ANNETTE and Stuart Baker's 15-year-old daughter Mary died by suicide in March 2011.
The Bakers are here today for two reasons: they want to help others suffering similar ineffable grief and they hope that by speaking out about suicide, they might influence anyone considering ending their own life to reconsider, reach out and find another path out of despair.
On the night of June 21 this year, they were the driving force behind an extraordinary community event organised by a group called Survivors of Suicide and Friends that youth mental health expert Pat McGorry believes could be the genesis of a national and even international movement to support those who have lost someone to suicide.
The former Australian of the Year and many other mental health practitioners believe suicide has been shrouded in silence and stigma for far too long. Fears that talking about suicide will trigger similar thoughts in people who might be vulnerable are misplaced, they say.
They suggest that by talking about mental ill-health and suicide carefully, people will be more aware that support is available and recovery achievable. They argue that community discussion will help remove stigma. Revised guidelines by the Australian Press Council reflect the experts' position.
The evening of June 21 is symbolic. It is the winter solstice, the longest night, after which the days slowly become brighter.
McGorry spoke at the event in the Bakers' home city of Albury. The chief executive of Suicide Prevention Australia, Sue Murray, also spoke. So did Jennifer Watterson, another person who has lost someone she loved to suicide. Celebrated singer Archie Roach performed, as did the Albury High School Choir and Drama Group. About 1000 people braved the freezing night.
As those there attest and as a stirring video of the night shows, it was a time to remember, honour and talk about those who had died by suicide, and about those left to struggle with that reality. It was a time to weep and wonder, to share and support - and to break the silence.
The Bakers will be online today from noon for an hour to answer questions and comments from the audience. Go to http://www.theage.com.au/federal-politics/the-zone
They believe it is crucial for the community at large and for those who have been touched by suicide to talk about the issue. Annette: "It is important to talk because it helps with healing. If a grieving family are to have any hope of healing, they must be able to talk about their experience, whether it is a mother, father, brother, sister, wife, husband, friend."
Stuart: "It is a very, very heavy burden to carry and the more times you articulate what you have been through or how you are feeling, it just eases the load a little bit and shares that burden around. The encounters that we have had over the time have been really helpful. People just being normal and friendly with empathy and concern goes a long way to helping."
Annette and Stuart are offering to share the knowledge and experience they gained through organising and experiencing the solstice event. Should you wish to contact them, their email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Annette: "If there were people wanting to do what we have done, I would love to hear from them because I would love to see this evening, the winter solstice, being a night for survivors of suicide and for friends and communities. Quite obviously communities would do it as their own community; it wouldn't be the same as what we did. Anyone could do it. It doesn't need to be a complicated evening."
Mary's death triggered groundbreaking, award-winning coverage of suicide by The Border Mail.
What had been planned as a week-long series of articles became a month-long campaign to raise awareness and to support those suffering the loss of someone from suicide. It evolved into another campaign - for a headspace centre to be located in Albury. Headspace is a national online, drop-in and telephone support service for young people experiencing mental health problems including depression, anxiety, eating disorders and self-harm.
The effort was successful; headspace will soon open in Albury, a development welcomed by Annette and Stuart, who believe Mary did not receive adequate professional support.
Without any bitterness, Annette says: "Health workers - whether it be a psychiatrist, psychologist, paediatrician, GP - all need to get better. School teachers and school counsellors, too."
Suicide is the biggest killer of our young people, although efforts to increase mental health resources and early intervention have started to reduce the numbers. Last year, almost 300 people between the ages of 15 and 24 died by suicide, many of them, like Mary Baker, in rural and regional Australia.
Mary's tragedy began in her first year of secondary school. While recovering from surgery for a tooth abscess, she developed a severe virus. She was so debilitated she lost a lot of weight, and then developed a chronic eating disorder that caused her to be hospitalised. She struggled for three years, suffering depression, about which she wrote insightfully and movingly in her poetry and prose. In her day-to-day life, though, she kept the extent of her mental and emotional struggle largely hidden.
Another way Annette and Stuart might help others is through guidance on how to respond to those suffering the loss of someone who has died by suicide. Many people find it difficult talking about death per se, let alone suicide.
The Bakers' fundamental message is that it is important to allow those who have lost someone to speak about it when and how they need to speak about it. Don't tell them you know how they feel, for each person's reaction is unique. Just be there to listen, talk, cry, embrace.
They say that after Mary's funeral, they were flat for a long while, which is not uncommon. They received a letter from a woman whose child had died by suicide. The woman wrote: "The silence after burial is hard to take."
"We are teaching people how to do I," Annette says. "And if that is the case, I am happy to do that. But people who have died by suicide need to be respected as well. They are not selfish people. They are people who have obviously been unwell. And then the people left behind have their struggles."
"Try to just be normal if possible," Stuart adds. "But do not shy away from the topic, and acknowledge it where required. It's probably like you would with any other less-difficult death. We are probably getting better at what to say about the cancer death or a road accident death or an old-age death."
Support does not have to be expressed in words. At a recent dinner, Stuart and an old friend were seated on opposite sides of a crowded table in a restaurant, and so could not talk about intimate things. At one point, Stuart rose to find the toilet. His friend got up too, and tenderly rubbed Stuart on his shoulders. It spoke volumes.
And so did Mary Baker's writing. Not long before she died, Mary put together an anthology of poetry, called Out of the Shadows, which looked at the tribulations of mental illness. The project, part of her school work, gained a mark of 100 per cent and included Mary's analyses of the poems, which included one by the esteemed Les Murray, who has written about his depression.
In a letter to Annette and Stuart and their sons, Jack and Henri, Murray wrote: "Your daughter/sister Mary was obviously brilliant, sensitive beyond her years, with gifts that deserved to attain their full expression . . . May God show her the mercy her illness denied to her."
Two of the poems in Out of the Shadows were by Mary. In First Impressions, she writes of depression. Part of the poem reads:
"I used to be stronger
And you would grow but I could fight you off. Briefly.
But it began to build up. Consuming me.
And I am trapped.
There is nothing left inside me that you do not now own.
Stop. I want to get out."
Mary's analysis of her poem ends: "Depression causes a poor quality of life and can haunt a person for extreme lengths of time, sometimes never ending or becoming so severe that the sufferer no longer desires to live.
"It is not something anyone should have to encounter but it is a topic that cannot be avoided because sadly it is all too common. But this doesn't have to be the case. Aimed to promote awareness, I wrote this poem in the hope of a brighter future."
By having the courage and compassion to speak and act, Annette and Stuart Baker are seeking to help others have such a future.
For help or information call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251 or Lifeline on 131 114, or visit beyondblue.org.au