Nick Carroll: The Aftermath

25 Nov 2020 7 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Photo: Jeremiah Klein

Photo: Jeremiah Klein

COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL

For most of us, the shock has already passed. For some, it’s still sinking in. For a handful of people closest to him, John Shimooka’s death by suicide brings with it the kind of grief none of us can deal with alone.

Shmoo’s death is not the first of its kind in surfing, not even within his own circle. Yet it occurs at a moment in which suicide, and the mental illnesses that often move in tandem with it, is increasingly surfacing as a defining issue of our times.

It’s like a huge wave, destroying the lineup. And too often, months or years later, the people left to cope with its aftermath find themselves still struggling against the rip.

John Shimooka. Photo: Tom Servais

John Shimooka. Photo: Tom Servais

Patrick McGorry has more first-hand knowledge of this than most. As Professor of Youth Mental Health at the University of Melbourne, he’s been a pioneer of early intervention in mental illness.

He recalls being asked to intervene with a family in which the son took his own life in the family garage. “One year later, the father did the same thing,” Patrick says. “In the same place, on the anniversary of the boy’s death.”

As a long term surfer as well, Patrick knows suicide is an issue that’s been talked about in the surfing world. He cites the Torquay-based Bolt Blowers and the Sydney-based Fluoro Fridays groups as examples. But, he says: “People don’t realise how common mental illness is … everyone knows you should go to the doctor if you have a physical problem, an injury or something. But mental illness is still not thought of quite in that way. There are still stigmas attached.”

Suicide is the number one cause of death in Australians aged between 15-44 years. It’s currently running at almost three times the national road death toll. Yet it’s riddled with complexities in the public sphere, in a way the road toll isn’t. “There is a contagion effect,” says Patrick. “You have to be careful on how you report on it as a result, especially with a celebrity suicide. It’s important in those cases to be bluntly truthful, even harsh about it, and not glamorise it.

If you’re stuck in the aftermath, you’re not alone. Photo: Jeremiah Klein

If you’re stuck in the aftermath, you’re not alone. Photo: Jeremiah Klein

“With teenagers, you’ll see suicide clusters. Someone will view suicide as a solution, and others will follow. Trouble is, it’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

He adds that “very few people stay in a suicidal state for very long. Maybe a day, maybe a few hours. It’s a state of mind that can’t be maintained for long.”

Suicide is also prey to rumour. Social media is full of memes about huge increases in suicide deaths, usually in connection with Covid-19. Patrick paints a more complex picture: “In hospital emergency rooms we’ve seen a lot more suicidal behaviour among young people this year, maybe a 25% increase. But not so much as far as actual deaths go. The base level of suicide has been ticking up for years now in Australia, there’s nothing out of line with that yet. But it could still happen.” He is expecting to see signs of this, and of a general increase in mental illnesses, in the coming year.

One thing we do know is that the risk factors for suicide are clear. Shmoo was right in line on several of 'em. A close friend who’d attempted suicide (Sunny). A recent family bereavement (his wife Lisa). A personal history of depression and substance abuse. And male. Three-quarters of suicide deaths are men.

“People don’t realise how common mental illness is…everyone knows you should go to the doctor if you have a physical problem, an injury or something. But mental illness is still not thought of quite in that way.” Professor of Youth Mental Health at the University of Melbourne, and surfer, Patrick McGorry is a world-leading researcher in youth mental health.

“People don’t realise how common mental illness is…everyone knows you should go to the doctor if you have a physical problem, an injury or something. But mental illness is still not thought of quite in that way.” Professor of Youth Mental Health at the University of Melbourne, and surfer, Patrick McGorry is a world-leading researcher in youth mental health.

If you’re stuck in the aftermath, you’re not alone. The particular grief of losing someone close to you through suicide has long been recognised. A therapeutic approach known as post-vention was first developed in the early 1970s in the US, as a way of helping people through this grief. The approach has since become a pillar of community-based groups like Headspace and Beyond Blue. “The first six to 12 months is very important,” says Patrick. “Normal grief will subside a bit after about 12 months, but if it continues or even increases in intensity, it becomes a thing called pathological grief. That requires professional help and long term work to get through.

“The immediate defence is denial — pretending at some level that the suicide hasn’t really happened. Everyone gets through that differently. So you’ve gotta pace yourself a bit, you’ve got to go at their pace. You can only create the environment for them to step into when they can.”

He suggests Shmoo’s closest friends and family seek such assistance, to help them begin to come to grips with their thoughts and feelings about what happened.

“In Australia, GPs are the access points. They can help you toward suitable psychological care.” There are also bereavement and loss centres. Patrick quotes Headspace as an example of a youth-specific organisation that conducts post-vention programs in schools following a student suicide, “to help kids cope with the loss and see a way forward. And to help if they’re starting to have suicidal thoughts themselves.”

Support services can be reached 24 hours a day.

In Australia:
Lifeline 13 11 14 | Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 | Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 | Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636

In the US:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800 273 8255

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