Mena Condo in Alice Springs on her son Jack's birthday, who she lost just over a year ago to suicide.
Mena Condo in Alice Springs on her son Jack's birthday, who she lost just over a year ago to suicide. Contributed

Breaking silence on our lost youth

YEAR 12 student Jack Pannucio kept fit, did well at school and didn't drink or do drugs.

After high school he hoped to study medicine.

As his Alice Springs-based mum puts it, he was "the kind of kid every parent envied".

Last week Jack's family marked his 19th birthday, March 23. But he wasn't there to celebrate it.

In the months before Easter last year, things started to go awry for Jack.

And three weeks after his 18th birthday he took his own life.

That day, Jack had flown from Alice Springs to Adelaide where he lived with his dad and brother (who was 15 at the time).

Only a month earlier he had visited his mum Mena Condo, 47, who works in and around Alice Springs as a domestic and family violence case worker for NPY Women's Council.

"He loved the place," says Mena.

"Brought his drone up and did this amazing footage for us to see, especially Simpsons Gap."

Jack had begun to post his photographic work to the web.

A Facebook page under the name JWP Aerial Photography remains, including his footage of Simpson's Gap, which logged more than 250,000 views.

Jack left Alice Springs Airport the morning of Easter Monday, 2017.

Mena remembers his departure clearly, in particular his "I love you" as he left.

"Next morning, I found out he'd (taken his own life) that night at home.

"I was numb, on my own: it's all just a blur.

"My daughter, Jack's older sister rang me."

About six months earlier, Jack had disclosed to Mena that he was really anxious and feeling bad about himself.

"I encouraged him to do beyond blue (an online mental health assessment) and he scored really high.

"He was a South Australian state athlete, he didn't behave like a depressed kid.

"But now I know how a depressed kid behaves: the anxiety was just crippling him."

Jack went to his GP and was referred to a psychologist then on to headspace, the National Youth Mental Health Foundation.

But even in Adelaide, and considering Jack was proactive in seeking treatment, everything "took a very long time".

"I noticed in February he was isolating himself, (which was) out of character, so I was really concerned about his state of mind and flew to Adelaide.

"I was in (the room) when the GP asked Jack if he was having suicidal thoughts, (to which) he straight out said 'no'.

"Then we all agreed Jack should try anti-depressants, which he started in late February.

"He wanted to get better."

But the night Jack arrived home in Adelaide, he declined to go with the family to dinner at his grandmother's.

When the family returned home, Jack's father found him dead in the garage.

On average, fewer than two per cent of Australians will take their own life, but the figure is considerably higher among young people.

In fact, in 2016 suicide was the leading cause of death among Australians aged 15-44 years, and accounted for fully one-third of deaths among people in Jack's age group of 15-24 years.

Males suicide at roughly three times the rate of females.

But it's not only the loss of a young life that is so shocking, it is also how the death reverberates for so long among the family and loved ones who are left behind.

"It is an awkward conversation," says Mena, "because it's just not spoken about.

"And that confuses the hell out of me, because Jack is not what we read about.

"He was planning his future, always doing something; I think the anxiety really crippled him, he couldn't cope."

So Mena decided to speak out publicly herself, to bring the issue out into the open.

In September 2017, Mena was invited by the Mental Health Association of Central Australia to speak at a public gathering in Alice Springs as part of suicide prevention RUOK Day.

The theme was "Take a minute, change a life".

"I wanted to focus on those left behind and the impact it has.

"This is our reality and we don't want to sugarcoat it, because it's a serious problem.

"In my work I'm constantly faced with suicide attempts out on community (where) the lack of support is atrocious.

"Every trip I go on there's a suicide attempt, every month.

"Compared with the help we'd get in the city, the lack of support there is disgraceful, it wouldn't be tolerated.

"And the more rural and regional you go, the worse it gets.

"The police and nurses do their best, but they need more support.

"It really confuses me; my son had access to all this help, but these people don't: such a huge imbalance."

The other message Mena wants to communicate to people is to talk about the issue of suicide.

The RUOK campaign revealed that some 20 per cent of Australians are under the mistaken impression that talking about suicide will increase the risk of it happening.

While this idea in itself is dangerous, such silence affects Mena, and others who have lost a loved one, at a deeply personal level.

"No one asks me what Jack was like or what he does.

"It's like you can't bring him up; people whisper about it.

"I don't have a problem talking about my son, I'm still so proud of him."

In June last year, Mena's friends raised funds for her and her children to be able to fly to see each other more often.

At the RUOK talk in September, Mena left out a suggestions box for feedback on what people thought was needed in Alice Springs.

Now she is studying a Masters in Suicidology through Griffith University.

"I really want to do something with remote health, awareness, and support.

"The difference of sitting and telling your story with someone, basic nurturing, makes a huge difference.

"Just to listen to someone without judgment is really powerful."

If you or someone you know needs help contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.'