Tragic History – White Wreath Day – May 29, 2001

On May 29th, “White Wreath Day”, thousands of wreaths are laid out across the country to remember those who have committed suicide. Wendy Champagne reports.

In 1999, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that two thousand four hundred and ninety-two people died of intentional self-harm in Australia. A further one thousand nine hundred and forty-four people died of mental disorders – including paranoia, schizophrenia, depressive disorder and dependence syndrome. Four thousand wreaths will be laid out across Australia to remember these people today.

May 29th holds special significance for White Wreath Association director Fanita Clark – it is the day her son Jason committed suicide in 1999. In the two years since Jason’s death, Mrs Clark and a team of volunteers have worked tirelessly to raise awareness about the link between mental illness and suicide.

“Our focus is to try and stop these deaths from happening,” says Mrs Clark. “This is one of the biggest epidemics this country has ever known, and yet the cover-up is enormous.”

Suicide kills more people every year than motor accidents, and the trend is increasing. In August 2000, The Federal Health Minister Dr Wooldridge announced a new National Advisory Council for Suicide Prevention to help “address and minimise” the devastating impact of suicide on our communities. The council will widen its focus to include all the high-risk groups: young males, rural and remote residents, the elderly, people with mental illnesses, people in prison, people with substance abuse problems and indigenous Australians.

Fanita Clark has had first-hand experience of the inadequacies of the existing protocol for dealing with attempted suicide. Whereas a heart attack victim would be rushed to hospital, monitored, stabilised, medicated and then released, she claims that people who attempt suicide are lucky if they’re even admitted to hospital.” If it’s a serious attempt, people are likely to remain in hospital a few days, given scripts for five or six weeks medication and then released back into the community with no follow-up whatsoever.”

At the heart of the “White Wreath” campaign is a determination to rid society of the stigma attached to suicide. In many of us there is a mistaken belief of wilfulness or culpability on the part of the suicide victim, when in many cases there is an underlying mental illness fuelling the desire for death.

“No person in their right mind would attempt suicide,” says Mrs Clark. When her son Jason first attempted suicide at nineteen, he was chastised by a medical attendant for “doing this to himself”, prescribed 18 different medications with no remedial treatments and discharged. “I want people with serious problems like my son to be treated with respect and dignity; in exactly the same manner as people with other illnesses,” says Mrs Clark.

Most illnesses draw families closer together yet suicide tears them apart, according to Fanita Clark. Warning signs amongst young people include withdrawal from friends, family and regular activities, anti-social behaviour, angry or aggressive outbursts and marked personality changes – all symptoms that place a great deal of pressure on parent/child relationships.

Suicide is now the leading cause of death for 15 to 24 year-olds in Australia and it’s ranked seventh in terms of all recorded deaths in this country. Males are four times as likely to commit suicide as females, but twice as many females as males die as a direct consequence of their mental illness or drug dependence.

Depression and suicidal feelings are treatable psychological disorders and sufferers need to have their illness recognised, diagnosed and treated. The best thing you can do for a friend or family member who is feeling down is to listen to them and help them to open up without offering advice or judgement. Just be supportive. And most importantly, if suicide is mentioned or inferred, don’t keep it a secret. Seek professional help immediately.

The ultimate goal of the White Wreath Association is to build an in/out patient care centre. “It will be a place of safety for people who have attempted suicide,” says Fanita Clark. “Somewhere for them to go after their release from hospital where they can be monitored for a minimum of two or three weeks before returning into the community.”

References: Write Wreath Association, Fanita Clark 07 3803 1266
Suicide – Year Book Australia 2000
Australian Bureau of Statistics – Death by Suicide 1999
National Advisory Council for Suicide Prevention

By Wendy Champagne