Putting an end to suicide
21 September 2020 at 8:20 am
As the chair of Lifeline Australia, John Brogden AM is using his personal experience with mental health to help end suicide in the country once and for all. He’s this week’s Changemaker.
When Brogden’s career in politics took a turn for the worse in 2005, he didn’t reach out for help, and instead tried to end his own life.
The fact he didn’t go through with it is something he is thankful for everyday, but he understands that depression and suicidal ideation is something he now lives with and must manage through medication for the rest of his life.
Using his public profile and personal experience with mental health, he’s now on a mission to see an end to suicide in Australia through his work at Lifeline.
The organisation is currently undertaking a suicide reduction strategy that is making headway, but the challenges of 2020 have meant that supporting mental health is more important than ever.
Just last week, Lifeline’s 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention hotline recorded the highest number of phone calls in the organisation’s 57-year history.
Under Brogden’s watch, it’s not a record that will continue to be broken into the future either.
In this week’s Changemaker, he discusses the challenges of mental health in Australia, why it’s important to know when to take a break, and living with mental illness as a leader.
How did you get involved with Lifeline?
I spent 10 years in the NSW Parliament and for three and a half of those years I was the opposition leader. I left politics following my own suicide attempt, and during that time I saw the critical nature of the work that Lifeline does.
I was very keen when I left politics to continue to make a contribution to society. I think being in parliament is a real privilege and one of the privileges for many people is it gives you a profile, and the capacity to lead organisations. I wanted to continue to make a contribution to the community. I was asked to get involved in Lifeline which I was very pleased to do.
What kind of impact are you trying to have as chairman of the organisation?
Lifeline’s committed to an Australia free of suicide, and many people would initially say, well, that’s impossible, we can never achieve that. And my response is, we’ll never know if you don’t try, and you’ll never know if you don’t begin to set targets. That means putting in place a very clear suicide reduction plan in Australia that sees the numbers dropping, which is down to two things. One, is getting our call answer rate above 90 per cent on the way to 100 per cent, and we’ve been achieving that for the last six months and that’s very exciting.
The other thing is increasing our text counselling. There’s a whole new generation of younger people who text more than they talk, and who are very keen to to contact Lifeline by text. We did a trial of this in the last 18 months, and the trial showed us that about half the people who used Lifeline’s [services] would not have used Lifeline at all if not for text. At the moment we can operate at 12 hours a day, but of course, our objective is 24 hours a day at full capacity.
The past six months have been pretty tough for everyone, what do you see as some of the biggest mental health challenges in the near future?
We don’t know when COVID-19 is going to end, but what we do know is when it does end we will be in a recession. The majority of the workforce has never lived through a recession. And when you go into recession, people lose their jobs, lose their homes, they lose their families and the risk of suicide increases. So there’s no doubt that’s the biggest risk we face at the moment. I’m very pleased that right now we haven’t seen an increase in suicides in Australia. That’s a really brilliant outcome. I hope that means that people are getting the mental health support they need and are not turning to suicide. A lot of that is the result of the JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments. When that ends, there will be real pressure on mental health services.
How do you stay grounded in your leadership and deal with stressful situations?
I have depression and I have suicidal ideation and both of those are treated and managed through medication and counselling and good physical health. I need to make sure that I keep balance in my life, and I don’t let myself get too exhausted or overwhelmed.
I work smart, but I don’t work too hard. I learned that lesson the hard way in politics, working seven days a week and often six nights a week, putting myself under enormous stress and pressure with parliamentary staff, dealing with media, and dealing with political pressures that over time compounded and led me to a suicide attempt and a breakdown. These days, I’m a little more self aware, but I really have to work hard to make sure I realise that you can’t say yes to everything. I am the kind of person that finds it hard to say no, but I know I need to make sure I get enough sleep and exercise as well, enough time for my family and for me. I hope the older I get, the better I get at keeping that in balance.
Charity sector leaders often push themselves to the limit, and do a lot with very little. How important is it for them to take a step back?
I understand why they think that way, but they need to look after themselves or the organisation won’t succeed. It’s not a good thing to have an organisation run by a CEO who’s worn down and worn out. You need to look after yourself and you really do need to inject that balance and realise that working 24 hours a day doesn’t help you or the organisation.
What’s one thing that you would like to see changed about the way mental health is viewed in the country before you retire?
I have a very straightforward objective. And that is that the way we talk about, we think about, and how we feel in our hearts about mental health is the same way we talk about and think about and feel about physical illness. There’s a long way to go there in terms of funding mental health adequately, and while there’s no doubt awareness has been raised, reducing stigma – particularly in the workplace – has a way to go.
But I do think that I’m really lucky. I’ve lived through a time where attitudes have changed very positively toward mental health and mental illness, and in the last 20 years we’ve had an enlightenment [around] mental illness which has seen us talk about it in a way we never used to, which is really positive.
If this article has raised any issues for you, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.