When Lisa Dowie kissed her 18-year-old son goodnight on October 22, 2015, she had no idea it would be the last time she would see him alive.
Keegan McAlpine was laid up with tonsillitis. His mum checked in on him and served him dinner in bed, ensuring he was comfortable and well nourished.
What Lisa did not know was that just a day earlier her only son had undergone a mental health assessment that had sounded alarm bells for a GP, who prescribed him anti-depressant medication. By the next morning, Keegan had taken his own life.
“I never expected in my whole life to have my world turned up like that,” Lisa said.
“I just couldn’t believe it. I was in such disbelief. It didn’t make sense to me because there were no signs. I didn’t know why he did it.”
Lisa described her youngest child as a fun, generous young man with a great sense of compassion for others.
“Keegan was my superhero. He was the best son a mother could ask for. He was funny, he was caring, he was kind, he was loving,” she said.
“I remember one year he got a $100 Myer voucher for Christmas and he went uptown and gave it to a homeless person. He was just that type of person. He would just make anybody feel good about themselves.”
Lisa said the irony was not lost on her that the town where she had raised her family, Te Awamutu on New Zealand’s north island, translated to “the river cut short”. She said this resonated with Keegan’s life being prematurely cut short by suicide.
Lisa and Keegan moved from New Zealand to Brisbane in 2011 and on to Perth in 2014. She said they both went through “a rough patch” in 2014 after moving to Perth, but there had been no other evidence of mental ill health.
Soon Keegan found his groove, finding friends, a part-time job, engaging in TAFE studies and realising his passion as a DJ.
Lisa said it had been difficult to reconcile Keegan’s death because she had not seen any warning signs.
“The week before, he was really, really happy,” Lisa recounted. “I remember we were in the kitchen and I was teaching him how to cut onions as quick as possible in three different ways and we were both just wetting ourselves laughing.
“That week he helped in the garden with some pruning. Nothing seemed abnormal at all.”
Lisa later discovered that in preparation for taking his own life, Keegan had given away his prized mixing decks.
“DJ-ing was his passion so if I had known he was giving his equipment away, it would have been a certain sign that something was up and I would have done everything in my power to help him.
“I was very fortunate to have a letter that Keegs left me. It reassured me that we had such a loving relationship and even though he couldn’t tell me that he wasn’t OK, it wasn’t my fault, he just wasn’t happy. Some people don’t get those last words.”
Suicide is the biggest killer of young Australians. New statistics released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics today shows Western Australia had the highest number of suicides in the past 10 years, with 409 people taking their own lives in 2017.
Nationally, 3128 people took their own lives – an increase of 9.1% compared to 2016.
Tragically, for every suicide, another 20 people attempt to take their own lives.
In addition, one in four young Australians live with a mental health condition, with 75 per cent of mental illnesses first appearing in people under the age of 25.
Now, Lisa is sharing her heartbreaking personal experience to raise awareness about youth suicide, and has joined the new Youth Focus Carer Reference Group to help support families and work on solutions to help prevent more tragedy.
The group, which comprises six WA parents including some who have lost children to suicide, will meet for the first time on October 4 to actively engage with Youth Focus about its future direction for parental and carer support.
It will also help families navigate youth mental health challenges, provide practical and emotional support in the wake of a youth suicide, and develop a shared understanding of common issues facing carers, as well as their rights and responsibilities.
Lisa wants better synergy between GPs and youth mental health support services like Youth Focus so young people can be linked in to counselling and ongoing care.
“There’s a gap,” she said. “I understand the GP who saw Keegan couldn’t come to me because of patient-doctor confidentiality but I don’t believe the first stop should be medication. It should be a group of resources coming together to help.”
Lisa said while she was grateful for the support of her partner, family and friends, practical support for parents who had lost a child to suicide and education for the corporate sector about how to offer ongoing support in the workplace was also vital.
“I was basically like a zombie just walking around, going through the motions, going to work, coming home, but I felt nothing. I felt no joy. I didn’t feel any happiness. I was just numb all the time,” Lisa said.
“Keegan was a really positive person. He used to say: ‘Mum, to every negative there is a positive’ and so I needed to draw on that to find that somehow.
“In my mind, I needed to find beauty again. There were no services or organisations that offered it to me. There was counselling and group therapy, but there was no pathway of things you could try to find that connection again.”
Slowly, Lisa started to reconnect. A friend invited her to join her on regular walks where she met new friends. She tried pilates, yoga, paddleboarding and realised a passion for cycling.
“The new Youth Focus Carer Reference Group is a great starting point. I don’t have the answers so I’m really happy to able to share my experiences to help work on solutions,” she said.
“For me, this is about being Keegan’s voice to be able to help other young people because I know that’s what he would have done.
“I would say to young people out there: If you can’t talk to your mum or dad, please, please talk to someone you trust, whether it be a friend, a friend’s parent or Youth Focus.”
Last financial year, Youth Focus supported a record number of young people in WA, providing free counselling and assessment services to 3678 young people and school and community education to another 6000 people.
Youth Focus General Manager for Community Engagement Chris Harris said family and carer support was integral for early intervention and the best possible outcomes for young people at risk of suicide and those working to overcome mental health challenges.
“Youth Focus is committed to a recovery oriented approach and recognises the importance of the voices of young people and their carers across all areas of mental health and specifically suicide prevention and post-vention,” Mr Harris said.
“Research shows that families are an under-utilised resource in the early intervention of youth at risk of suicide, with timely family support integral to more rapid improvements and better long term outcomes over individual therapy alone.
“The sad reality is that young people are at increased risk of poor outcomes because their age and stage of physical, neurological, psychological and social development makes them more vulnerable.
“Accessible and effective youth-specific mental health is one of our state’s highest and most urgent priorities to progress over the next decade.”
If you or someone you know needs urgent support please contact the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467, the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Nicole Cox – 0419 941 443