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For anyone contemplating suicide, please read about Nellie Bishop.

By MIA FREEDMAN

Here’s a short story that some people really need to hear. In the 1920s there was an Australian woman called Nellie Bishop who was distraught after a messy, broken romance. So she went to a notorious Sydney suicide spot and jumped off a cliff in an attempt to end her life.

But her life had other plans.

Just as she jumped, a freak wave swept in and broke her fall before she was plucked – gratefully – from the ocean by passing fishermen.

You see, halfway down in mid-air, Nellie changed her mind. Suddenly, she wanted to live.

Author and journalist, Peter FitzSimons, unearthed Nellie’s story a few years ago and wrote about it, noting that:

“…despite the blackness that propelled her to jump, despite being firmly convinced that there was no way out for her, that life was not worth living, that death was better than life. . . she was totally, comprehensively and stunningly wrong.

For Nellie Bishop really did live happily ever after. She fell in love again with a good man, had eight wonderful children, of whom five joined the police force and one, Bob Bradbury, became NSW’s highest ranking detective. One of her dozens of grandchildren and great grandchildren, Bill Bradbury, became a police negotiator and ended up spending a proportion of his professional life successfully talking people out of suicide. He had a story to tell them . . .”

nellie bishop cliff
Image: National Library

Talking with Pete about Nellie over a cup of tea one day, he and I agreed there should be a large plaque erected at that cliff top spot which told Nellie’s story so anyone who stood there contemplating suicide could think about her sliding doors moment and maybe, hopefully, consider how well their own life might turn out – if they let it.

If you work in the media, you learn to tread very cautiously when covering suicide. There are fairly strict media guidelines around the way they’re reported and for good reason. As adolescent psychologist Dr Michael Carr Gregg explained to me, ‘Suicide contagion’ is a phenomenon first recognised in 1774 after the publication of Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, which featured a young man who killed himself over unrequited love. A spate of copycat suicides across Europe led to the book being banned in Germany, Italy and Denmark.

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From left, clockwise: Simone Battle, Robin Williams, L’Wren Scott (with Mick Jagger), Charlotte Dawson.

The often-repeated phenomenon was also seen in Japan in 1986 with the suicide of the pop star Yukiko Okada. There’s now also the Yukiko syndrome where the more a suicide is reported the greater the likelihood of copycat cases.

That’s why you’ll sometimes read or hear about a death reported in vague terms. Why the method of a suicide is never disclosed. And why there are so many, many suicides you’ll never know about because they’re not reported at all.

But of course that’s all changed with social media and the spate of celebrity suicides we’ve seen this year. First Charlotte Dawson, then Robin Williams and just yesterday, 25 year old Simone Battle, a singer from girl band G.R.L.

Now, when a celebrity takes their life, the response is instantaneous, global and at times disturbing.  Many overseas media organisations reported astonishingly graphic details of Robin Williams’ suicide. The police even gave a press conference about it. Nothing can be hidden anymore. The old rules – designed to protect the vulnerable – no longer apply. Australian guidelines are meaningless in a global media and social media landscape.

Facebook is the biggest publisher in the world but it’s not governed by media regulations like the ones we have here regarding suicide. That’s how tribute pages for suicide victims spring up within minutes and how thousands of people gather to leave messages and exchange details about the suicide and the person who has passed away.

On the upside, according to Michael Carr-Gregg, it can be a powerful medium where people at risk of suicide are able to come into contact with support at sites such as Beyondblue.org.au. And psychologists are increasingly moving into cyberspace with counselling sessions by kidshelpline and reachout now available online.

So what am I trying to say? Maybe it’s that we have to find a balance between celebrating the life of those we’ve lost, appreciating their pain and avoiding making suicide look in any way like a good idea or a solution. And right now, the media and the community aren’t quite managing to get that right as we grapple with the impact (both positive and negative) of the Internet on suicide contagion.

Oh, and Nellie Bishop? In 1988, at the age of 89, Nellie passed away from natural causes as the matriarch of a very large and loving family. She was happy. And incredibly relieved and grateful that her suicide attempt was thwarted by that freak wave.

Because her life got better.

If you or a loved one need help, please take a look at the following websites:

Lifeline Australia for crisis support and suicide prevention: https://www.lifeline.org.au/

Beyondblue, for depression and anxiety: http://www.beyondblue.org.au/

SANE, the national mental health charity: http://www.sane.org/

Moodgym, for free online cognitive behaviour therapy: http://moodgym.anu.edu.au/welcome

Headspace, for online counseling: http://www.headspace.org.au/is-it-just-me/getting-help/eheadspace

Kidshelpline: http://www.kidshelp.com.au/kids/get-help/web-counselling/

PANDA, the post and antenatal depression association: http://www.panda.org.au/

The below TV commercial has been filmed in support of World Suicide Prevention Day (10 September). For more, visit their website

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ve decided to close comments on this post. If anyone who has commented or read the comments and are feeling distressed, please think of calling Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Kids Help Line on 1800 55. 1800.   

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