The Monday evening news brought with it an incredible shock.

An Australian Football legend had died in a single-car accident, after crashing into a tree, fifteen minutes from his childhood home.

Three reasons why it was an absolute shock.

One: my family and I watched him every week on an AFL-related show, and he was always the happiest person on the show, always acting like a child with the host. And we’d literally just watched him the day before, blowing out a candle, because it was his 56th birthday.

Two: the news channel didn’t reveal the identity of the man who’d passed away in the commercials leading up to it. They instead named him an ‘AFL identity,’ and, while watching the Chase, my family and I tried to figure out who they could possibly be talking about. And then, when the news finally started, his face was all over the broadcast.

Three: the journalists said the police were not counting his death as part of the death toll, and every time they speak about him, they describe what happened as, “died in a car crash, after a long battle with his mental health.”

He’d always been open about his mental health battles. He had a tough time, living life in the spotlight, and always under pressure. But watching him on that show, every week, nobody would ever guess he was battling demons so big. Big enough to risk losing everything he had. He had a family – a wife, and three grown daughters. He was successful in his career. Everybody loved him. He really was the life of the party. Always happy.

Or so he seemed.

In reality, he was fighting the demons daily, and in the end, it seems like the demons won. I still can’t believe it. Saddest of all, he was due to give a speech at the R U OK? day today, to talk to people about his battle with mental illness, about how he was living with it, and surviving. Thriving, even. It’s all so tragic.

But it really, really makes you think.

Do we even know anybody?

Did his friends think he was acting strange the last time they saw him? Did they even notice? Does anyone ever notice, or do things like this always happen? Do our true feelings fall under the radar? Are we so good at hiding that nobody will ever know the way we truly feel?

And why do people hide? You’d think, for someone like him, or Robin Williams for example (another tragic case), that they’d have people to talk to, people that will go out of their way to listen to them. Family, hordes of friends, fans.

And even through it all, they still felt alone. Trapped in their minds.

It terrifies me, to know that we can’t know exactly the way people feel. We only know what they tell us.

I’m guilty of this. I hold a blackbelt in bottling emotions. There are so many things – most things – that I think but never voice. So many times I’m in some sort of trouble, but I work it out myself, instead of asking for help. Even if it’s the most stressed I’ve ever been, I still struggle through on my own, instead of asking for help.

And I have family. I have friends.

I’m just like him.

Maybe not as nationally-loved, or apparently successful.

But there are people I could turn to.

Yet, I don’t. Why?

Why is it so hard for some people to open up? Why do people commit suicide instead of talking to someone? Have they been strong for too long? Have they tried to reach out for help? Have their pleas gone unheard? Or do they just feel a burden on their family and friends? An annoyance, an inconvenience?

I can’t speak for him. But I do know what it feels like to be alone, even in a crowded room. And I know what it feels like to hide my feelings behind a smile, and bright-eyed enthusiasm. I’m not in constant despair, as I imagine he would have been to go down the road that he could never come back from. But it’s never fun to pretend to feel different to the way you do.

R U OK? is a Suicide Prevention organisation in Australia, in its ninth year today. It was started by a man, Gavin Larkin, whose father committed suicide in 1995. The premise is simple. On R U OK? day, this organisation calls on the public to call up their friends, and ask them a simple question, “Are you okay?” It may not seem like much, but to someone who is struggling, it could mean the difference between happiness and despair, life and death. And it opens up discussions that people may never have had before, introduces people to concepts they’d never considered, and it could save lives.

The four steps, as indicated on their website (www.ruok.org.au), are:

  1. Ask R U OK?
  2. Listen.
  3. Encourage action.
  4. Check in.

All are important, but step 4 is probably key. It’s not enough to just ask if your friends and family are okay once a year. It’s a start, yes, but it isn’t sufficient to keep people out of their dark places. Checking in is vital. Always check in. Make sure your friends are in good mental health.

Actually check in though, don’t just ask once, and then not prod for details. People seriously suffering from severe depression, anxiety, loneliness, and other mental health illnesses – they won’t offer up information easily, especially if they don’t feel like the person on the other end of the phone actually wants to know.

If you care about someone, ask them until the truth comes out. It may be difficult, it may be exhausting sometimes, but in the end, it’s worth it, because you would’ve helped to save them from themselves.

And you won’t be burying a friend or family member, thinking “I should’ve done something.”

Go through your contact list today, and think about the people you know, and consider shooting them a quick text, asking them if they’re okay. It could change their life.

And if you are suffering through any sort of mental illness, please seek help. If you can’t speak to your family or friends, as many people can’t, find a healthcare professional, or make use of the suicide prevention hotlines in your country. There are also websites online which will link you up with an online therapist, free of charge.

Please know that you are important, and that things will get better. You can make them better.

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