real life

Samuel Johnson lost his mum to suicide when he was 3. For years, he knew nothing about her.

Content warning: This post includes discussion of suicide that may be distressing to some readers.

The Hospital: In the Deep End is the SBS show audiences are connecting with deeply at the moment.

Three Australian icons — actor Samuel Johnson, and TV presenters Melissa Leong and Costa Georgiadis — were thrown out of their comfort zones when they visited one of the country's busiest hospitals, St Vincent's Sydney.

Johnson has a strong personal connection to the public health system. 

He's familiar with oncology wards, as a result of his sister Connie's battle with cancer

He understands St Vincent's Alcohol and Drug service, already knowing what it's like to receive treatment for drug and alcohol issues — something he underwent years ago.

Most powerfully though, Johnson also visits the hospital's mental health unit. Speaking with Mamamia, Johnson says he knew this experience would likely bring his own battles with mental health to the surface, as well as those of his mother, who tragically died by suicide when he was just three years old.

Watch the trailer for The Hospital: In The Deep End. Post continues below.

Video via SBS.

Getting to know the emergency department's psychiatric emergency care centre, Johnson says he was quite anxious to be in that environment. 

"My palms started sweating and my heart rate went up. Especially when it came to the involuntary part of the mental health ward, that was very challenging. I had to try and build some trust between us all. But it's a tough ask when you've got people in that ward staring down death itself. These are people in the greatest of distress, dancing that delicate line between life and death," he says.

"I'm not sure how productive I could be for them. Thankfully, we have trained professionals who know what to do."

There was one moment in particular that has resonated with countless viewers. It was a conversation between Johnson and an in-patient, Johnson using his personal experience to provide support to the young woman next to him who was experiencing suicidal ideation.  

"There was that peer support element in that room where I was able to share with her. I didn't have anything to offer, but I could relate to her on a number of levels. I found that incredibly rewarding," says Johnson.

"In between filming, I was chatting with a girl in the mental health section. We became firm friends, and now pen pals. We still write to each other, we're both fans of Japanese fiction. To still have her in my life is such a treat."

Johnson, adds: "You don't want to put real people and real feelings under the rug, I've done that before and it tends not to work."


Johnson has lost two people he loved dearly to suicide. On the night he split with his girlfriend years ago, she took her own life. 

"She [took her own life] just before her 21st birthday. She had a full life to live. I wish she didn't [take her own life]," he said in The Hospital

Samuel Johnson, along with Melissa Leong and Costa Georgiadis, all spent time at St Vincent's to see what the public health system is like. Image: SBS/Lisa Tomasetti.

Sadly, when Johnson was three years old, he lost his mother to suicide. She had struggled much of her life with complex mental health. It was Johnson's sister Hilde who found their mother deceased. Hilde was 12 years old at the time.


"My mum was in and out of psychiatric institutions before she took her own life. There was a bit of a trigger," Johnson says about visiting the St Vincent's mental health unit.

"I noticed in the music room in the ward they had a piano just like Mum's. When I finished that day of filming, I called my sister and asked whether mum had been a good pianist. My sister was old enough to remember her, I don't. Apparently she was very gifted and that helped me build a beautiful human in my mind around what I imagined was a dark and stormy cloud," he tells Mamamia.

"When I grew up, we didn't talk about mum's suicide. It was upsetting for Dad, so I didn't bring it up. I didn't know what colour hair she had. I didn't know if she was buried or cremated. I didn't know her middle name, I had no idea if I was breastfed. There's just a whole lot that I never asked, because I didn't want to upset people."

Now, Johnson says, he and his loved ones talk, hug and cry. They share stories and he says that seeing that taboo lift makes him happy and proud.

"We all fall prey to the human condition at times, and none of us are immune. It's something that impacts every family."

One of the biggest takeaways from The Hospital for Johnson has been his reinvigorated respect and appreciation for frontline workers in the public health system. 

He notes that we call these frontline workers heroes for a reason. Yet they tend to face more violence in their work than a police officer does. They cannot be lauded enough.


Johnson says his experience working on the docuseries was "quite cathartic" as it showed him that "the system has changed a lot, for the better".

"When my mum was alive, she was told she was 'crazy' and put in these things called 'mental homes'. Thankfully, those don't exist anymore. It's encouraging to see the change and the support offered to people who are struggling with their mental health. Of course funding to the public system would make even more of a difference."

Ultmately, Johnson hopes the show not only shines a light on the vital public health system that often is taken for granted, but encourages governments to provide better funding.

"We know the government are watching. I did a q&a last week with the New South Wales Health Minister and many other ministers and the show was brought up a lot. We want to also show the power figures that their constituents really care about our public health system. We care a lot and want to make it better."

The Hospital: In The Deep End is available to stream free now on SBS On Demand.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, 24-hour support is available through Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

Feature Image: SBS/Lisa Tomasetti.