A very personal rural mental health post

Andrew and Marian
“Today, there are only three of us,” my father said, rather matter of factly. It seemed an odd statement as we sat outside my share house in my parents’ Commodore. After all, I was in university now and I could count to three.

“Where’s Andrew?” I asked innocently.

I can’t remember how my parents answered that question but the reason for their surprise trip to Melbourne was to tell me that my brother had drowned at Walkerville the afternoon before, 25 years ago.

Walkerville is a stunning place. Steep cliffs studded with historical sites curtain pristine sand in a sheltered cove that arcs towards Wilson’s Prom.

The sea has cracked open faults in the limestone to create caves walkers explore from the beach. Just as my parents and brother set out to do.

Andrew had not long been discharged from a clinic after months of treatment for obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). The disorder is sent up in rom-com movies every few years but, believe me, there’s nothing funny about living with it.

I’d often visited Andrew during his stay in the clinic. Walking to the local cafes, he’d feel compelled to check whether his wallet was still in his back pocket every few minutes. That didn’t bother me but it was devastating to Andrew.

“I know it’s ridiculous, I know in my head that it’s probably still there but I just can’t make the feeling go away and it’s horrible. It’s not me,” he said.

Another day, Andrew explained that while some of the therapy was helping, he’d come to the gutting realisation that many of the people he’d met at the clinic had been back time and time again.

“I thought the point of being at the clinic was to cure the OCD but maybe I’ll always be like this,” Andrew said very softly.

OCD was the one blight on Andrew’s otherwise rosy horizon. Dux of maths at the grammar school, then a science and engineering student at Monash Uni, Andrew was clever, sporty and social. The total package, the apple of my mother’s eye.

The day he was discharged from the clinic, Andrew insisted on driving the pair of us back to the farm from Richmond. It was a hairy three hours I will never forget. At the intersection of Glenferrie and Dandenong Roads, we happened to be first at the lights. When they changed from red to green, Andrew asked me to remind him what the green meant.

The clinic hadn’t warned me about any odd behaviour, medicinal side effects or that driving might be a problem.

Andrew spent the next two weeks on the farm with Mum and Dad. The three of them decided to join the local walking club for a trip to Walkerville. Mum had dodgy knees, so was slow getting down the steep cliffs and Andrew tagged along with her.

Walking along the beach, Andrew asked Mum if she could see red spots in the sand. She tells me that, realising they weren’t real, Andrew was shattered at the prospect of hallucinations.

Out of breath once they reached the first cave, Andrew sat on a boulder to rest while the group ventured in. When they emerged, the walkers found him floating face down. Despite their desperate efforts, he could not be revived.

The coroner theorised that the drug used to control Andrew’s symptoms had made him susceptible to seizures at times of stress and exertion. My parents had no idea a bushwalk could kill their son.

Later, at a debriefing session, the clinic defended its silence on the side effects of his medication on the grounds of confidentiality. Andrew was 19, after all.

I wasn’t there to hold Andrew’s hand as he sat on top of that boulder and the nightmares of guilt came for maybe a year, nonetheless.

Bending down, I’d be spinning a whirlpool on my back, my brother being sucked slowly but inevitably down. If I allowed the whirlpool to collapse, he would die, if I didn’t free him from it, he would die. Every night I woke in a sweat.

I completed the last semester of my psychology degree in a daze and changed the course of my career to the far less emotionally taxing field of marketing.

Twenty-five years later, the grief has lost its edge but little of its power. A visit to Walkerville last year for a friend’s birthday party seemed to take place in slow motion and left me feeling traumatised for days.

My father is gone, my mother is caught in dementia’s unrelenting grip. She tells the story of that day again and again. The red spots, her leaving him on the boulder, the discovery, the refusal of a boatman to help, the desperate search for someone with a landline at home in a holiday town. I can’t tell you how that hurts.

I still feel bewildered. If the nearest help for Andrew was closer than the three-hour drive from home, if there was the right post-discharge support for him and my parents locally, would that have saved his life?

