Suicide prevention in an era of diminishing social welfare

When I think about suicide it is for one of two reasons. First, the system that is supposed to help and protect me is so inaccessible and combative that the future is too bleak to go on. The second is that I am just too exhausted to continue. This issue, of course, ties into the nature of the chronic illness from which I suffer. But the first point is more systematic and it is the reason why I cringe at ‘suicide prevention’ funding and programs.

A recent study in the US showed that in states where gay marriage was legalised, suicide rates in young LGTBQI people were substantially lower than states where gay marriage wasn’t legalised. Researchers found that while marriage was not at the forefront of the minds of young LGTBQI people, its legalisation meant it was a possibility. This in turn showed young people there was a possibility for something brighter later in life.

Suicide prevention programs and funding usually focus on two things: raising awareness and asking for help. After a lifetime in the advocacy game, I will quite firmly and confidently tell you that raising awareness is not a legitimate or effective campaign objective. It is not enough. It is virtually impossible to measure. It is a poor substitute for actual action; a poor substitute for actual change.

Asking for help is important to develop coping mechansims and medical assistance. But what about when there is no help? What about when the situation that has led you to these thoughts isn’t solely due to mental illness; when the problem isn’t medical but is multilayered, bureaucratic and socially systemic?

It is poor effort for a government to announce an increase in ‘suicide prevention’ programming when they are cutting the welfare that the most vulberable Australians rely on, when the housing crisis means more and more people are homeless and forced into extreme housing stress. When the disability support pension is so difficult to apply for that the most vulnerable can’t manage the bureaucracy required, when even those trying to do the right thing are penalised when they can’t meet changing criteria for the maintenence of payments. When they live in constant fear that Centrelink will send them a bill for thousands of dollars. When their disability restricts their mobility, preventing their attendance at appointments made just because they need to be.

When employers won’t consider flexibility needed to capitalise on the skills of someone with a disability. When universities are so inflexible that they threaten to cancel the enrollment of intelligent, capable students with special needs. When public spaces and social norms make social engagement virtually impossible and society says that only healthy people are suitable mates for intimate relationships.

When the government defunds the community legal centres that provide assistance to victims of domestic violence that is both a leading cause of disability amoung young women and a high risk factor for victimisation. Those community legal centres also provide the disability discrimination lawyers who work with clients that universities are threatening.

Do you know what it’s like to listen to four consecutive federal budget speeches and know that you are the person the government is talking about when they coin the term ‘leaners’ when they talk of the burden of social security? When your senator undertakes a major survey of their constituents, questioning the very existence of the public health scheme that is supposed to allow you to engage in society in a more holistic way?

I am no psychologist. I am not an expert in public health. I am not a psychiatrist either or a mental health professional of any description. But I know what my experience has shown to be too much to deal with. In my experience public interventions that reduce these structural issues are a far more important intervention than raising awareness about suicide in Australia.

The number of Australians who know that suicide is a problem will not stop me ending my own life. But if there were fewer battles to face to keep a roof over my head and allow me to meaningfully contribute to society in accordance with my own strengths and capabilities, that would stop me wanting to end my own life.


Yoga Your Way

Today is International Yoga Day. I was fascinated yesterday, to read an article by Gina Woodhill on issues in the yoga industry in Australia. I would not be surprised if similar issues applied in other western countries. I agree with and am similarly concerned with the issues. I do not go to yoga classes. I have had several experiences with yoga teachers who show the arrogance she spoke of, and I have not felt such classes met the intent of yoga practice. But I do practice yoga.

I practice yoga at home, or in my office. Most recently, I practiced on my friend’s balcony in beautiful Brisbane. I don’t own a yoga mat, yoga pants or have a favourite yoga studio. I can’t afford to take a class and prefer the independence of solitary practice. In the cold Canberra winter, I like to practice when my body is warm after the shower. When I’m at home, I may lay a blanket on the floor. I like to practice in my pyjamas.

Pyjamas, balcony, yoga (the mat belonged to my friend)

Pyjamas, balcony, yoga (I borrowed the mat from my friend)

I started practicing because I wanted to move my body in healthy ways. I have a chronic health condition, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. I am fatigued by auditory overload, cognitive overload and physical activity. When I fatigue, my neurological function deteriorates to the extreme; I have trouble walking, talking and even thinking. When I fatigue like that, it is very undignified. My body sort of collapses in on itself, and when I am extremely bad, tears may fall from my eyes and my nose may run. It is easy to hate my body for what it cannot do, and what it does do.

