Suicide…. it’s a word that, although more freely and openly spoken of in todays’ society, is still a taboo topic where media reportage is concerned. Heavy restrictions are imposed on news outlets from publishing deaths due to suicide and, although we occasionally read and hear about the odd celebrity death due to suicide, the reality is, the numbers and incidences are becoming more alarming. This story examines three individuals whose lives were directly or indirectly affected by suicide. This is a story of suicide survival and a story of those left behind.
(From top to bottom: Donna Thistlethwaite, Paul Bellas, Desiree Allan).
“The statistic which really jumped out at me is 8 every hour; 8 Australians will attempt suicide every hour”, Ms Thistlethwaite says.
Donna Thistlethwaite is one of many suicide survivors who has lived to tell her story and to spread it as a beacon of hope for those struggling with suicidal thoughts or tendencies.
In August 2012, on a cool winter’s afternoon, Donna attempted to take her own life by plummeting 40 metres from Brisbane’s Story Bridge.
In retrospect it was a decision she wished she’d never made and, fortunately for her, it is a moment that is as much a blur now as the day it happened.
“That moment leading up to the jump felt so surreal and it was like I wasn’t in control of myself anymore but more like I was in a state of psychosis”.
“The only thing I remember is climbing over the railing and feeling this momentary sense of panic”.
She then recreates the reaction she felt by taking a great big gasp of air as though she had just seen a ghost.
“Though, in that moment, I said to myself ‘It’s okay, you’re just going to the other side and then I just remember my body relaxing and the only thing I remember after that was resurfacing from the water and seeing the people looking down at me from atop the bridge”.
For those who have survived a suicide attempt, the feeling of coming out of that experience alive has lead to a greater awakening.
In 2015, suicide survivor Kevin Hines published a video on YouTube which detailed his ordeal with suicidal thoughts and how he managed to survive a leap from San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge.
The Golden Gate bridge, which almost dwarfs the size of the Story Bridge at an elevation of 67 metres, is among the most frequently used structures in the world when it comes to suicide or suicide attempts.
During the 5-minute video, which has received over 6 million views, Hines detailed the moment he made that leap and how, in that moment, he felt an instant sense of regret.
When asked whether or not regret or shame had crossed her mind during her suicide attempt, Thistlethwaite revealed the experience, in a peculiar way, brought her family closer together.
“I was actually estranged from my parents at the time and, weirdly enough, it was that event that reconnected our family”.
Family bond is what also contributed to her decision of never wanting to attempt suicide again following medical advice she was given at the Prince Charles Hospital.
“The nurse that checked me in told me that if I had committed suicide, my son would have been at a 50% greater risk of suiciding during his lifetime”.
“After that, something clicked inside me where I thought, that’s never going to happen again because I would never want to curse him like that.”
Suicide from the Story Bridge became so problematic, that in February, 2013, Brisbane Lord Mayor Graham Quirk unveiled a plan to install a 3-metre-high safety barrier, which was subsequently installed in December 2015.
A man who knows all too well the risks associated with the Story Bridge over the years is Paul Bellas, who tragically lost his brother Emmanuel in 1991 due to suicide from that bridge.
Paul, the youngest child in a family of 8 children, shared an incredibly close bond with his older brother Emmanuel despite an 8-year age difference.
He remembers a brother who was gentle, kind-hearted and highly intellectual and someone who, overall, had all the qualities you would want in a sibling.
“As a brother, I would say he was the one I felt most comfortable with and all the siblings felt a great affection for him because he was such a logical thinker”.
Evidence of this came in his High School years where, legend had it, he achieved top marks despite not being in the classroom.
“When he was at High School, there was a hippie movement going on and a lot of the students had long hair”.
“Because he had such long hair, he was never allowed in to the Science or Physics rooms so he had to sit outside the class”.
“Even though he sat outside the room, he still received top marks for those subjects at the end of Semester”.
Although he excelled in his studies at High School, and studied radiology at University thereafter, Paul explains how his brother’s medical condition of schizophrenia contributed to his loss of interest in tertiary study.
In the years that followed, the daily torment of this condition lead Emmanuel to believe the CIA were after him and in particular his writings/books that he had compiled.
One event in particular sparked a fear and distrust towards Police officers thereafter following a night out in the CBD which saw a couple of Police officers approach Emmanuel in the Queen Street Mall.
“That night these plain clothed Police officers came to him in the mall and asked him for his identification and, thinking they were the CIA, he immediately freaked out and started running”.
“They then tackled him and kneed him in the back”.
This heavy-handed treatment did not go down well with their father James, who had to collect his son from the Police station at 3am.
“I remember my father saying to the police, ‘My son’s sick…why would you do that’?”
