I remember when I first met Ally years ago at an outdoor boot camp – She wore the biggest smile, incredibly friendly AND clearly fit as F*&K! I fell in love with her naturally positive energy and zest for life and her incredible love of people. It’s only fitting that Ally was the first person I asked to share her story with #mybeautifultribe and connecting her with you all. Also to assist the important work she is doing in raising awareness of mental health and research in a field of suicide prevention that still seems taboo, and of course shine the light bright on the earth Angel that she is. Thank you for trusting me with your personal journey Ally
With lots of love xx Ange
In your own words tell us about yourself.
I have been based in Sydney since early 2015. Beforehand I had been working as a junior psychologist in Western NSW, and then the Mid North Coast of NSW. My last job was in Child Protection before undertaking research… an area I have always been interested in and passionate about, but an area which was incredibly hard to work in. I have always wanted to end up back in research… but I do think the experience of working clinically, and in child protection, made me realise that I needed to be in research sooner than I had thought.
Where are you based? I am based at the Black Dog Institute, which is in Randwick, Sydney.
What is the Black Dog institute how can it help people?
The Black Dog Institute is a mental health institute, dedicated to understanding, preventing and treating mental illness. We are about creating a world where mental illness is treated with the same level of concern, immediacy and seriousness as physical illness; where scientists work to discover the causes of illness and new treatments, and where discoveries are immediately put into practice through health services, technology and community education. We also have a specific suicide prevention focus with our Centre of Research Excellence in Suicide Prevention – which is primarily where my work comes in.
What is your role at the Black Dog Institute and what are your specific interests?
My area of research is an area of psychology in which I have always been extremely passionate about. I work in the youth suicide space. I am currently undertaking my PhD, as well as co-managing a large three-year trial, implementing a US based suicide prevention program in NSW and ACT schools. I also teach a range of first and second year medicine/psychology subjects at the University of New South Wales.
At the forefront of my focus currently is the research I am conducting for my PhD. I am in my last year, and my project investigates the motives for why children, adolescents and young adults attempt suicide. A bit of a story about how I got into this area for my PhD. I was a fair way through the first year of my PhD when a friend asked me for advice as to why her 14-year-old son had attempted suicide. I knew this young boy well. I knew that he had come from a loving, supportive family, and had a strong social network. Never had he shown any concerns of ill mental health, nor had he experienced any significant traumas and./or negative life events that I was aware of. I didn’t know what to tell his mum. I was perplexed, and somewhat ashamed that even though I had been knee-deep in research for the most part of a year – learning every single psychological model and theory of suicide that I could find – I could not offer her any answers. None.
I became extremely motivated to find out why the suicide models, reported in much of the suicide literature that I had become so neurotically familiar with, were not providing any insight. I genuinely wanted to know why my friend’s young son had made the choice to take his own life, and so I decided to ask him myself. This is when I became more perplexed, and really quite shocked to learn that I was, in fact, the only person who had dared ask him the question ‘why’?. It also raised more questions for me, and prompted me to investigate what research, if any, had indeed, asked the question ‘why?’, of those young people who had made a suicide attempt. It turns out my friend’s son, was by no means, the exception.
As reported in my paper, ‘Why Suicide? Reasons for Suicide Attempts as Self-Reported by Youth. A Systematic Evaluation of Qualitative Studies’ (attached), my co-authors and I found that in the last 20 years, only 17 published studies had used qualitative, self-report methods to ask those aged between 12 and 25 why they attempted suicide. This, in itself, confirmed that my friend’s son had helped me to expose a significant gap, and identify an explicitly important area within the suicide research space which has, to date, been significantly underrepresented. We quickly became aware that a clear majority of research undertaken in recent years investigating the motives for why young people attempted suicide, had been quantitative in nature, most commonly, with clinical and/or epidemiological purposes. This quantitative research, and the resultant models and theories of suicide, are of course, not wrong. They are valid. They are reliable. They are essential. But what they alarmingly have failed to do is adequately capture consumer insight – that is – the lived experience of those who have been through the suicide attempt. The people behind the numbers. The stories of those people. While ‘stories’ are not often looked upon favourably in the scientific world, when talking about experiences of suicide – the stories of the people with the experience are in arguably the best form of evidence we can actually obtain. At the end of the day, it is the voice of consumers which will best inform our work. As researchers, I believe we are truly privileged to act as the translators between the consumer voice and the rest of the world, and it is our obligation to get that right.
I am currently undertaking a qualitative study which I designed based on what I learned from conducting my above mentioned review. My study has been set up to allow young people – aged 12 to 25 – the opportunity to come along and share their story. In their words. From their frame of reference. No pressure. No judgement. And no ‘forms to fill’ or ‘diagnostic criteria to fit’. Just the best evidence that could ever be collected… THEIR stories, told in THEIR way.
Statistics: Depression especially suicide is the cause of more than 2,500 deaths of Australians taking their own lives. Suicide is the leading cause of death between 15-44 years of age.
Ally you have been actively involved in leading research into this and also presented at a variety of conferences both here and invited to America to speak on an International level – can you tell us about this?
