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)
www.kidshelpline.com.au

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