A former Inverell resident, who wants her sister's suicide to contribute to a change in the way the health system assesses mental health, has released a book and documentary.
Nicki Jeffery launched her book 'Precious Michelle: A Sister Reminisces a Life Lost to Suicide' at the Inverell Presbyterian Church with a special screening of the documentary.
Her sister Michelle Williams died in 2017 and is remembered by the community as the bubbly, energetic driving force behind the anti-violence events held in Inverell. The community health employee was also secretary of the Inverell Anti-Violence Committee.
A powerful sentence in the preface of the book sets the scene for the extracts from Michelle's journal and Mrs Jeffery's memories which intermingle to form the work.
It was Mothers' Day Sunday, May 14 when Michelle presented at emergency at her local hospital, four hospitals and 11 days later Michelle was dead.
"Precious Michelle is a documentary and short book celebrating the life of one lost too soon and offering hope to those bereaved by suicide," Mrs Jeffery says.
"I wanted to write it because I felt like it was a story that needed to be told, and while I was a bit wary because I didn't want to just put my sisters face to the word suicide, at the same time I wanted to help other people who are either bereaved by suicide or worried about somebody in their family or friendship circle because mental health is such a fragile thing and you just never know what could happen.
"We didn't expect to lose my sister.
"It was always meant to be sharing the story of her life and celebrating her life, but also bringing a bit of hope and comfort, and even a bit of education to people surrounding mental health and suicide."
Mrs Jeffery said her family felt at the time the system failed to care for Michelle and in the books preface she says there has been extensive work undertaken since then to improve the culture and practice of the hospitals concerned and the serious human resource implications which arose.
"I would not like to negatively impact on this positive work or potentially create further staff distress," she said.
"I think they are starting to do a bit more because there is a new group - NSW Health's Lived Experience of Suicide - that are having a bit of a say with regard to medical things. One of those things is that we really need a place for people to go other than the emergency room when they are feeling suicidal because that can be so traumatic - just having to front up to a busy hospital.
"The group is giving people who have a lived experience of mental illness the ability to come together to be the consumers that start to drive a bit of change within medical practice."
The family want the tragedy to raise awareness of mental health and how it can be assessed more effectively in institutions.
"Michelle went to two or three emergency rooms of the four hospitals we took her to and only one of them kept her overnight," Mrs Jeffery said.
"All the others didn't think she needed to be kept in, but we were really aware that her life was hanging in the balance a bit and we felt that if she had been kept in hospital long enough her life might have been saved - that's how we felt.
"I think someone can sometimes present well enough in a moment but they won't be able to hold it together for a few days.
"Michelle came home on Friday and on Tuesday morning she died."
The NSW Health Mid North Coast Mental Health Integrated Multimedia team helped Mrs Jeffery create the documentary with a version specifically aimed at educating health workers. Another other version addresses the importance of having both spiritual and practical care.
In the documentary, the sisters' mother says Michelle found Jesus at the age of five and kept her faith right up to the end.
Mrs Jeffery also has a strong faith in God and has also had her own personal struggle with mental health.
"I go with the body, soul, spirit thing because before Michelle faced her crisis I suffered post-partum psychosis, which is not common, but is something my grandmother had as well," she said.
"I had times when I felt like I didn't want to go on but I never got to the point of acting on it.
"I also had so much support from medical professionals.
"It's kind of like a tale of two sisters: one who made it and one who didn't; and that was probably largely because I had children because when there is a baby or toddler involved you get a lot of support from health workers.
"Michelle went to that place of prayer, which is wonderful, but I don't believe she went to that place of psychological care to look after her mind, her will, her emotions - the soul part of her.
"Suicide and mental illness don't discriminate - you still have that psychological part of you that needs caring for.
"It's good to know that God is there, but you still need to go see a counsellor and go and see a psychologist for yourself."
Michelle's family believe part of the challenge she faced in seeking help was the fear of losing her job, and her experience in social work allowed her to present to medical staff as someone not needing institutional care.
"When someone is as skilled in their job as Michelle was skilled at caring for people and keeping her own emotions in check it is hard," Mrs Jeffery said.
"If only the medical professionals could have seen through that and realise that she has these skills so we need to keep her a bit longer, we need to keep her in hospital and we can't just send her back home.
"I think they needed to see Michelle in those moments when she couldn't hold it together.
"The hard thing in our story is that we felt like we did take her to professional help and the professional help just didn't save her."
Precious Michelle the documentary can be viewed on Nicki's website nickijeffery.com
If you or someone you know needs support contact:
- Lifeline 13 11 14
- Beyond Blue 1300 224 636
- Mental Health Line 1800 011 511