I have presented my work at a few conferences over the last couple of years. I presented the basis of the work I did in my review at the Brain Sciences Conference here in Sydney, and presented some work that I had done with the NSW Police Force in evaluating the way police officers respond to suicide crisis at the International Crisis Intervention Conference in Chicago last year. Next week, I am headed to Las Vegas to present my current work – the results of my review and the innovative methods and techniques used in my current study – at the International Association of Suicide Research Conference in early November. I am also presenting at the International Society for Mental Health Research Conference in Canberra in December, where I will be giving a presentation about my work and the importance of allowing people to tell their stories about their experiences with suicide, in the scientific space. I wholeheartedly believe that there is a desperate need for acceptance of these methods in science. We need to realise we are dealing with humans…. there are humans behind the statistics, and every life and every experience matters.
Speaking of statistics, there were actually 3027 deaths by suicide in our country last year, based on the very recent stats released by the ABS. One thing I would like to clarify is that suicide is not always caused by depression. In fact, the work that I do actually has found so far that more often than we think, suicide has tended to be the cause of other factors – I.e., sociocultural factors, interpersonal conflict etc., rather than the intrapersonal conflicts (depression, etc) that we most often attribute it with.
To highlight what I mean by this, here is a quote from a 15-year-old girl who was given the opportunity to tell her story as to why she had attempted suicide. She said; “My family is big. We are 7 sisters and brothers. Last night, when I realised my father had no money to buy us food I became so sad. We slept while all of my sisters and my brothers were hungry. I thought the best way to reduce some of the family expenses would be the removal of family members. Therefore, I thought by taking my own life my family’s difficulties would be eased”
This girl had no known history of depression. She had no significant trauma or other negative life experiences reported. She simply realised that if she removed herself from the equation, her siblings would have more food. This appears to be – through the work I am doing – a more common occurrence than we had thought. Things like impulsivity and reactivity to situations (e.g., fights with parents), high pressures on oneself and/or from others to achieve… these are things that our kids are telling us (when we ask) are the reasons why they are attempting suicide. THIS is what we need to be working on. Depression and mental illness, too. Of course. But we need to give a voice to the kids and make sure we are addressing the exact things that they are dealing with… depression, or otherwise.
What are the signs and symptoms that we need to look for when we think someone may be depressed or seriously at risk?
Black Dog Institute has an amazing resources page which explains much of this, particularly around depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and suicide/self-harm.
The question I find I get asked most often is what to do when someone we know may be at risk. Here is some specific info from our site about what to do when we feel someone is at risk:
If you’re worried about someone having suicidal thoughts, there are things you need to do to help them. Act immediately.
Be direct, ask them ‘Are you thinking about suicide?’
Don’t be afraid to ask. It shows that you care.
Asking decreases risk – it shows someone is willing to talk about it.
Most people thinking about suicide want to live. They need someone to help.
2. Listen and stay
Listen to the person you’re worried about. It helps them to talk.
Take what they say seriously.
Don’t leave them alone.
Check their safety. Make sure there is nothing they can use to harm themselves (such as a weapon, car, drugs, medicines).
3. Get help
If someone’s life is in danger:
Call Emergency on 000
Call Lifeline on 13 11 14
Or take them straight to Emergency at a hospital
If you can get in immediately, see a GP or psychologist.
Even if danger is not immediate, the person needs support for the problems that made them feel this way. Encourage them to get help and to seek support and more information.
4. Follow up
Make sure you follow-up and check on the person often.
Showing that you care can make a difference.
Make sure the right professional people are aware of what’s going on.
You don’t have to take on all of this responsibility by yourself.
What drives you to do this work?
I am so ridiculously passionate about this work. Unbeknownst to many people, I have actually had a suicide attempt myself when I was younger. It’s probably not something many people know – not because I am ashamed – but because I was. For a long time. I felt like there was nobody I could talk to about what I was going through. Nobody who could possibly understand what it feels like to not have the energy and/or desire to live through the pain of circumstance(s). Whether we like it or not, that stigma still exists. And… I want it gone. I want young people who are battling, just like I was a young person who battled (and there are many of us who do, often quietly), to know there is always someone who is willing to listen. That it is never weak to speak about what’s going on. That their battles and their demons are real, and that they have the right – as a human – to make it through them.
How do you stay mentally fit yourself when working in such a role?
Honestly, I also battled a fair bit with suicidal ideation, mainly in more recent years as a result of the work I did as a psychologist. Ironic, right? I hit rock bottom about three years ago, when I came out of my child protection role… very triggered by what I had experienced, and very deflated about the world I was living in. I finally learned to reach out. For me, it took sitting on a beach – talking (well… crying) on the phone to one of my best friends for a good couple of hours. Since that moment, I have learned that to stay mentally healthy, sometimes, you just need to reach out. To a friend. To a psychologist. To a psychiatrist. To whoever and whatever works for you. I still have crappy days, don’t get me wrong. We ALL do!! But I guess the lesson I’ve learned, and the lesson I want to leave with every single person I come across in the work I do (and out of it, too), is that it is perfectly ok to have crappy days. And to be sad. But it’s not ok to stay there. The longer you stay there, the harder it is to come out. I, personally, am good these days. I know when I am starting to fall, and I have a brilliant support network around me. A very small one (quality over quantity is a great lesson I’ve learned over the years – you can be surrounded by people and feel VERY alone if they’re the wrong people), but a very great one. I know this is going to be annoying to some people – and that’s ok, because we’re not all wired the same – but exercise is most definitely a way I keep myself mentally healthy. I think that’s a story for another day, though…