I practice yoga to learn to love my body, to be mindful of what it can do, and to appreciate it. It makes me feel good. It is good for my mental health, and for my physical health.

I do a simple Sun Salutations routine, from an app on my mobile phone. The app is from, the routine is labelled as wellness for beginners. Doing yoga has helped with my balance and my strength. I am sure it has contributed to my reduced reliance on my walking stick. It also improves my posture, which is important after the indignity and physicality of collapsing in on myself.

Since getting sick, I’ve needed to learn to seriously listen to what my body tells me. I have needed to learn to identify triggers, to know when to stop an activity, and learn to recognise the onset of an episode or deterioration. My understanding of good yoga practice is that it is deeply tied to this notion of mindfulness; one of the key benefits I gain from my practice.

I had always been concerned about protecting my back from an old thoracic spine injury. But practicing yoga in this way also helps me manage my back; preventing flare ups and pain management.

I don’t think yoga is just for svelte women in lycra pants in classy studios. I think yoga is for everyone. This International Yoga Day, I hope more people can identify the ways in which yoga might be accessible for them and improve their wellbeing the way it has improved mine.


A friend of mine recently posted this youtube clip.

I jiggle therefore I am.

Feeling like a fox,

I kick balls,

Deal with it.

Damn right I look hot.


I was stoked. He does such great work (for his take on ethical fashion check out ishivest). He’s a great guy, working on community engagement and participatory democracy in Chicago. He’s also pretty good looking. It made me happy that someone of such calibre was posting a clip about women’s body image. It’s not just any clip mind you; it’s great.

This Girl Can is a women’s health campaign from the UK and I can’t think of a healthier message. It taps into one of the issues described in Emma Watson’s He for She speech at the UN: women and girls opting out of sport because they don’t want to look muscly, are embarrassed about sweat, or the other things that go with being active. But it’s not just that. It’s not about being thin, being good, or winning. It’s about moving and relishing what that does to your body.

I’ve never really felt the fear of sweat or muscle that I hear those women talk about. I’ve never been thin, but I’ve always liked working up a sweat. I jiggle. I sweat. When I’m rocking on the dance floor I feel like a fox. I love to kick a soccer ball; I do it with attitude, even if I’m not very good at it. I enjoy it. Damn right I look hot, I am hot; that’s kind of the point isn’t it, to get the heart pumping?

I’ve never been sporty, but I’ve been a relatively active person most of my life. I loved swimming from an early age: it was my thing, the sport I did as a kid. I didn’t learn to ride a bike till late in primary school, but when I bought my own, I loved to ride it to school. I was a Girl Guide and loved to hike. I loved orienteering. I joined the Army, and served for many years. I used to love running. I tried combatting my fear of heights by taking up rock climbing in the Grampians. I travelled to Africa and climbed a live volcanothat was hard work.

I climbed an active volcano and camped the night on the rim of the crater.

I climbed an active volcano and camped the night on the rim of the crater.

But what I really love about the This Girl Can video is the diversity of subjects. There are women of colour, women with disabilities, skinny women, bigger women, young women, old women. The campaign isn’t about a goal, or a competition, it’s just about moving what you have as best you can. For me, that’s a very empowering message.

A couple of years ago, I had a minor surgery and got a major infection which left me with a chronic, disabling illness. Now, I get auditory overload. I get cognitive fatigue, and physical fatigue. When I fatigue, I have trouble walking, talking and even thinking.

I can’t be around loud noises. So there’s no more dancing in clubs for me. Oh how I miss dancing. I can’t be in a place where lots of people are talking at once, so even backyard parties are a problem. Soccer is out of the question. If I go swimming, I need to be careful that I have enough energy left to climb the three flights of stairs to my apartment. I live alone so I need to leave myself enough energy to be safe and self sufficient. Yes, sex is a problem.

It’s been hard not to resent my body; not to be angry at being trapped in such an unhelpful place. It’s scary. It’s disempowering. It’s upsetting. It’s frustrating.

Sometimes people say, ‘you should keep positive.’ But as our beloved Stella Young used to say “no amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp.”


Part of maintaining my quality of life and good mental health is re-imagining a positive future for myself, within the confines of my current condition. It’s not healthy to go on falsely expecting everything to go back to the way it was before, if it won’t. No amount of smiling at the Hip Hop club will make me able to go in and dance the night away; or even have one dance without collapsing in the corner, a spastic bundle unable to control my limbs. So I am on a journey; learning to love my body for what this girl, and this body, can do.

