real life

In 2018, Vanessa's husband was diagnosed with depression. He asked her to help him take his own life.

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

When Vanessa looks back now, she can see the warning signs.

But at the time, she never expected it. 

For a very long time, her husband, Franco, never had any issues with his mental health. 

He was rarely ill, had a loving family, and wasn't the type of person to let things bother him. 

If he wasn't feeling his best, "he would just go for a jog, sweat it out and he'd be fine," Vanessa told Mamamia.

So when Franco woke up on an April morning in 2018 and came downstairs to tell Vanessa he was struggling, it was the last thing she expected to hear. 

"He said, 'Something is terribly wrong. I feel nothing, I'm in a really bad way... you need to get me to the doctors'."

Vanessa couldn't believe the words she was hearing from her husband of 30 years.

"I was blindsided," the 53-year-old recalled. 

The pair had been together since Vanessa was 21. 

They spent 20 happy years travelling the world together before their daughter, Zara, was born in 2009, and joined them on their adventures. The couple later went on to work together when they started a sign supplier business in Sydney.

"When you've spent 20 years together without a child, you really do get to know each other very well."



After Franco opened up about how he was feeling that morning, he sought help from a GP. 

It was there, in the office of a doctor he had just met, that he was diagnosed with a severe form of clinical depression and prescribed an antidepressant on the spot. He was also referred to a psychologist and a psychiatrist.

"To give [an antidepressant] to someone you don't know... in hindsight, I would never have given him an antidepressant," said Vanessa.

Looking back, the 53-year-old says only now can she see the signs that her husband was suffering from depression.

"There were maybe a couple of times that he felt a bit anxious about things, which was a bit out of character for Franco... He sold a business and he wasn't happy with it."

"Everybody that knows Franco was shocked to think that he could even be suffering from depression."

Three days after being prescribed the medication, things took a turn for the worse and he was "in a very bad way, suicidally".

"Luckily, he had the support, he knew he could reach out to me and say, 'I'm even worse now'."

Things continued to spiral and four weeks later, Franco was admitted to hospital, where his medication was changed. 

Doctors didn't know what caused his depression and later put Franco on a course of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) - a procedure, performed under general anesthesia, during which electric currents are passed through the brain to induce a seizure to treat symptoms of certain mental health conditions.


Two more rounds of ECT followed.

When things didn't improve, he was hospitalised for a further three months and administered another 22 ECTs.

But nothing was working.

Over the course of the next three years, he was hospitalised a further seven times, given 96 ECTs, administered 24 transcranial magnetic stimulations (a procedure that uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain to improve symptoms of depression) and prescribed 19 different antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs.

The drugs also came with a plethora of side effects. 

"Every single antidepressant has a whole list of possible side effects... He got psychosis from [one] medication, he got parkinsonian from another medication, he got massive migraines from another medication... The headaches were unbearable for him. But he persevered and thought, 'well, if this is what I have to do, to get better, I will do it.'"

The procedures offered temporary relief and helped "calm" his brain. But they too, came with side effects. 

"He was having seizures [and] he would feel pain in his body afterwards... It's not nice to see."

Franco also experienced memory loss - a common symptom of ECT. 


"At times, he couldn't remember our wedding... [or] he didn't know how to get down to the shops. And this would go on for weeks," she explained.

He also forgot the route to his daughter's school and how to get to his mother's house just around the corner. 

"It was distressing him. It's very distressing when you can't remember things."

Throughout it all, Franco spent 19 months of his life in hospital. 

But he wasn’t getting any better. 

"They talk about this pain that they can't see [and] you can't describe it, all I can say I've seen it. I've seen it in his eyes," she explained. 

The treatments were also costing tens of thousands of dollars and took an emotional toll on Vanessa, who became his full-time carer. 

"My daughter didn't have me around at home because I was at the hospital every day constantly taking him to emergency."

"I was struggling but because I loved him so much, I was never going to abandon him."

Eventually, things started to build up.

"At one stage I thought I was having a heart attack and it was just the pressure. I put so much strain on myself."

Right through his illness, Franco tried to hide his pain from his daughter. 

"He struggled, it was very painful for him to be hugging her because someone who suffers such severe depression, they don't have any feelings, they have nothing, there's just an emptiness... And for him to hug his daughter, it was like he was trying to hold onto a cliff just with your bare fingers... and you want to fall off and you just continually hold on thinking, 'I need to do this for her'."


But with every treatment, the pair were running out of options.

Vanessa with her late husband Franco and their daughter Zara. Image: Supplied.


With hope dwindling, Franco asked Vanessa to help him take his own life.

"There was a day when I just thought he's in so much pain and I love him so much and I wanted to help," she explained.

That day, Vanessa was a mess and rang Lifeline. At the end of the call, she felt "much better" and came to the conclusion she couldn't help him for the sake of their daughter. 

"I thought, I can't do this to my daughter, I can't let her lose her father. So I was trying to find a solution on how to lock him up for good, because that was the only other solution. And at least my daughter would then still have her father. But I'm thinking to myself, that's no life to live."

She was stuck with an impossible choice. 

"I have my daughter on one side who needs a father... But on the other side, I have my husband and he shares with me how much pain he's in and that he wants to die because he can't see any other solution. The doctors have told him, 'There's nothing more we can do for your Franco. We can just keep on trying and medication and just see what happens'."

Franco continued to ask Vanessa for help over the three years of his treatment. 

