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Community bands together to prevent suicide, honour loved ones and offer support amid cost-of-living distress

Alannah McGregor lost two children, Angela and Stuart, to suicide. (ABC Central Victoria: Emma D'Agostino)

As concern about suicide rises nationally, almost 200 people in central Victoria have stepped up to remember loved ones lost and champion prevention. 

For years, the region's Suicide Prevention Awareness Network (SPAN) has hosted a walk to raise awareness of the impact of suicide, to advocate for change, and to help bereaved families and friends heal.

This year, families say the SPAN walk, held on Sunday, is more important than ever — one reason being the elevated distress caused by cost-of-living pressures

Bendigo mum Alannah McGregor lost two of her children to suicide within a month of each other, 20 years ago last year

She was instrumental in starting the city's SPAN walk, after going to one in Geelong.

"I felt that I could learn from what had happened to us as a family, and I also believed that other people could learn from it, too," Ms McGregor said. 

Ms McGregor has become a suicide prevention advocate, recognised for her work in central Victoria and further afield. 

She said she and SPAN were working to break down the stigma that still surrounded suicide.

"It's one of those types of grief that you don't often get people being supportive [about]," she said.

"More often than not, people are frightened of coming to you."

Community comes together

Lisa Kidman protesting against the graveside adornment crackdown in January. (ABC Central Victoria: Emma D'Agostino)

One of the things Lisa Kidman appreciates about the event is the opportunity to be there for one another. 

She lost her 17-year-old daughter Lindsay to suicide nine years ago.

"Sometimes you get to the SPAN walk and you might be doing better than others," Ms Kidman said. 

"You can broach [the topic with] someone if they're, you know, looking like they need that extra support. You can have conversations with people. 

"It's an opportunity to just touch base with how the rest of the community are feeling." 

This is the first year Ms Kidman hasn't been able to attend the walk.

She fractured her ankle while visiting her daughter's grave in January, after it was stripped of decorations during a crackdown on adornments.

She said it was difficult not to be there to walk in remembrance of Lindsay.

"We're all walking for the same cause: to bring light to suicide prevention, to try and take stigma out of the fact mental health issues are there and suicide is real."

Almost 200 people attended this year's SPAN walk in Bendigo. (ABC Central Victoria: Emma D'Agostino)

Honouring relatives

Jaymee Doyle lost an aunt to suicide 10 years ago.

"Twelve months later my uncle killed himself because he couldn't live without her," Ms Doyle said. 

Jaymee Doyle lost her aunt, Wendy, and her uncle, Jeffrey, to suicide. (ABC Central Victoria: Emma D'Agostino)

For Ms Doyle and her family, the SPAN walk is a way to remember the loved ones they have lost. 

"It is showing the town that they're still around, and to show their spirit is still wanted, and that their memory should be everywhere," Ms Doyle said. 

Call for action

In 2022, Victoria recorded its highest number of annual suicides in more than 20 years, with 756 lives lost.

Data from the Coroners Court of Victoria shows suicide rates were consistent, at close to 700 deaths a year, for the previous four years.

"The most troubling part about those numbers is that the increase seemed to start in about August, and then continue through the last four months of the year," State Coroner John Cain said. 

"Those figures seem to indicate to us that there is an emerging trend in the latter part of 2022, which is cause for concern."

New South Wales also recorded an increase in lives lost to suicide in 2022.

Cost of living causes distress

Suicide Prevention Australia is calling on the federal government to provide millions more dollars to frontline services in the coming budget.

A survey of more than 1,000 Australians conducted by the group found almost half were reporting elevated distress from cost-of-living pressures.

"Access to support and care is a vital part of suicide prevention, and it's very important that those who are in difficulty and in need have access to the supports they need in a timely way," Judge Cain said. 

He said changes were being made to improve the system that supported people when they were experiencing distress. 

One of the butterflies during the remembrance ceremony at this year's SPAN walk. (ABC Central Victoria: Emma D'Agostino)

"We had a mental health royal commission a couple of years ago. There were 65 recommendations from that," Judge Cain said.

"The government is more than halfway through the implementation of those recommendations. That will provide some support and assistance.

"But I think it's fair to say we all have a role in keeping an eye out for our family and our friends — to check in with them, make sure they are OK, and then providing support and assistance to them if it's needed.

"Also, helping them navigate what can sometimes be a quite complex mental health structure for people to access as they need it."

Lifeline says to 'reach out'

Lifeline Loddon Mallee executive officer Lisa Renato said having a conversation was one of the most important things people could do to prevent suicide, along with reaching out to services like Lifeline and Beyond Blue.

"Understanding when someone's not displaying usual behaviours and reaching out and starting what is typically a really uncomfortable conversation around mental health and suicide is far better than to find yourself in a situation where you're attending a funeral," she said.

Ms Renato said the local Lifeline centre was doing as much as it could to provide more services to support people.

"We really want people to reach out and use those services.

Lisa Renato is urging people in need to reach out for help. (ABC Central Victoria: Emma D'Agostino)

"We offer a suicide, bereavement, grief and loss counselling service, from our centre here in Bendigo.

"And, even if you're not having those suicidal thoughts, you should still call Lifeline if you're feeling like you're overwhelmed or anxious, or you need somebody to talk to that will be non-judgemental, that will provide you with some space and perspective to work through whatever it is that's challenging you."

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