N.B Trigger Warning – Depression, Suicide
This piece reflects my personal experience in dealing with mental health issues with a family member. It does not reflect all experiences of mental health amongst individuals and families.
November 19th, 2011. 7:30am. It was just over a month before I was due to leave for Vancouver, Canada for six months on exchange.
Dad called. It was early but unbeknownst to me he’d been up all night. On the phone he was quick to his point, a different tact to his usual long-winded lawyer talk. He spoke with something I couldn’t pinpoint until the words came out.
“Your sister is in hospital. She attempted suicide. She’s ok, sorry I couldn’t call you earlier.”
I rushed out some meaningless words, put my phone away and left for work.
My younger sister, Katie suffered from depression for almost three years. For that time, I was living in Canberra, whilst she was in high school in Sydney. In the summer of 2011-2012, we had a conversation that will stay with me for life. It was the first time she had ever shared her real thoughts to me, shown her vulnerable side and engaged with these negative thoughts with someone else. To her, nothing mattered anymore. Life had lost meaning, social connections were fraught with anxiety and it had started to get too much. On that night in a holiday house on Hyams Beach, she made me swear to not tell my parents, not tell her friends; to not tell anyone that could potentially help her.
Having someone who is close to you live with poor mental health, whether it be a short period or for an extended time is a tough experience. It’s difficultly intertwines with the complex set of emotions that are felt, and the respective actions that are taken. When my sister first brought to me how she felt, I felt caught. Was it worth the risk to keep it a secret and know that she could trust me? Or was it better to lose that and protect her health and wellbeing? I chose the former.
In the period between this first confession and her suicide attempt, Katie and I had many conversations about how she felt, and that it wasn’t getting any better. In these months, I had a few brief phone calls to my parents where I suggested that they needed to take what she was saying and doing seriously. I couldn’t have asked for a more receptive and timely response from them, but it certainly took a toll on all of our relationships with one another.
Self-care for those who have family members or friends who are experiencing poor mental health is so important. If you’re not in a position where you can manage how you’re feeling, being there for someone else becomes infinitely more difficult. I was never in the capacity to be a carer for my Katie; the physical distance between us meant I was only witness to some of what she and my parents experienced.
Katie’s recovery was up and down. There were days where she felt as bad as she did when she was really down, but there were moments, increasing periods of time where she was able to conceptualise a life outside of her depression and anxiety. One part of this was speaking out for women her age. She appeared in the documentary, “I am a Girl”, a movie about the lives of six different young women across the globe. Through this, Katie demonstrated the strength in sharing experiences with mental health. She showed to others that there was and is nothing to be ashamed about.