wealth; they were only concerned that you had declared all of your investments. Sadly, the issue that drove her over the edge was the issue that did not exist. There was no crime, no punishment, not even a fine for not declaring the interest. To us, she had taken her life for no reason.

So here we are, some years on, still grieving for her and trying to make sense of the events of our family’s history. Dad, Leonie and I still feel the loss of my mum from our lives. We were not even able to see her that one last time at the funeral, as hers had to be a closed casket. We were denied that one last chance to say goodbye.

As we draw closer to another World Suicide Prevention Day, I encourage everyone to hold your families and your parents dear to you. Tell your family you love them. Forgive each other the silly little things that happen, for when they are gone, we lose them forever, and it is too late then for what if’s and if only. 

For me and my family, it is important to consider how we stop this trend of suicide from repeating in our family? What steps do we each need to take? What are we doing to help ourselves, and how do we reduce, if not remove, the stigma associated with suicide?

We each need to do what we can; for ourselves, and for others.