Ten seconds is often all that stands between me and the end of my life.
In that brief period of time, while standing at a set of traffic lights along a busy road, cars rushing past, I could take one small step forward.
Driving along a highway at night with countless trees flashing past, a decision in those 10 seconds could see my car veering into their trunks.
This is the reality that people with suicidal thoughts live with. This is my reality.
My story began when I moved from the country to the city.
I was nervous, excited and sure of myself; this is when my life would begin, I thought, the previous 18 years having been my hibernation.
But it wasn’t like my hometown at all. People didn’t make eye contact or say ‘hello’ to you in the street and everyone seemed to be in a hurry.
The trendiest parts of town at night looked a lot like the pubs I was used to avoiding.
The seas of faces rushing through the city by day and lines stretching around blocks at night were a far cry from my upbringing and made me feel more isolated than ever, as I found it difficult to fit in to a new way of life.
I had no financial support for the move. I’m sure I could have asked, but didn’t want to impose on my parents.
I started working three jobs on top of going to university. My routines became non-existent, relationships disintegrated and my mental health spiralled.
An uncomfortable presence was rising around me like a fog.
Thoughts were creeping in. A woman’s voice, although I couldn’t tell if it was myself or not. She said: “You want to die, you are worthless, just kill yourself.”
Oh, how often I still hear that voice.
It comes and goes and I have been living with its presence for the better part of a decade.
I have made many attempts to get help.
The first place I went was the free uni counsellor. I attended a session, explained the voices, that I wouldn’t act on them, and expressed distress.
I was offered a box of tissues and told: ‘Sorry, we’re not qualified to help’.
This was a blow but I found the strength to go to a real doctor. I got a referral from a friend and when I arrived, was told to fill out a questionnaire.
After answering 10 or so questions relating to how I was feeling, I had a brief chat with the doctor and it was surmised I had clinical depression.
I was then told I wouldn’t be referred to a psychiatrist unless I tried a course of medication first. I didn’t want to take the medication but obliged.
It didn’t help. I went off it cold turkey and ended up staying with my aunt for a couple of months to regroup.
I went back to my doctor once I was in a stronger headspace and demanded the referral to the psychiatrist without the drugs. Why do I have to be so forthright, I wondered?
I went to see the psychiatrist and thankfully we clicked but he is the only one I’ve ever found I can speak to and I now live in a different city.
Last year, my thoughts again became overwhelming and I went to a doctor in significant distress.
He was kind as I cried uncontrollably in his office and assured me I would receive a call within 24 hours. He gave me a prescription for a drug to take.
I asked for a referral to a psychologist but was told no and again assured someone would soon be in contact.
I left the doctor, picked up the prescription, took the pill, vomited, passed out and woke up hours later feeling dazed and beaten.
I never did get that phone call.
I tried again to get a referral months later and two out of the three names I was provided had moved on from their practices.
I share this glimpse of my experience because, although I am still alive, it’s definitely not because of the medical attention I sought.
My survival is no thanks to the counsellors or doctors I went to in my darkest hours – and that worries me deeply.
It is hard to keep up with the mental health industry.
We have advocacy organisations, black tie events, lapel pins, wrist bands, bumper stickers and now a Productivity Commission report.
We hear about mental health and suicide prevention non-stop. But how often do we hear directly from the people who have experienced it?
Last month, it was revealed that one million Australians have sought mental health treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This week, we found out that the financial cost of mental illness and suicide in Australia amounts to an enormous $220 billion a year.
As Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, it is most confronting and heartbreaking that suicide is the leading cause of death among our young people.
What are they experiencing? And if they try to seek help, what is happening to them? Who is helping?
For me, when I’m struggling, I focus on getting through the next 10 seconds. And the 10 seconds after that. And then another 10 seconds.
But I shouldn’t have to and I don’t want to.
Australia’s health care system is one of the best in the world and I feel lucky to live in a country that has something like Medicare.
The additional investment in the mental health sector over recent years is welcome, but there are still far too many barriers to seeking mental health treatment and support.
Training and awareness in how we deal with at-risk or suicidal people has a long way to go and I don’t believe I should have to go to a GP every single time I want a referral to a psychiatrist I know and trust.
I am concerned about the way drugs can be administered by GPs and how it can cause some at-risk people to spiral further into darkness.
I’m bothered by the fact that frontline services for young people have a blanket policy of only seeing and supporting them until they turn 25, and then they’re moved on.
It can be distressing for a young person who hasn’t found their way to be suddenly thrust into a care system that isn’t capable doing the job it was designed to do.
Government mental health funding continues to rise, but so too does the suicide rate. It is clear the current approach is not working.
Faced with no other prospects, people like me instead rely on 10 short seconds to cope and keep ourselves alive.
How is that good enough in a country like ours?
Anna Jabour is a florist and communications specialist for Save the Children. She is a former adviser to the first female Queensland Premier Anna Bligh, first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the inaugural Victorian Chief Engineer Dr Collette Burke