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Opinion: Shining a light in dark places

News

Cite as: July 2014 88 (07) LIJ, p.26

Marie Jepson’s son Tristan took his own life, aged 26. Here, she reflects on depression and the foundation set up in his name.

In a few months it will be the 10th anniversary of Tristan’s death. Time passes and life has gone on. But it is not life as we knew it and we are no longer the same people we once were. George and I have lost our younger son, Justin a brother, many others a friend, and our grandchildren will never know their uncle. Tristan’s death shattered our lives and had a lasting impact on many who knew him. He is conspicuously absent from family photos and we are ever mindful that he is no longer with us. Time moves on but the pain and loss remain. How can it be otherwise?

Tristan’s depression began when he was a law student and worsened over the years despite being prescribed a variety of medications and having ongoing medical care. He experienced severe side effects from his medications and ultimately they ceased to have a positive impact at all.

Despite the increasing challenges that his illness imposed he fought valiantly completing his studies in law at UNSW, and the universities of Tulane, New Orleans and Bonn where he completed his oral assessment in German. He was passionate about the UNSW Law Revue and participated as script writer, performer and director. The revue gave his enormous creative energy, wicked sense of humour and quirky view of the world free rein.

Tristan gained a summer clerkship, fulfilled his dream to pursue comedy when he was cast in the pilot of TV’s Big Bite and later contributed as a script writer for the show. He found short-term work but finding permanent employment proved elusive.

During this time Tristan experienced increasing and lengthening periods of darkness from which each episode took longer to recover. It was amazing how well he was able to function given the severity of his illness. Each day was like swimming in the Olympics with blocks of concrete tied to his feet. The isolation of script writing made him more reclusive and reduced his contact with friends, the isolation exacerbating his already negative thinking. Employment rejections fuelled his internal pathological critic who highlighted his constant failures and inadequacies, told him he would never get a job and that he was a burden to family and friends. I believe he lost hope. On 28 October 2004, Tristan took his own life. His friends were shattered. They had no idea he was ill.

It is important to point out the importance of seeking help early by visiting a GP for a referral to an appropriate professional. Getting an individualised treatment plan and medication if required will promote more positive outcomes. Tristan suffered from a very severe illness and although he sought help early and was prescribed a variety of medications over time, they did not provide relief as his symptoms worsened.

Absolutely nothing can prepare you for the death of a child, especially if that death is by suicide. To say we were devastated is an understatement. Tristan’s death completely tore apart life as we knew it. It was more like being thrown into an abyss that had no end and in which we could barely stay afloat. We were in total shock. Family and friends, particularly Tristan’s, were stunned. There were no words.

According to Tristan’s wishes we had a private funeral which gave rise to the rumour that we were ashamed of him. George and I made the conscious decision to talk openly about the illness that had caused our son’s death, emphasising that we were proud of him and that we loved him. Just before Christmas, the police knocked on our door and summoned us to the local police station where we were ushered into separate rooms and asked questions about Tristan’s death and whether we had foreknowledge. Historically when someone took their own life, the parents were charged with the crime. Vicarious guilt?

On reflection, perhaps the most noticeable impact of Tristan’s death has been the deafening silence. People didn’t know what to say, felt we were hard to talk to and were simply embarrassed. Some in our church felt Tristan had committed “the unforgiveable sin”. I am forever grateful that some of the doctors at Prince of Wales Hospital Randwick, where George was CEO, checked in with him regularly, and that a few of Tristan’s friends, though shattered, have stayed in touch. Our circle of friends and people we know has shrunk enormously. It is just too hard and George and I look at life through a different lens. Our priorities are simply not the same.

The idea for the Foundation germinated after a gathering of Tristan’s friends and partners visited our home after his death. The young women shared how their partners, all lawyers, suffered from depression, refused to seek help and had sworn them to secrecy. I felt we had to do something.

The Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation (TJMF) was established in memory of Tristan’s love of life, passion for the law and comedy, constantly inquiring mind and love for and loyalty to family and friends. It is an independent voluntary charity which is committed to making a practical difference to the lives of lawyers. It aims to promote psychological wellbeing and works to reduce distress and disability caused by mental illness in the legal profession.

In May, the TJMF released Psychological Well-being: Best Practice Guidelines for the Legal Profession which is freely available on the website www.tjmf.org.au. To seek help for depression see your GP, or visit Beyondblue or Lifeline websites.




MARIE JEPSON is the founder of the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation.

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