I’d hoped that today’s rural mental health system treats our most vulnerable brothers, sisters, sons and daughters better but it appears there is a long, long way to go.

A paper prepared just last year called Mental Health Care in Rural Australia shows many rural Australians are still “…falling through service cracks…”.

It takes well-resourced and proactive parents to access professional help, assuming they do recognise the early signs my family missed.

Andrew would be 45 this year. I like to imagine that if things had been different – with the right help – he’d have harnessed that remarkable mind of his to become a brilliant scientist and save the lives of others.

Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800 (24/7 crisis support)

headspace: 1800 650 890
www.headspace.org.au (direct clinical services)

15 thoughts on “A very personal rural mental health post

  1. Mental health assistance is minimal to non existent in rural Australia. The waiting time to see a pyschologist/psycharist can be up to 6 months in some areas. How rediculous!!!


  2. My heart goes out to you and your family, Marian. This was a difficult story to tell, and well written. May your brother rest in peace, and you find peace of mind. I took care of my mother-in-law, who had mild dementia, until she passed on. She had lost a daughter, age 6; the little girl ran into the road after a ball, and was hit by a truck. Died instantly. The pain and guilt of loss was always there, and Mom talked about it often.

    I don’t think rural mental health services are any better over here in the U.S., and are probably going to get worse under the current administration.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That must have been a hard story to tell Marian so well done. I fear (and know from close experience) that the mental health sector needs so much more support from government, not just rural areas, but cities too. Ever since they closed down mental health hospitals years ago there has been a huge gap in support for so many sufferers of these debilitating diseases. I feel sorry for you feeling somehow responsible. You are not and nor is your poor mum, stuck in that recurring nightmare. (Can I add that the lovely Z looks so much like you at that age – just like looking at her!)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I still remember this and how sad the loss of a young man is. Mental health is still misunderstood and somewhat marginalized, particularly in rural environs.
    Your account, as well as being a brave disclosure, will hopefully humanize and improve a system that is increasingly overwhemed by lack of transparency. More funds have to be allocated to Mental Health support, particularly in the ” bush”.
    Thank you, Marion.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Dear Marian,
    Thanks for sharing this story so publicly. You can see yourself the surface of how it has affected people. I know personally that the constant what if I’d been there or what if I’d done something else or were there other options to avoid ‘that’ occurring – or why can’t everyone be helped by ‘the system’ … the many forms of ‘if only’, … never goes away. We can only do our best to look out for the people in our lives and create the safe spaces they need to express their grief, stress, anger and despair; know I’m always there for you.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for this post. Am facing a twenty year anniversary myself this year. My daughter died from an accidental overdose of prescribed medication at age 16 in 1997. She should never have been put on the particular tablets for migraine, the side effects and efficacy were not adequately monitored and her mood swings and depression were completely out of character for an academic and sporting achiever. Sad but a true fact that rural and regional mental health issues are still being inadequately resourced. And yes, like you, the pain dulls in time but it never goes away, and the reminders hit with unexpected timing and intensity over the years. Thanks again and all the best.


  7. Marian – a very sad story – and very well written. I understand your deep grief at the time, the life of a brother close to you that was ended before it really started. You need to also reflect on the fact that Andrew would only have achieved his potential by becoming independent and managing his OCD. And the way he was “managed” on that fateful trip was appropriate with those goals in mind. As you will know in reflecting how you both have managed your children, you will have trained them in new skills and then given them the chance to master those skills initially in a safe environment. Eventually you would have advised them of the risks and allowed them freedoms to develop further in broader environs even though there may have been rare but serious potential risks to them. That’s a normal part of life as a parent. And sometimes it goes wrong.


  8. I know parents who were very particular about the use of a pool in summer including the fact that the youngest was never to be allowed through the safety gate. The mother went inside with the older children including visitors to dry them, the youngest stayed behind and dragged a chair to the safety gate and opened it and got in the pool and drowned. Mother was devastated and blamed herself, taking years to get over the death. In reality the young child was mostly to blame.


Leave a Reply - comments are moderated, so don't worry if your comment doesn't appear straight away, I'm probably just off feeding a child or a cow!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s