Gemma's story, in her own words

INTERVENTION HELPED: Gemma Kelley shares the story of how she learned the start living again by managing depression and anxiety that almost caused her to take her own life.
INTERVENTION HELPED: Gemma Kelley shares the story of how she learned the start living again by managing depression and anxiety that almost caused her to take her own life.

It wasn't until about 20 months ago that I began to realise how much of a problem mental illness and suicide is in the community - especially in Timaru - and I only know now, because I fell victim to it.

It took a while for me to get to a point where I was constantly exhibiting depression symptoms, and it wasn't long after that that I became a danger to myself, exhibiting suicidal ideation.

When I was 16, six years ago this year, my father and I came across a car accident where a 17-year-old died in my arms.

It was such a horrific ordeal to go through at such a young age, and after the incident I seemed to just change. I was no longer a kid anymore, almost like I had to grow up overnight.

I went from a typical teenager to a serious adult who didn't really know what to feel, how to deal with what had happened, what to do with that sense of failure, the guilt of being able to walk away when somebody else lost their life, seeing a family heartbroken.

I withdrew from friends, from family, and my priorities were based around keeping as busy as possible, avoiding thinking about the event.

My family didn't know how to deal with it and chose to avoid the subject. My friends, initially curious about what had happened, seemed to slowly disappear.

I often felt alone, isolated, feeling like I couldn't talk about it and having nightmares and panic attacks.

I eventually finished high school in 2007, and went on to university in 2008. My intentions were more about escaping the environment I was in rather than focusing on my studies. I did enough to pass, but was not working to my full potential.

That same year I joined St John as a volunteer ambulance officer and it became the only thing in life I enjoyed. I was making a difference, I was helping people, I was a part of a great team of people who all had a common goal. I went through events with other officers and formed special relationships with other officers where we could relate to each other, having been through the same events.

In 2010, after the September earthquake, I finally broke down. I was still so traumatised and got to a point where I couldn't keep my feelings in any longer.

The sadness, the hopelessness, the helplessness, the guilt, the anxiety, the loneliness, the feeling of being isolated, the feeling of not being able to talk about it - it all overwhelmed me. And the feeling that if my life was going to be like this, what was the point in carrying on, became a thought I obsessed about.

I felt misunderstood, I felt like the common thought was to "harden up and get over it", I felt that it was "bad" to talk about it, I felt like I couldn't.

Shortly afterwards I was hospitalised, due to being a danger to myself. This was thanks to three university friends of mine who sought help for me when I couldn't - mainly because I was scared about what my family would think, my friends, my colleagues.

I was at the point where I could either accept the help that was being given to me or keep going the way I was going and end up another statistic of suicide. I was finally in a place where I could talk about it and let it all out. And for five weeks that's what I did.

By the time I was discharged and returned to Timaru my ordeal was common knowledge to my family, friends and colleagues. The thing I dreaded most was the thought of people looking down on me, taking pity - treating me differently. But to my surprise, everyone was really supportive. Especially my St John colleagues.

Six months later, I was given the all-clear to return to my job, my volunteer duties with St John and to start living life again. It's been a long journey - from feeling that choosing death was an option, to now, having a new job, planning to undertake further study and continuing my volunteer work in St John.

I went for years being too scared to say anything to anyone because of its taboo nature. It's thanks to family and friends that I am still here. They put me into a place where I had no choice but to work through it and move on.

Sure, I still take medication and attend regular counselling, but that's what is needed to keep me of sound mind. And I really don't think there should be any shame in that.

It's been a long journey and it's still not finished - I still have moments - but I have survived.

It wasn't as scary as I ever thought it would be.

The Timaru Herald