"I said to him, I will make a promise to you, just to get him to stop, that in two years' time, if we haven't found a way to make you better - and I'm asking you to hold on and have confidence in me that I will find a solution for you - I will help you end your life. 


"That was an agreement that we made but I never thought I would do that... [And] when it came to the two years... I said I can't. I can't do that to you. I can't do that to Zara. I don't want to let you go. I know that you're hurt, I know that you're in a lot of pain, and I can't find any other way to help you."

Then, in 2020, she saw a 60 Minutes program on psychedelic medicines, which led her to reach out to Mind Medicine Australia, a charity advocating for the clinical use of psychedelic-assisted therapies. 

The therapies, used in countries over the world, have led to positive results in patients after just two to three medicinal sessions alongside psychotherapy, Vanessa explained. 

"I thought, Oh, my God, this is it. I might have a solution."

The only problem is, the medicines were not legally accessible in Australia and Vanessa couldn't risk flying her husband overseas in his condition.

She considered going to an underground therapist but her family convinced her she couldn't risk being arrested. 

"My father kept telling me, 'You can't do this because if you get into trouble with the law Zara's likely to still lose her father to suicide, and then she's got her mother having to deal with a possible criminal offence'."

With Franco's condition deteriorating, Vanessa made the decision to re-hospitalise her husband again last year. 

But two weeks after his release, he took his own life. 


That day, Vanessa was lying in bed when she heard Franco walk downstairs. 

"I was so exhausted, and I just couldn't get out of bed to ask where he was going. I live with that every day because I could have just called out, 'Frank, where are you going?' But I was tired and I heard him go downstairs. And then I woke up and I thought he's just gone for a walk, every day, he would go for a walk."

Later that day, while her daughter was happily watching TV, two police officers turned up at her doorstep. 

Her father, who was living with the family at the time, called out to Vanessa. 

"I was totally numb," she shared. "I knew that I had my daughter in the other room so I quickly asked the police to come upstairs at our house so that my daughter didn't have to see what was going on."

After being told the news, Vanessa immediately rung the therapist that was helping her and Franco. 

"She told me to get Zara out of the house, to have a playdate with someone and just keep her away for 24 hours."

So that's what she did. 

The next day, after picking Zara up from school, she broke the news to her daughter. 

"That was the worst day of my life," Vanessa explained. 

"Not finding out that night... not the funeral... the day I had to pick up my daughter from school and bring her home and tell her the news."


"The worst possible moment in your life is when you have to tell a child that she's lost her father and that she knows that he's taken his life. It's not like he's had an accident, he's made the decision to die and that's a very difficult thing for a child to have to grow up with."

It's why she doesn't want any other child to have to lose a parent to mental health. 

And it's why she's pushed for better options to be made available for people like Franco who have treatment-resistant depression. 

In November, Vanessa wrote a letter to her local MP and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, calling for limited access to be made for psychedelic-assisted therapy.

"I'm doing this for my daughter because I'm trying to give her the best environment to deal with the loss of her father to suicide, but just in case, should she not do well, this treatment will be there for her. I will not have to see her go through a system that is not working for thousands and thousands of Australians."

As Tania de Jong AM, the Executive Director of Mind Medicine Australia, explains, the country has a  "broken mental health system".

"We were performing badly in terms of mental illness well before the pandemic, and Australia should be doing better. Franco's story should not have occurred in a country like Australia."

Tania says drugs Medicinal Psilocybin and MDMA can help millions of Aussies with mental health issues, if used in the right setting, with the right clinical supervision.


"Psilocybin in particular is the medicine that has been used to treat depression. Whereas MDMA is more being used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, and addictions as well.

"So effectively, what happens is the medicine works with a brain that becomes quite rigid [and] is very stuck in sort of repetitive thought loops... Psilocybin helps quiet down that default mode network and it starts to reconnect neural pathways that have been not working very well. So you get this very massive neurogenesis, this increased neural plasticity of the brain and this sense of connection with yourself, with others and with the planet. And that's a real gift, especially for someone who's suffering depression... [and] generally feel an enormous sense of disconnection."

Tania says a lot of research describes this process like "resetting" or "rebooting" the brain, much like a computer. 

"When your computer is playing up, you're trying everything but then all of a sudden you turn it off, and then you turn it on again, and it's all fixed. It's sort of like that. It's sort of like turning off parts of your brain that are overactive... and it's putting them to sleep for a little while, in a good way, so that you can then reconnect and start again to lay down thought patterns that are more healthy."

Last week, the TGA announced they have now approved the use of psilocybin and MDMA to treat mental health conditions, with authorised psychiatrists allowed to prescribe the drugs from July 1. 


For Vanessa, the news is bittersweet.

"A huge amount of emotion is running through me," she wrote in a statement on Mind Medicine Australia after learning of the news.

"I feel elated and at the same time a great deal of sadness that my beautiful husband Franco of 30 years couldn’t access psychedelic-assisted therapy in his lifetime.

"If one life can be saved through receiving access to psychedelic-assisted treatment, then my husband’s battle has not gone in vain."

These days, Vanessa is living a happy life with her daughter after finding support from Lifeline. 

"I'm in a very good headspace. I'm happy with life."

As she looks to the future, she cherishes the memories of their travels, and is constantly reminded of her husband by his photos around the house.

"I'm very grateful for the 30 years I have with Franco. I feel he's at peace. And he's not struggling... truthfully, I'm relieved that the pain is over for him."

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.

This article was originally published on November 24, 2022, and was updated on February 8, 2023.

Feature Image: Supplied.