Paranoia is not uncommon amongst those suffering from schizophrenia and, in spite of this, Paul goes in further detail about how his brother never used his condition to become hostile or aggressive towards anyone.
“Even when he wasn’t well you always felt good with him because he wasn’t nasty, he was gorgeous”.
As comfortable as the siblings felt being around their brother, Emmanuel felt just as comfortable being open about his suicidal thoughts.
“The thing about Emmanuel was he never used it (suicide) to provoke a reaction out of us or to get any attention”.
“It was more like he talked about it as if it were a plan of something he wanted to do like climbing Mount Everest, you know”.
Tragically, that day came in 1991 when Emmanuel leapt from the Story Bridge in a day which will forever be shrouded in mystery for his family.
On the day of his death, a lady had reportedly notified police that she had intended to jump off the Story Bridge.
Following this tip-off, the police sent a team to the bridge to investigate it and it was at that moment that Emmanuel was walking over the bridge as part of his daily walk.
Whether or not this was a contributing factor to his death is still unclear, but one thing Paul maintains is that Emmanuel had spoken about it.
“We don’t know the full details about what happened on the day and we may never know the full story but one thing we do know is that he was susceptible to it”.
Since that fateful day, and several suicides/suicide attempts thereafter, the Queensland Government decided the copycat effects of suicide needed to stop and the 3-metre guard barrier now stands as a suicide deterrent.
Clinical Psychologist and Senior lecturer Jacinta Hawgood, who is also the program convenor at the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention (AISRAP), emphasises that reducing access to means for suicide is the only evidence-based initiative that has been demonstrated to reduce suicide rates.
“Access to means initiatives includes barriers on bridges and a really good example of this is the barrier which is now part of the Story Bridge”.
“Blister packs for pills are also a good deterrent compared with the traditional style of pill packets or containers where you could pour a whole heap in to your hand”.
“There are a whole range of initiatives to combat suicide rates but definitely Access to Means has the most evidence about its success in being able to prevent suicide and change suicide rates”.
Despite limiting the access to means and creating deterrents, for example gun laws in Australia and barriers at underground train stations, the method of hanging has drastically increased over the last three decades.
In a 2016 data report produced by AISRAP, the method of hanging had more than doubled between 1990 – 2013 whereas methods involving a firearm or Carbon Monoxide poisoning had decreased by more than 65%.
The copycat method of suicide, as mentioned earlier in the case of Donna Thistlethwaite and her son, has far reaching consequences and one who can attest to this is former community radio announcer Desiree Allan.
Desiree lost her older sister to suicide in the 1980s and it was this event, combined with her belief that suicide as a behaviour runs in the family, that culminated in her own suicide attempt.
“It really stemmed from my older sister committing suicide”.
“She was the type of person who would stay at home at different times and was a hermit by nature”.
“One day my father arrived home and discovered she had hung herself in the backyard of our family home.”
It was during 1990 that Desiree began to experience a series of low points in her life whilst living on the Gold Coast.
In stark contrast to the sunny skies and clear waves of the city, her mood and well-being was anything but and this feeling culminated in a decision which would leave her without sight for the rest of her life.
“A roommate of mine at the time owned a pistol and on one particular day I said to myself, ‘This is it, I’m really going to do it’ “.
“I took a drink of this really hard liquor stuff and all I can remember after that is walking to the hallway and everything after that was a blank”.
After shooting herself in the temple, Desiree collapsed and was put in to a coma where she awoke 3 weeks later.
Although the incident left her without sight, and her sense of smell for the rest of her life, she has managed this new challenge in life by volunteering her time to Radio 4RPH (a radio station for the print handicapped) and pursuing new hobbies.
“I took up Judo for 10 years and eventually became a black belt as well as going overseas for the World Blind Games”.
“I ended up winning two Silver medals and one Bronze medal at the World Blind Games and that was a good sense of achievement for me”.
When asked how she combats her feelings of depression, Allan has found that staying healthy and having a focus has kept her motivated and on track.
“Doing physical exercise is great for me because it gets the endorphins going and releases all those toxins in your body”.
Possibly one of the most high-profile suicide survival stories is that of singer/actor Rick Springfield who tried to commit suicide by hanging as a 17-year-old in Australia.
On various talk shows he has been known to give advice to young people saying that the feeling is only temporary and to give it (depression) time because the feeling will pass.
When I asked Donna Thistlethwaite about this, she wholeheartedly agreed and further reinforced the notion of transient emotions.
“I totally agree and when Australian Story episode did a profile piece on me, they wove the theme of transient feelings throughout the episode”.
“Our circumstances are generally transient and, when we stay alive during that crisis period, life will be different and actually get better”.