Daughters launch mental health movement after fathers' sudden deaths

Grace as a child boating with her father John. Photo: Supplied
Grace as a child boating with her father John. Photo: Supplied
WARNING: This article discusses suicide and mental health issues.

"Check the garage, wardrobe and the pool."

These are not the words you want to hear while searching for your father who has disappeared on the farm.

But this is what Christchurch student Grace Curtis was told on the day life as she knew it was shattered.

It was a tradition, Sunday drinks with Dad. But as soon as she pulled into their North Canterbury farm Grace knew something was amiss.

"The neighbours were at the gate when I arrived, and I asked if anything was wrong and they said the animals were running around with a bit of distress."

Initially, Grace wasn't overly concerned, but as her shouts to him went unanswered and messages stayed unopened her alarm grew.

It was a harrowing suggestion from a family member over the phone to search in the garage that led her toward the outside access door.

"Something just hit me, I replied 'I don't want to look in there.' I opened the door and that's when I saw Dad. It was just instant devastation and indescribable shock, I just threw my phone and collapsed, I was screaming uncontrollably for half an hour."

Georgia Harris and Grace Curtis are using their experience to help others. Photo: Supplied
Georgia Harris and Grace Curtis are using their experience to help others. Photo: Supplied
Now, only seven months after his death, the 22-year-old has launched an online suicide awareness and mental health campaign.

"I'm hoping to share with people the journey of what it's like being bereaved by suicide."

Cool Change - named after the song that played at John's funeral- was created in collaboration with Georgia Harris and Tori Wheelans, whose fathers also died suddenly.

The lyrics read "now my life is so prearranged, it's time for a cool change," speak to how Grace feels after John's passing.

For Georgia, the social media pages are a place for the bereaved to break the silence.

"To no longer feel as though their loved ones passing by suicide was so shameful that we cannot allow them to speak. The silence is not enough. We need to be loud. Share their stories. Share our journeys."

Tori says they want to tell people that they are not alone and they can reach out for help.

Tori Wheelans and her father. Photo: Supplied
Tori Wheelans and her father. Photo: Supplied
Living in the rural community, both Georgia and Grace's families have seen the scars suicide leaves behind, which is why they're pushing for mental health awareness for all New Zealanders- not just those who have the ease of urban medical treatment.

"In my experience living rurally and being in the farming community I would not be able to tell you how to access mental health services," Grace says.

In general she says members in the farming community think getting mental health support is "too hard and not worth it" based on their "understanding of the services".

It's a high-risk game for industry members' mental health which, although it wasn't a factor in her father's death, Grace puts down in part to money and the pressure to borrow more to keep farms afloat.

"Farmers are expected to deliver the same results but with less assistance - year after year."

Another aspect that she says is keeping honest talks about suicide off the table is a "blokes mentality"- which the student believes makes it difficult for them to overcome their pride and seek assistance.

"It can be really really hard on egos when you can't deliver for those animals - and with changing environments, it's really affecting their [farmers] mental health."

Grace told the Herald the reason she wanted to start the campaign so soon after his death is because she's still living it - so her message is raw and transparent.

"My story, my passion, and my advice is very fresh.

"It's not a well-spoken about topic, bereavement, so I'm hoping to share with people the journey."

Before her father's death, Grace says her goals had revolved around earning money, excelling at uni and performing in her hockey - but afterwards, they became as simple as getting out of bed and having a shower.

"The first few weeks you're living minute to minute. I thought I was going to be stuck like this, the pain doesn't go away you just learn to live with it. My advice is don't be hard on yourself because it's pretty bloody horrible."

Following his death, Grace set to work organising speaking events at schools, but has already had her speech at one of the country's biggest schools cancelled after the death of a student.

She says the school told her it wasn't a good time to have the discussion.

Although she understands the school's hesitancy, she says keeping quiet on suicide and mental health issues only perpetuate taboos surrounding the illnesses.

"Whatever the current system is, it's not working. I struggle with the idea that we have one of the best living qualities yet one of the highest suicide rates."

Grace Curtis says he father was always a joker. Photo: Supplied
Grace Curtis says he father was always a joker. Photo: Supplied
In the year to June 30, 654 people died by suicide, compared to 685 in the same period the year before, according to coronorial statistics released this month.

The suicide rate fell from 13.93 deaths per 100,000 to 13.01 deaths per 100,000 - the lowest point in three years.

"While it is encouraging to see the suspected suicide rate and number drop for the past year, it's important to remember that there are still more than 650 families who have lost someone in tragic circumstances," Chief Coroner Judge Deborah Marshall said earlier this month.

As well as the online work, Grace has already spoken with a handful of MPs in a bid to get some cross-party support for the mental health sector.

"It should be an impartial issue because it affects everyone. It should be more of a 10, 15-year plan as opposed to parties bringing in new policies each term."

The women hope Cool Change will bring about conversations around suicide and mental illness as well as dispel the stigma surrounding them.

Unfortunately, it's already too late for her father, but Grace says it's not too late to save those struggling on the ground right now.

"This is not going to be a problem that's solved overnight. Instead of just throwing money and policies we need to start with education."

While their work has only just begun, Grace hopes even just the small steps they are taking now will reach those most in need.

"Even in your darkest hour and your darkest day, and I've had quite a few of them by now, there is nothing worth taking your life for."

Where to get help:

• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• Helpline: 1737
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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