Warning: this story deals with topics that some might find distressing.
Gerard Kelly from Hamilton City Council lost his brother Mike to suicide. It’s coming up two years and the emotion is still raw. Gerard’s taking part in Movember to raise awareness about mental health, and to honour Mike’s life.
Gerard is the Community Planting Coordinator in the Parks and Recreation Unit. He’s one of a 10 Council staff taking part in Movember, the multi-national fundraising event that raises awareness and funding for men’s health issues, such as prostate and testicular cancer, and mental health. But it’s the latter that is closest to Gerard’s heart.
“We don’t talk about suicide,” said Gerard, “and that’s part of the problem. Men die by suicide at an alarming rate, and it’s often the culmination of untreated mental illness.”
Gerard’s brother Mike died just before Christmas two years ago after a short, but crippling battle with mental illness. “No-one saw it coming. One minute he was here, the next he was gone.”
Gerard says there’s a stigma around suicide, but it is important to remember the person was unwell and not in their right state of mind.
“When a loved one dies of cancer or heart disease, we blame the sickness. It usually sparks a conversation about it. We go get a check up, or watch what we eat. But when someone takes their life, we usually sweep it under the carpet. It’s too hard to talk about. But it’s a sickness, just like cancer or heart disease, and it can be treated.”
Gerard underwent his own health scare several years ago when a leaky heart valve required a full valve replacement. “It was my GP that spotted it during a check up, but it could have quite easily been a different story.”
Having lost his dad to a heart attack, it was quite a scary moment. “But with the right treatment, I’m now as good as gold.”
Gerard says everyone has a responsibility to take practical steps to look after themselves, including their mental health.
“Stress is a big killer, so reducing stress is critical. For some, just getting back into nature is really important. And I’m a great believer in volunteer work; it’s amazing to see the effect on a person when they take the focus off themselves and give something to others – it’s a game changer.
“There’s actually a lot of good, practical tools out there now too. Like the depression.org.nz website, and the Employee Assistance Programme available through work. I’m not afraid to admit I used it when Mike died, and it helped.”
Gerard also reckons checking in with your mates is key. “Ask how they’re feeling and be honest if you get asked too. You can’t always spot the signs that someone is battling, but if you do you might just be able to steer them in the right direction for help,” said Gerard.
“But at the end of the day, it’s up to the individual to seek help.”
Gerard remembers Mike for the loving and charismatic man that he was, not for the sickness that ultimately took him. You can visit Gerard’s Movember page to make a donation, and see who else from Council is taking part.
If you need help or just want to talk to someone about anything you might be struggling with, free call or text 1737 to talk to a trained counsellor, or call the Suicide Crisis Helpline 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) at any time.