Murwillumbah mum Ursula has lived every parent’s worst nightmare – her child, at the age of just 17, took his own life – and a lot of time and energy, questions and conjecture and finger-pointing can rumble around this, but at the end of the day Ursula’s precious boy is gone and he’s not coming back.
The is no solving this puzzle, there are no answers to this question because no answer won’t resolve Josh’s death. It’s final. Irreversible.
But, trying to understand how this happened can go a long way to help prevent other young men, other young people, any people, dying in the same way and that at least might be some small comfort to Ursula and the thousands upon thousands of Australians touched by suicide.
Ursula says that when she lost her boy to suicide she became aware of how little understanding there is of suicidality – even amongst those who work in mental health care. ‘One of the common misconceptions around suicide is the sense that it is inevitable; that certain people are destined to die by suicide and there’s nothing we can do. It’s wrong.
Thoughts of suicide are common
‘Thoughts of suicide are so common that 1 in 8 Australians will consider taking their own life at some point. Ursula says there are things we can do to prevent suicide, it’s just that because of the stigma so many of us don’t know how to help. I want to change that.’
Ursula says that the days and hours leading up to Josh’s death were a crucial time for him. They had spent over four hours in a local hospital emergency department trying to get help, but received little assistance.
‘When he returned home from the hospital, my mother, Josh’s Nan sat praying with him as he crumpled on the floor in tears. Then when he went to sleep – she resolved to make a complaint to the Health Minister.
‘The next day, the three of us discussed going to the media to demand better of the health system.’
Ursula says Josh went to work on for two days, but then took his life. He was revived and put in intensive care but never regained consciousness. It was too late. He died 11 days later.’
A brutal shock wave
Ursula says the shock wave from suicide is brutal. ‘Amongst friends, colleagues, and family there were quite a few people whose mental health took a dive. Some went through their own suicidal crisis in response, but we’ve pulled together and kept everyone else with us up to this point.
‘We know what to do now.’
Ursula says that Josh was an apprentice painter. ‘He was the company’s star recruit and loved his work. His boss, colleagues, and job support officer have been heavily affected by his death both emotionally and psychologically.’
Nobody who has had a suicide close to them is ever the same – lives change forever. ‘Post-suicide is a completely different life,’ says Ursula. ‘I used to be a career woman. Now, none of that matters to me.
‘Josh’s death was preventable.
‘Now, I am driven to help others not meet the same tragedy. Now I spend my energy advocating for suicide prevention improvements in the mental health system, co-designing new suicide prevention initiatives, sitting on committees as a lived experience representative, and in grassroots action.’
Ursula founded an initiative called Deep Listeners which aims to help connect people in deeper conversations. ‘I believe that compassion is the medicine that prevents suicide and it can be given by anyone who holds space with a caring, non-judgemental attitude. I have used my academic skills background to develop training in deep listening.
‘Thanks to the Tweed Byron Suicide Prevention Project I have also become a trainer in the world-class suicide first aid courses ASIST and safeTALK. In a little under a year, I’ve co-trained about 150 people in life-saving suicide first aid. I encourage everyone to get trained because it does save lives.
‘There are local courses coming up in October, which are almost fully subsidised so now’s the time to do it.
Osher Günsberg: A Matter of Life and Death
SBS heard about Ursula’s story through Deep Listeners and she has appeared in a new feature-length documentary to première this Sunday – Osher Günsberg: A Matter of Life and Death, which explores Australia’s suicide crisis and investigates how new science, innovative thinking and technology could help prevent suicide.
Günsberg, who says that suicide is a very real and prevalent problem in our community, will reflect on his own mental health experiences while examining why suicide rates remain high in Australia, and what is being done across the country to try and make a difference. ‘I know firsthand what it’s like to experience suicidal ideation.’
Günsberg says two profound symptoms of mental illness are that it can make you feel like you’re the only person this is happening to, and it’s going to feel this bad forever. ‘Both of those things are false and in this film, we show that every day in Australia, there are people working tirelessly to try and prevent suicide.
Help those who love someone that is struggling
’It’s so important to know that there is help out there, and there are ways forward. I really hope that with this documentary, we are able to not only offer hope to those suffering and show how much help is available – but to also help those who love someone that is struggling to understand just what happens when your brain starts to work in unhelpful ways.
‘We want to encourage honest conversations between friends, family, and colleagues. At the very least, we need to recognise Australia’s suicide crisis, because you cannot fix a problem if you don’t acknowledge it exists.’
The documentary hopes to offer an insight into Australia’s suicide crisis, delving into the psychology behind suicidal ideation, providing insight into the minds of people who want to take their own lives.
Günsberg meets survivors of suicide and follows their journey to help prevent others from attempting suicide. He engages with experts who are making a difference, and he showcases the latest evidence-based treatments that are saving lives. Science and technology can prove essential in reducing suicide rates and by studying suicide in Australia, the documentary will identify which communities in this country require the most help.
Not ashamed or afraid to say my son died by suicide
Ursula says she is absolutely ok with the whole of the country seeing her story. ‘Despite the risk that people may seek blame in me for Josh’s death, I am not ashamed or afraid to say my son died by suicide.
‘I know there were many factors outside of my control, like the criminal who triggered Josh’s suicidal thoughts by his depraved act, like the bullies at school, like the shortcomings of our current mental health system.
‘It is crucial that we take suicide out of the shadows and shine the light on it. Anyone can be at risk of suicide by nature of being human and able to consider our own mortality.
We need to talk openly about suicide
‘Thoughts of suicide are all around us, silently eating away at people’s resilience. We need to talk openly about it if we’re going to save lives.’
Ursula wishes more could have been done for her son, and she now advocates for autism spectrum support and suicide prevention. She wishes people were more compassionate towards those suffering from mental health issues, and suicidal ideation.
‘I am lucky to have a strong and kind family around me who have been able to support me through the grief. Redirecting the energy of grief into prevention helps me continue to pay homage to the life of my beautiful boy Josh, and keeps his memory alive.’
You can see Urusla and others tell their stories in Osher Günsberg: A Matter of Life and Death at 8.30pm this Sunday, 19 September on SBS and SBS On Demand.
If you or someone you know requires assistance or support contact:
Lifeline 13 11 14 www.lifeline.org.au
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au
Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 www.beyondblue.org.au
Or talk to your GP or health professional.
In an emergency call 000.