"Depression is an illness. If we are to be angry at anything, then we can be angry at that."

Tragically I, like many, have had to attend funerals of friends who have taken their own life.

Trigger warning: This post deals with mental illness and suicide.

One was for a colleague. It was unexpected, it was tragic, it caused untold damage to his family and I was one of many who spoke and cried in the Chamber after his death.

In my condolence speech to him on that day – one I really did not want to do because what words are there to describe this situation – I said that I was “angry and sad to be here today,” and that among other parties I was angry at him “for not having the faith in those around [him].”

Anna Burke on ABC’s Q&A this week.

Many people thought my sentiment was not right and that being angry was unjust. But I was angry — I think in some ways I still am — as well as sad both him and his family.

Yes, it was a complex situation but I’m not sure his death solved the problem. Words are my tools and they failed me; it was too hard to express.

Years later, I attended another tragic funeral; one for a friend made in my heady uni days: the younger brother of a mate, part of the crowd, the kind of person you know will make any event that more fun and enjoyable.

He was witty, charming, gorgeous, insightful and just nice, though looking back he probably did had a dark Heathcliff side about him.

Related: WATCH: This Ted Talk on depression is flawless. 

It was at that funeral that his brother found the perfect words for his eulogy – words that I had never been able to find. He stated it plainly: “My brother had an illness, it killed him.”

That is what we need to recognise: it is an illness. Depression and other forms of psychosis are illnesses, and it is the illness which makes a person suicidal.


So if we are to be angry at anything, then we can be angry at the illness.

We also need to accept that like most illnesses, we can treat it and we can help prevent it, but in order to do so we need to recognize it for what it is; an illness. We need to invest in it just as we do with other illnesses, like cancer.

As I said on Q & A last week, this is an epidemic — but we don’t talk about it. We used to put the heroin deaths on the front of the paper. We used to put up the road toll.

Well, the numbers are just as bad as those epidemics, and they’re frightening.

Related: This is how postnatal depression feels. 

A million people each year worldwide will commit suicide and for one person who succeeds, another 20 make an attempt. These numbers are daunting.

We need to accept this for the disease epidemic it is, and rather than obsess over how many hospital beds we allocate to the disease, we need to listen to the experts — by channeling more money, more effort and more research into intervening early to keep people out of hospital and save their lives.

I, like you, want never to go to one of these funerals again.

Anna Burke is the Federal Labor Member for Chrisholm.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner or in Australia, contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support, beyondblue 1300 22 4636 or SANE Australia for information.