Leanne Koehler with the candles in St Matthew’s church in Albury that keep a permanent vigil for her daughter Aimee Lea. Picture: JOHN RUSSELL
A family locked in a battle of silence with “experts” watched helplessly and pleaded to be included as their daughter battled and ultimately lost her struggle with a mental illness that was never properly diagnosed.
The Koehlers speak to BRAD WORRALL about why they will draw on Aimee Lea’s precious memory to protect the lives of other young people.
ONE-hundred-and-twenty candles dance on the faintest movement of air in the grand church.
On their casings are messages of hope and words of despair. They celebrate life and echo grief.
In the dappled light of St Matthew’s in Albury the flickering flames cast a long shadow.
The candles are part memorial, part warning.
They celebrate the life of a young woman — a champion netballer, tomboy and mate whose six-year battle with depression came to a tragic end earlier this year.
They also remind all involved of how the system, designed to protect our most vulnerable, failed.
Aimee Lea Koehler phoned a crisis line at 2.30am in early March, desperately seeking help.
But it took another 15 hours before a counsellor phoned her Howlong family.
Mum Leanne says she knew in her heart that it was already too late, that her “beautiful angel” was gone.
With her older daughter, Laura, they made a mercy dash to Albury searching for Aimee.
She was found dead in her car at Albury Base Hospital that night.
Aimee would have been 21 yesterday.
Mrs Koehler says their hearts were broken but the family finds no comfort in blame.
She recalls her daughter’s life and battle with a mix of joy and tears — both come easily.
But she wants to tell the story to help others and to call for change.
She says her family were sidelined, the artificial barriers of privacy and confidentiality laws used by “experts” to justify their exclusion.
Mrs Koehler also believes there is a desperate need for an adolescent-only mental health centre on the Border.
The mother of three says they realised too late, their pleas and begging were falling on deaf ears.
She hopes others won’t make the same mistake.
“We believe that things could have been very different if we had been included,” she says.
“At first we didn’t understand what was happening and wanted to be involved as a family, wanted to work with the mental health department.
“But we felt they just pushed us away.
“We pleaded and begged to help but they just wouldn’t let us in.
“I never asked them what they were talking about, I understand that can’t happen, but I wanted them to talk to us, explain what was happening, how we could help.
“It was as if they were the ones with the certificates, who knew better.
“But at each crisis it wasn’t these people who were left to pick up the pieces, it was always us, the family.”
MRS Koehler remembers the former Howlong public school captain and Xavier High student as a happy-go-lucky girl, a tomboy who loved her sport whether it was netball, tennis or golf.
“She wanted to be like her friends but challenges came her way,” Mrs Koehler says.
“They never really diagnosed her problem, they said depression, discussed other issues but we never really knew.
“Aimee felt she had let us and her friends down —the stigma of mental illness saw her withdraw even further.
“As parents it was just so hard to watch this happen to our little girl.
“She would ask why this was happening to her but we also wanted to know why, just why and how did it get this far?”
A roller-coaster ride through institutions saw her spend time in a Box Hill establishment designed for adolescents.
“We thought that it would be better equipped to help Aimee deal with her problems,” Mrs Koehler says.
“But she struck up a friendship with a young boy who followed her back to the Border and ultimately took his own life.
“In the end she blamed herself for that, too.”
Aimee’s father, Wayne, said the experience also highlighted the failings of Nolan House, the psychiatric unit at Albury Hospital.
“That is no place for young people,” he says.
“It is a strange mix of people suffering mental illness that seems unable to cope with the demand.
“I don’t think her time there helped at all — in some ways I think it made things worse.”
The Koehlers found St Matthew’s in Albury by chance — a suggestion by the funeral directors and in recognition of the anticipated size of the congregation.
More than 600 people attended the service.
The candles were a flow-on from a school retreat, a personal expression of loss, anonymous or otherwise.
Father Peter MacLeod-Miller says they act as a reminder to all.
“Many people will tell you that this generation is detached but at that service and the far too many like it in recent years there is a great sense of loss, of love, of energy,” he says.
“Most young people know nothing of dying, they think they will live forever.
“But they understand that life can be better, they understand pain.
“These candles hopefully shed some light on that pain, make those people who matter in government and institutions take notice.”
THE family, that also includes sister Laura and brother Jay, say Aimee appeared to be on the right path.
“In the last six months Aimee was the best she had been,” Mrs Koehler says.
“That night she was down and just wanted the pain to go away for one night. She had called an access line, driven herself to the hospital when help didn’t come and that is where she was found.
“We want people to know that this can happen to anyone at any time.
“Aimee didn’t expect that this was going to happen to her; she had dreams like any other child.”
Mrs Koehler says not a day goes by where they don’t ask “what if?” or say “if only”.
“We don’t want sympathy, we do not want to be judged and, like Aimee, we just want understanding,” she says.
“We will work together to unite and make a difference and will continue to do so for our Aimee Lea and other beautiful young children.
“I watch Laura and Jay; their sadness, their feelings and know they are hurting so much but I am so proud of their strength and love for their family.
“I know they are also watching their mum and dad and feeling our sadness.
“How their lives have changed so much without their sister.
“I know Aimee loved us all so much and will always be looking over us and protecting us with her beautiful smile.
“It is hard and always will be but we will keep going just like Aimee did and we will find her strength and determination.
“She will always be in our hearts with lots of love.”