Barry Taylor, SWSLHD

Barry Taylor.

20 Oct 2016

Barry Taylor had no plans to work in suicide prevention; he began his professional life in the 1980s as a youth worker in New Zealand.

Then, two young clients took their own lives.

“It shook me,” Barry says. “It made me think, why do people do that? I became aware of a lack of community knowledge about the topic. Most of the knowledge was limited to psychiatrists and psychiatric journals.”

He started agitating for action on suicide prevention.

“I joke that in New Zealand, if you say something more than once you’re considered an expert, so people started saying to me ‘you need to do something about this’.”

He accepted the challenge, and a 30-year career in suicide prevention was born.

Barry says he’s witnessed a lot of positive changes over that time: huge increases in the number of people working in the sector, an increase in funding, and more knowledge about what works and what does not.

“But what hasn’t changed – the ongoing scandal – is the continuing rise of Indigenous suicide,” Barry says. The increasing “tendency to reduce suicide prevention down to slogans” also makes him uneasy.

“Simple taglines can fail to recognise the complexity and the pain underpinning suicide.

“We have this desire to be certain and comfortable, and to believe we can eliminate suicide. But in reality, we have to be willing to sit there in the uncertainty and murkiness if we are going to be effective.”

Today, Barry is the Manager of Mental Wellbeing & Suicide Prevention at South Western Sydney Local Health District. Since taking on the role, he’s led the creation and implementation of a wellbeing strategy that involves a huge array of groups and organisations, including local councils and churches. His achievements earned him the 2016 NSW Mental Health Commissioner’s Community Champion Award.

At the same time as working on the wellbeing strategy, Barry was striving to emerge from a “very severe and very dark” depression. While he’s had episodes of depression and melancholia since his 20s, this latest episode in his early 50s was the first time he felt suicidal.

“During my darkest hours, I wondered what people would think of my life’s work in suicide prevention if I killed myself. Would they see me as a fraud?

“I thought about all the people I’ve helped who have thanked me years later and said how glad they were to still be alive. I thought about all the things I’ve said to others, to challenge their distorted thinking.

“But none of that was enough to instil in me hope or a desire to live again.”

What did get him through was the kindness of friends. When people visited Barry to take him for a walk, or left an anonymous $50 in his letterbox so he could afford groceries while between jobs, “it reminded me I was still worth something”.

“I’ve spent much of my career looking after others. I realised it was OK to let people look after me.”

Barry believes there are still great strides to be made in improving men’s mental health.

“I’m often asked by media, ‘why are men over-represented in suicide rates’? And we say it’s because they don’t talk about feelings, they’re too stoic.

“But all that does is describe a phenomenon, it doesn’t explain the phenomenon.

“I think we need to reemphasise men’s many valuable social roles – as mate, father, brother, grandfather. Because then, even if I’m unemployed or retired, as a man I still have something to give.”

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Last updated: 10 November 2020