Actor and cancer campaigner Samuel Johnson “didn’t know how to handle” speaking at Albury-Wodonga’s Winter Solstice, so he decided to read a letter.
Written to “a person who changed my life” called Merrill, Johnson described learning of a poet featured in Mother, I'm rooted: An anthology of Australian women poets, which he found in his dad’s bookcase at 15.
“I was 19 and back for another stint above my dad’s bookshelf … I was depressed, because the world was like your poems,” he wrote.
“I had to care for my nephew that afternoon … he had been tasked with some creative writing homework.
“There was one story I had written when I was about Jonno’s age and I thought I might read it in an effort to somehow inspire him.
“As I rifled through dad’s filing cabinet, I came across a tab, that read ‘Merrill’s poems’ – there you were again.”
The crowd was silent as it became apparent who Johnson was speaking about and the contents of the frame he held at his side.
“I wrote to you, not just to tell you I found your poem and to thank you for it, but … so you know who your son is,” he wrote.
“There’s a few things I want to make clear – I’ve become a half decent human, there’s a miscreant in me … but I endeavour to be the best that I can.
“They told me I have what you have, but I don’t believe them and I’ve been off my medication for nearly five years without incident.
“I’m a practising minimalist, and your poem is one of my few possessions, protected in fireproof glass.”
Johnson followed this letter with the events of yesterday, when a friend was hospitalised.
“Where I went wrong was the text … I can only really check on somebody’s mental welfare, if they’re very unwell, face to face.
“I need to look at that person in the eyes … I let the text be enough.
“If you’re concerned about a friend at the moment, remember that this is the lesson I’ve learned, if I’m going to try and be there for somebody I have to try and be there for them literally.
“I hope it helps.”
Tim Elliott, author of Farewell to the Father, also spoke of losing a parent to suicide.
“Mental illness has been largely, but not entirely, de-stigmatised,” he said.
“Dad’s depression was something we would have never talked about with anybody.
“In a way (my father taking his own life) was for us a massive relief and the worst thing that had ever happened to us.
“All of you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have a story like mine.
“The experience of life is trauma and pain, it’s very difficult, it’s full of troubles, but essentially being alive is a great thing.
“You have to persevere, because life is worth living.”
The 6th annual Survivors of Suicide and Friends event once again attracted more than 1000 people to remember those lost to suicide.
Acclaimed poet Les Murray travelled from the north coast of NSW for a rare public appearance at the event, reading six of his poems.
NRL’s first openly gay player Ian Roberts told the crowd in his speech he hopes same-sex marriage becoming legalised in Australia will help reduce suicide rates in one of society’s most at-risk groups.
“In the US, after marriage equality was introduced, they saw close to a 10 per cent decrease in the suicide attempts by members of the LGBTIQ community,” Roberts said.
“We can only hope we see the same here.
“Marriage equality is not the end of the road – I worry about my community as we face the next frontiers.
“It is scary to think that in 2018 something as abhorrent and crazy as gay conversion therapy can find itself creeping back into the headlines.”
Roberts became overcome with emotion as he spoke about the increased risk of suicide for the LGBTIQ community.
“Whether it be the fact that the average age of a first time suicide attempt for a gay kid is 16, or the fact that three in 10 transgender people have attempted suicide, as a community we’re a big part of the solution, we can take a stand against homophobia, we can be that community that voted for marriage equality,” he said.
“Then and only then can we say we have done all that we can.
“All that we can do, is really quite a lot.”
If you or someone you know needs support, contact Lifeline: 13 11 14.