Mother grieves young actor's suicide

KELLY DENNETT
Last updated 05:00 10/08/2014
Jimmy Keen

LOVED SON: Jimmy Keen, 21, killed himself just weeks after finishing his role in New Zealand feature film Broken Hallelujah.

Hilary Keen
CHRIS SKELTON/Fairfax NZ
GRIEVING MUM: Hilary Keen says if she'd been able to get her son the help he needed he'd still be here, but it wasn't possible.

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The ghost of a young actor who took his own life will live on in a film about suicide.

Jimmy Keen, 21, killed himself just weeks after finishing his role in a New Zealand-made feature-length film, Broken Hallelujah, which focuses on the tragedy of suicide in its plot.

Although the film's underlying message is the importance of hope, hope was something Jimmy didn't have, his mother Hilary Keen told the Sunday Star-Times.

"He had backed himself into a corner and he couldn't get out," she said. "One of the last things he said to me was, ‘Mum, you know they can't help me' - meaning the system."

Jimmy began acting at an early age but, despite his outward charisma, on the inside he had low self-esteem perpetuated by bullying at secondary school, she said.

Her son had talked about dying since he was 14 but she never really believed he would go through with it and put most of his troubles down to teenage angst. Jimmy started using drugs in his late teens and on May 16, 2011, his mother came home to find her only child had taken his own life.

Last month, a coroner ruled Jimmy's death was self-inflicted.

Hilary Keen said if she'd been able to get him the help he needed he'd still be here today but, because he was an adult, it was almost impossible to make him seek the help he needed, she said.

"If I had the power to do that as a parent, to put him somewhere safe, detox him, sort out his psychological problems, I think he could have come through the other end."

Now, with movie-making duo Vanessa and Alastair Riddell, she is speaking out about what they call the last taboo.

The Riddells made the film with a "kernel of truth" embedded in its scenes - they have been touched by suicide many times and, as parents of four children, are particularly alarmed with its prevalence in youth.

Statistics show suicide is more common than road deaths with 478 people taking their own lives in 2011. Men accounted for 369 of those deaths with those in the 20 to 24 age bracket more likely to harm themselves. Road deaths in 2011 numbered 284.

The Riddells point to the mental health awareness campaign fronted by rugby great John Kirwan which they say has successfully encouraged a more open discussion of mental illness.

"The taboo on suicide is so great people say ‘we don't want to discuss it because we'll encourage it'. It's rubbish, as a society we're completely in denial," said Alistair Riddell, well known to many New Zealanders for his lead role in the 70s band Space Waltz, which had a hit with Out On The Street.

Jimmy's pivotal scene in the film is when he points out to his father that suicide is hardest on the people left behind.

It's bittersweet viewing for his mum who brought along her extended family for moral support as she watched her son come back to life in a pre-screening for crew.

The Riddells were putting the final editing touches on this very scene when they learned of Keen's death.

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The news he had killed himself was "paralysing" but they knew they had to preserve the scene as a testament to Keen's struggle and skill.

"We were determined to get the film out," Vanessa Riddell said. "Once this happened there was no way, as far as we were concerned, that it wouldn't be finished. I could see him just sitting there going, ‘look it's my last film, you've got to get it out'."

TV comedian Mike King has visited about 40 schools to talk to students about how to overcome their demons. "We've got a staunch culture which used to be exclusively men," he said.

"That is one part of our culture that prevents people talking about their problems."

Broken Hallelujah opens at Rialto Cinemas on October 16.

HOW TO GET HELP

Suicide Prevention Helpline 0508 828 865

Youthline 0800 376 633

Depression Support line 0800 111 757

Lifeline 0800 543 354 

- Sunday Star Times

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