I was having a gossip over lunch with my friend and former colleague, Antonella, when I mentioned this blog. She immediately suggested I talk to her partner, Deli – and as soon as she began telling me about Deli’s work, I knew I wanted to learn more. Deli shared her story with me over coffee and melting moments one Sunday morning. Maybe it was because I’d heard so much about Deli or seen so many photos through Antonella, but sitting in the sun on the patio of their gorgeous home, I felt like I had met her before. It was a privilege to hear her story first-hand.
“Over the years I have had several clients who were always somewhere close to suicidal. They would be on a downward spiral, they would improve and then they would face another downward spiral. This sort of chronic suicidality is common in my work.
I’ve been a registered psychologist since 2001. I grew up in the country and my mother assumed I’d be a farmer’s wife – but the country was too small for me and I threw myself at the opportunity to move to Melbourne. I was working in a bar, when someone said to me, ‘You know Deli, you’d make a good psychologist’ and, bang, that was it! I rode my Malvern Star bicycle down to Deakin University and marched into the admissions office – and so began 10 years of study.
Helping people work through their stuff is what I love most about my job- being there for them when they’re suffering or when they take a positive step. We’re always trying to stop pain with alcohol and drugs but like any other illness, people need to go through it to get to the other side.
Sometimes you can be waiting with a patient for years – holding them, guiding without pushing and then finally, when that moment of realisation comes, it’s such a release. That’s the juice! That’s why I do it. I often get asked if I’m drained on a Friday night. Usually, I’m energised.
People don’t ordinarily talk about being suicidal. Instead, they isolate themselves. There are a lot of supports out there – the social support of friends and family and the professional support of clinicians. But there are a lot of barriers to engaging with these supports. Stoicism. Isolation. Money. Disability. Living in a remote area. Being a single parent. Service shortfalls.
I wanted to create something that wasn’t impacted by those barriers and so one day, I started looking at app builders. It occurred to me that if my clients could watch a video of me talking, if they could see me and hear my voice, it might help to settle them when I wasn’t immediately available. An app can be there on the weekend or at four in the morning when no one else is around.
I asked lots of different people to read the script I wrote for the first app ‘R U Suicidal?’ – a lawyer, some psychologists, a youth counselor, teenagers, and adults who have experienced depression. I wanted to get as many eyes on it as possible to ensure the content was relevant to anyone – male, female, 80 years old or 12 years old.
The most important part of the app is the human connection. It’s a video of me sitting in a chair, looking calm, being receptive, speaking evenly – with warmth, compassion and understanding. I try to convey that many people have experienced suicidal thoughts. They are not alone.
It’s structured in sections that move people from feelings, to thoughts, to planning a method to survive.
The human brain is a finite resource. If we are in a downward spiral of suicidal thought but create a new demand in our brain, such as a demand to reflect, our brain’s resources are redistributed to accommodate- attention is redirected.
In the first section, I encourage people to name their feelings, which is difficult for those in the depths of suicidal thought. I provide a space for them to confidentially record this on their phone so they can reflect on these feelings at a later time.
The next section highlights three sources of support: self-support (what are you going to do to stabilise yourself, remove immediate threats and be compassionate?), other supports (who can you call who will come over immediately?) and finally, external supports (professionals).
The final section is about safety. I want to ensure they feel safe and make a plan to survive. This plan can be edited and reviewed over time.
It took months of battling, but the app, ‘R U Suicidal‘ was approved one morning when Antonella and I were about to fly out of the country. I remember that when I received the email, I fell onto the floor of my office, crying and laughing. It felt like we had won a war.
A conversation with a colleague, and learning about economies of scale, led me to create two more apps – one for those who are contemplating suicide and one for those who have lost a loved one to suicide.
Originally, we charged $1.99 per download. But this soon became something Antonella and I were losing sleep over. While it doesn’t sounds like much for something potentially life-saving, it just didn’t sit right with us to be charging anything at all. The app became free at the end of 2014, just before Christmas- a particularly challenging time of year for many people. When downloads went from five a day to 100 a day, we knew we had made the right decision.
We thought we could recoup some of the development costs by selling the apps to businesses. For example, organisations who have a lot of staff based remotely could offer free downloads. But approaching companies would be a full time gig in itself and we’ve both got full time jobs so we decided to call the development cost a karma credit. I think it’s come back to us in many ways.
We don’t care about the money, but we had hoped to promote the service more widely. It’s a service option that doesn’t have opening hours or long queues and is completely confidential. We would love to re-shoot and update the footage. We’d also love to translate the app in countries with high levels of suicide- places like Japan and Lithuania where the rates of suicide are 55 people per 100, 000, compared to Australia, the UK and the US where it’s more like 13-15 per 100, 000.
A few universities approached me and asked if they could evaluate the app’s impact. I agreed, but this has proven to be near impossible. I’m reassured however, that more than 6,000 people across the globe now have the app. I’m not claiming we’ve saved that many lives, but hopefully we’ve provided support, reassurance and encouragement to people all over the world.
Suicide often falls through social cracks because of stigma. I long for the day that it’s better understood.
Anyone in the world may find themselves in crisis. The way the world looks to you today can be utterly shifted by something that emerges internally or environmentally.
I wish there was less stigmatisation around mental health in general and I wish it was talked about in much more helpful ways rather than the blame game we often hear. So many people don’t understand the complexities of this issue, but form an opinion anyway.
I love this blog because it’s enabling people like me to talk about things like this – to explore complexities and to encourage people to support without judgement.”