• 32-year-old Ailsa Walsh says she survives through a combination of western medicine, traditional culture and art. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
A Brisbane art project hopes to start a life-saving conversation by bringing together artists who suffer from mental illness.
Ella Archibald-Binge

The Point
11 Oct 2018 - 1:15 PM  UPDATED 12 Oct 2018 - 12:01 PM

When Ailsa Walsh thinks about suicide, there's one thing that always holds her back. 

"I visualise personally my funeral," she told The Point.

"I can’t imagine my nieces and my nephews and my grandbabies there, and my mum and dad there looking at my dead body – that just stops me, because I just can’t do that to them."

The 32-year-old visual artist has battled anxiety and depression since she was bullied as a child growing up in south-east Queensland.

"I was skinny, I was tall, I was lanky and I was Aboriginal."

But she believes her demons have deeper roots, planted in the trauma and suffering of her ancestors following colonisation. 

"I believe I was born this way," Ms Walsh said. 

As an adult, she learned to shrug off the bullies around her, grappling instead with the one in her head. 

"I was trying to hurt myself and I was really trying to end it," she said. 

At 19, she attempted suicide. 

She is very thankful she survived and sought medical help for the first time.

Now, Ms Walsh says it's a combination of western medicine, traditional culture and art that keeps her going.

"Being medicated throughout my adult life, being to counsellors has helped me survive," she said.

"But I think that’s just temporary – you have to deal with your inner demons on your own, and that’s what art does for me.

"If I couldn’t do art, I really don’t think I would be here. I think it’s just a powerful way of healing, and I think that’s the ancestral instinct that’s been in me that’s been passed down."

Harnessing art for healing

Ms Walsh is one of a handful of artists to take part in Brisbane's Arts and Minds program - an initiative by non-profit organisation Anglicare, which aims to use art to foster healing and promote awareness of mental health and suicide.

The program pairs an emerging and an established artist - both touched by mental illness - and challenges them to each create artworks around mental health to be auctioned for charity.

They have eight hours to complete the project: one hour for each Australian who takes their own life every day.

Ms Walsh was paired with Aunty Denise Proud, and the two women were quick to find common ground. 

Aunty Denise has heard stories like Ms Walsh's before - both in her own family and in Queensland prisons, where she spent almost 20 years working as a life skills teacher. 

She cries openly as she describes getting a call from her nephew, threatening to kill himself. 

"It’s gut-wrenching for us," says Aunty Denise. 

"I don’t think we do enough, and it is not good enough for me in this country when our children are dying from suicides.

"It makes me really sad inside when this is happening in our country. And I really feel it, because it does affect us."

Aunty Denise explains they have both found solace by pouring their emotions onto the canvas.

"Your spirit goes into the painting. Your soul actually goes into it."

Through the Arts and Minds project, they hope to encourage others to speak up, reach out and even pick up a paintbrush.

Learning to 'live inside their skin'

There's a phrase Aunty Denise learnt in her mother's native tongue: Darn Najun Burri, Gunnan Gunnan.

"It means to actually feel what people are feeling, to live inside their skin. There is no English word for it. I think the closest is empathy," she said. 

As a child, she remembers being on a bus and spotting a homeless man in the street.

"My mother always made me look and say 'think about it, think what they're going through'," she recalls.

One-in-five Australians experience mental illness each year and First Nations people are twice as likely to take their own life.

Aunty Denise believes more of us need to stop and look.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact: Lifeline on 13 11 14, the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 or find an Aboriginal Medical Service here. There are resources for young people at  Headspace Yarn Safe.

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