Mental health advocate and spokesperson Nic Newling lets us into his mind…

My older brother is dead. He killed himself last night. That was the abrupt reality I woke up to one morning 13 years ago to this day.

I wasn’t to catch the bus to the North Shore, to attend high school after breakfast or to passively exist in the Year 10 classes I had no interest in or ability to concentrate through. Once a star student with two scholarships in Year 7, I spent my subsequent high school years sleeping in sick bay or day dreaming in class; often about my own death. It was one of the few activities that made me feel happy during that time, one of the few that made me feel anything at all.

My mood disorders had resigned me to an incapable no-hoper, devoid of direction, purpose and self-belief. And now my brother was dead. He beat me to it. I was insanely jealous.

When I tell this story now as a happy, productive and joyful adult, I often struggle to connect with my 16-year-old self. It’s almost as if I’m telling someone else’s story. In my memory, that terrified boy with the end-in-sight life is entirely unrecognisable today. I’ve had plenty of time to reflect during and after my recovery, and in particular on days like today that mark anniversary dates. I can see outside of myself now, and my own situation, in a way that I was unable to at the time. Together as a family we’ve grieved, cried, suffered, and in many ways healed. Not completely, but enough.

The most telling difference between my damaged younger self and who I’ve become now, aside from the relief of my bipolar symptoms, is that I’m no longer afraid. I use to hide my illness away from the world, scared that if someone at school were to discover my secret I would be ridiculed and cast aside; a social suicide. I became disturbingly adept at lying and feigning happiness. When I was absent from school in Year 8 for nine months I wasn’t in a psychiatric ward but had “chronic fatigue and glandular fever”. I was given the opportunity last year at my high school reunion to address everyone in my year and tell them what really happened. The medication, wards, and misery. Many were surprised but none of them judged me. I even received thanks, handshakes and more than one quiet “I understand what it’s like too, mate”.

Communication is essential to creating environments where people feel at liberty to talk. Every single person has a part to play in this. My family’s lives are now meaningful in ways I never thought they would be. I spend a great deal of time speaking directly to people in high schools and workplaces about mental health. My mum wrote a memoir about our story, which won a human rights award. We’re not experts in anything but our own personal experience but sometimes that’s all it takes to ignite a helpful conversation.

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Nic Newling is an outspoken advocate for mental health and suicide prevention. His aim is to make a positive difference by reducing stigma and encouraging important conversations around Australia’s burgeoning issue.

Nic works on BITE BACK, a national online wellbeing and resilience program for young people through the Black Dog Institute in Sydney, along with an upcoming first-of-its-kind app built on discovering and utilising personal values. He is involved in suicide prevention initiatives as a community ambassador for R U OK? Day, and regularly speaks throughout Australia and internationally.