There are a whole range of bonus This Girl Can clips. There’s one about a busy mum, one about losing inhibitions. But I really like the one called Grace Vs Pace. Grace rides a bike. She doesn’t wear lycra and she doesn’t go fast, but she goes and I think that’s great.


These days, I’m managing my health well enough that I can ride my bike from home to my office at uni. I ride my bike, and I do yoga.  I can’t afford lessons or anything; I have an app on my phone. I just have a little town bike, with three gears. I dawdle my way down the bike path, letting the men in lycra zoom past me. I love it. I love the physical act of cycling, I love the quiet bike path, I love that I’m doing something active, and I love that I don’t need to take the bus. When I get to uni, I open my window onto the oak filled courtyard and do a simple yoga routine. It calms me, it gives me the time to be mindful of my body, and to work it gently, kindly, beneficially.

There is no inspiration porn here, but someone trying to figure out what #thisgirlcan and I love that I’m able to do something good for, and with, my body.

Letter to Stella Young

Today I am grieving the loss of a great Australian. Many of us are. It was with great sadness that I heard of the unexpected death of Stella Young. In a tribute piece published today, Stella’s friend and one of my favourite writers, Clementine Ford said with perfect eloquence “she spearheaded a conversation in this country about the dignity and autonomy of disabled people, whom she always maintained were truly disadvantaged not by their bodies or conditions but by a society which insisted on marginalising them.”

I kind of knew Stella in high school. I spent some time at Stawell Secondary College while she was there. I was a few years behind Stella, but I saw her around, and chatted to her a few times. I was mostly too scared to say much, I’d gone through some tough times and was pretty reserved during that time of my life. But she stood out from the crowd, with a personality that demanded to be noticed. We had friends in common. I was very glad to see her rise in prominence for her opinion, comedy and advocacy. I think she was Stawell’s greatest daughter. In 2012, when I first got sick, I wanted to tell her what her advocacy meant to me. So I wrote her a letter. Today, I find myself wanting to share that letter with you all.


19 May 2012

Dear Stella,

I have always been in favour of a National Disability Insurance Scheme. But recently, I have gained a new insight into its importance.

As a child, I always had people around me with some kind of disability. The family I grew up with included a young boy with Down syndrome, my primary school was fully integrated and my Girl Guide unit included young people with disabilities. In primary school, I grew up with friends who were deaf, had learning disabilities, and one who was in a wheel chair. I knew and loved them for who they were, and (within the bounds of my young but curious understanding) always tried to be supportive and understanding of their needs and aspirations. When I moved away from Melbourne in my mid teens, I spent six months at school in country Victoria. In Stawell, along with the rest of the community, I was struck by your determination, positivity and productivity in any endeavour you undertook. I have been joyed to see you clearly articulate issues around disability rights and the NDIS in the national media.

Recently, I began suffering neurological symptoms that have been very frightening. The first of these came on very suddenly and left me totally immobile. I was struggling to maintain consciousness and communication was very difficult. Admitted to hospital, I was glad to see my immobility begin to leave, but weakness in my legs remained. This has continued to occur to me intermittently. It is not only a terrifying experience, to become so vulnerable, but I also struggled a great deal with my own dignity. I remember struggling with a bed pan two times in one night, till the nurses said they would put a catheter in me. I was so angry and frustrated, thinking I would soon improve, and be able to use the toilet, if I only I were given the chance. Eventually, I got the hang of it. But found the whole experience terribly undignified, being left alone with urine all over my butt cheeks. I recognise and understand the amount of work a nurse has to do, and mean to pass no judgement there, but mean to merely articulate the importance of supporting those less able in the most dignified manner possible. On one occasion I was able to inform the nurse that I was losing the ability to move and was then left totally alone for three hours with no one to even check if I had choked on my tongue, let alone offer a simple reassurance of another’s company. I was once told to simply walk down the hallway to the nurses station. On another occasion, I was told to swallow my pills, despite the fact that I wasn’t able to move. I remember being stranded in the toilet, with nothing but the smell of my own faeces for 20 minutes awaiting help to get up, flush, and return to my bed. Or having a nurse call a wardsman to help me to the toilet, despite the fact that I needed help pulling my underpants down.

Put simply, while I have always understood the truly basic notion of the dignity of people with a disability, and have supported dignified constructive and tailored support for people with disabilities, I have a new found appreciation. I want to thank you for your longstanding contributions to advocacy and support for young people and people with disabilities. I look forward to those moments when such work pays off.

Thank you kindly.