My story of how men’s silence is a killer
My family breakdown made me reluctant to share my story with others, until I worked out that opening up would save me.
By Murray O’Hanlon
A few years ago I was a graduate in the public service in Canberra. I was surrounded by new friends with similar interests, working on high-profile policy issues like counter-terrorism and international security.
It was a long way from where I grew up, one of those little towns that people say, “oh yeah — I’ve been through there on the way to somewhere else” when you mention it to them.
I couldn’t help feeling a bit out of place in this new world.
After all, my parents never finished high school. My father was a motor mechanic; my mother stayed at home to raise three children. We lived on a farm, in a house made from timber that my dad had cut on our property — a true wood cabin.
My background seemed a little folksy by comparison with a lot of my peers so I was reluctant to share much about myself.
One of my colleagues was Andrew. He was an intelligent and confident young man who organised a hilarious skit about Senate estimates at the office Christmas party.
Andrew and I worked in the same section for a while. We’d talk in the coffee line-up in the morning. Yet his upbringing seemed so different to mine, and I never really tried to connect with him.
One day I returned from a short holiday and opened my emails. I found out that Andrew had taken his own life.
Like a lot of Andrew’s colleagues and friends, I didn’t realise things had gotten so bad for him. And ever since that event, I’ve asked myself what has stopped me from sharing my story with Andrew and other people I meet.
I’m aware now it’s partly to do with the stigma around men sharing about their health. The stigma surrounding mental health and wellbeing has a particularly strong hold over us.
Self-harm is the leading cause of death for people aged between 15 and 44. The number of women taking their own lives is increasing, but the statistics speak for themselves: three times more men than women died from self-harm in 2015.
‘Deal with it’ and ‘appear tough’
It’s good to see that leaders from all political persuasions are talking about it.
Labor senator Pat Dodson has called for action in addressing suicide in Indigenous communities, such as those in the Kimberley, where the rate is seven times the national average and thought to be amongst the highest in the world.
Former Coalition MP Andrew Robb has opened up about the challenge of dealing with depression and how it affected his day-to-day work as trade minister.
Greens senator Scott Ludlam has explained that he is taking leave to get treatment for his long-standing depression and anxiety.
Yet it remains unusual for your average bloke to talk about mental health.
From childhood, it’s impressed on men and boys that they must ‘deal with it’ and ‘appear tough’. There’s pressure on young men to be strong, like their fathers.
When my own father passed away, one of the remarks people made was that he was always so strong, and by implication, how perplexing some of his actions seemed to them.
But we’re not so strong on our own.
That is one reason I decided to share my story about seeking help for a mental health issue.
Dreams of my father
Recently I started finding it difficult to get to sleep, and even when I could sleep, I had recurring dreams about my childhood home.
One day, a few weeks after my 16th birthday, my father disappeared. I had a disjointed phone conversation with him in the morning, and when I arrived home he wasn’t there. I called everyone I knew, then went out to look for him.
It was dusk as I walked through the paddocks and up into the forest along an old logging trail. Just as it was getting dark, my eyes caught a white flash of colour through the trees. As I approached I realised it was my father, slumped against a log. He had shot himself.
It was a gruesome scene. Next to him was a farewell note scrawled with a piece of charcoal. My memories of that scene still haunt me.
At his funeral, I held back tears. That made me feel strong. After all, it wouldn’t be right to break down in front of everyone; they’d think I was weak. Boys don’t cry.
Suicide was taboo. Adults around us seemed unsure of what to say. Awkward looks and silences were the norm. Dad’s brother collected some machinery we’d stored for him and never tried to contact us again.
I had to grow up fast. After school, I’d come home, round up cattle that had broken into my neighbour’s yard, fix fences, and do other chores around the farm. After that, I’d try to get on my HSC studies.
I was lucky that my teachers and school principal in Kempsey were looking out for me. They kept me in school when I was ready to drop out.
Two years later, my mother sold the farm. I moved to Sydney to attend university. Our family was completely uprooted by the loss of my father.
Finding the impossible words
I found a kind of normality, and even strength, from what I’d been through. I was a good problem-solver and stayed cool in a crisis; skills I had used in coping with our family’s breakdown.
I completed university and was accepted into a graduate program in a government department. My self-confidence grew, and a few years later I was posted overseas.
Still I never spoke to anyone about my background. It felt like something embarrassing to share with people who appeared on the surface to have such ‘normal’ lives.
But the anniversary of my father’s death was becoming more difficult each year. I began having disconcerting flashbacks and lost sleep and energy. Sometimes I felt like calling it quits on my career and going home.
When I sat in my doctor’s office, I talked about any other ailment. I had told myself for so long I’d seen the worst and survived.
It seemed impossible to say the words: “There’s something else I need to talk to you about.”
When I did find those words, we talked for over an hour. She put me in touch with a psychologist, and after years of pretending to myself that I could get by on my own, I began treatment.
The simple step of seeking help boosted my mood. It became easier after that first conversation.
So many things hold us back from talking about mental health. It’s awkward. We’re afraid of opinions, gossip and judgment. We want to safeguard our image for the next promotion, or we’re trying to remain stoic because we’re worried about what the neighbours might say.
That silence is a real killer. When we fail to reach out to one another, our friends, our loved ones, and our own selves are at their most vulnerable.
We must continue to speak out. By doing so, we might just offer someone like my colleague Andrew a path to help instead of harm.
Even now I occasionally tell myself: “This isn’t an issue — just toughen up and deal with it on your own.”
I can’t help but wonder if that’s what my father, and other people we’ve lost, were telling themselves their whole lives.
Murray O’Hanlon is an officer with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He studied at Kempsey High School and the University of New South Wales. This article benefited from support from colleagues and friends at DFAT and the ABC.