• "There's no way I could have ever imagined how calm and okay I would be with all these things which once terrified me." (Distributor. )Source: Distributor.
'Osher Günsberg: A Matter of Life and Death' highlights just how much work there is to do in Australian suicide prevention - work that people are doing.
Samuel Leighton-Dore

13 Sep 2021 - 8:49 AM  UPDATED 21 Oct 2021 - 12:16 PM

Content warning: contains mentions of suicide.

"It takes time to care."

Ursula Wharton, a mother and suicide prevention activist, is talking to Osher Günsberg about the many ways in which the hospital and healthcare system failed her 17-year-old son, Josh, who she lost to suicide three years ago.

She tells Günsberg that every time, bar one, the teenager, who lived with Asperger's Syndrome and was especially sensitive to emergency room environments, presented at the emergency department, he faced a long wait and no treatment options were offered.

Wharton believes that more focus needs to be placed on suicide. "We have to actually devote that time," Wharton explains. "In time, with other human beings, we can create a bit of a space just to be and feel heard. Because it's the silence and the secrecy and the judgement that shame feeds off - that suicide feeds off."

Wharton's story makes for a stark and emotional beginning to the new SBS documentary Osher Günsberg: A Matter of Life and Death, but it highlights just how much work there is to do in Australian suicide prevention - work that people are doing.

The film is decidedly solutions-focused and manages to navigate dark and complex topics with genuine curiosity and hope, however wavering. This is achieved by championing those who are actually out there pushing the envelope, introducing viewers to the emerging technologies (training CCTV cameras to detect at-risk behaviours), treatments (such as ketamine trials, which are still emerging and can only be used by mental health patients under strict supervision) and organisations leading the way in suicide prevention across the country (Stride's Safe Space in Blacktown is a clear standout).

"It's an incredibly difficult thing to speak about, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't speak about it," Günsberg, who has spoken openly about his experience with paranoid delusions, tells SBS Voices. His motivation? To help others feel seen and understood, to give hope. 

"It's an incredibly difficult thing to speak about, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't speak about it"

"There's no way I could have ever imagined how calm and okay I would be with all these things which once terrified me. They're still there, but I'm okay now. I work on it every day. I want people to know that how sh*t it feels now, it won't always feel that sh*t."

While A Matter of Life and Death is a noted departure from Günsberg's usual hosting gigs (he's currently fronting both The Bachelor and The Masked Singer), he's perhaps at his most captivating while tackling themes of suicidality, because 1) he's lived them and 2) he clearly cares.

But working on the project, which filmed every day for a month, wasn't without its challenges.

"If you and I were going to demolish a house and do some renovations, we'd get some eye protection and steel boots and dust masks, we'd make sure our workplace was safe so we didn't get injured," Günsberg says.

"And we had to do the same with filming, to make sure it was safe for me to go ahead with this. I sat down with my psychiatrist and we spoke about it and discussed the things we'd need to put in place."

He continues: "I'm a person with empathy, the crew were people with empathy, so to have that day in and day out...it was really important for us to stay safe and have a robust system to follow. And don't get me wrong, there were times when I'd look to my director and we were both in tears, but because we had these systems in place we were able to have good debriefs and not stack our afternoons too heavily."

The team's thoughtful, compassionate approach to filming is evident. One of the film's most affecting segments sees Günsberg spend time with his friend Joe Williams and learn about the many positive impact a connection to Country can have for the mental health of First Nations people.

A former sportsman and proud Wiradjuri/Wolgalu man who has lived with suicidality and Bipolar Disorder, Williams is now an author (Defying the Enemy Within) and works in suicide prevention and mental health wellness, where he encourages Indigenous men to go back to Country and look at the cultural processes that have kept them connected for thousands of years.

"I'm really lucky to have made friends with Joe a couple of years ago," Günsberg says.

"He's a very, very wise man, a very clever man. That he would open up this sacred and extraordinary part of his cultural experience to us was such a great honour. Well before white people, the oldest continual living culture on this planet had figured a lot of it out."

"Well before white people, the oldest continual living culture on this planet had figured a lot of it out"

Günsberg continues: "There are cultural practices that go back eons which can do this, we haven't even opened the book, what we experienced with Joe was the pamphlet for this encyclopedia that exists.

"There are ways of being that we can learn from, that are profoundly transformative, that are going on right now in Indigenous communities."

A Matter of Life and Death concludes with Günsberg receiving the results of an MRI and learning that he is, in fact, genetically predisposed to experiencing a heightened send of negative emotions. Calling his wife Audrey with the news, it's clearly a moment of relief for the host.

"It was a relief," Günsberg reflects. "It really was. It allowed me to separate this thing that I've lived with from ME. If you haven't taken your car to get services for a long time and when you brake it pulls to the left, you might just think you're a sh*t driver.

"But then the mechanic can point out that it's actually a thing - it allowed me to put in place some separation, to understand that however bad it seems, its probably only half that."

As Günsberg feels relief, so too will many viewers - if you've ever struggled with depression, there's an undeniable sense of being seen by those who share their stories in A Matter of Life and Death, and comforted by those working night and day to help.

Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. More information is available at beyondblue.org.au. Embrace Multicultural Mental Health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. For 24/7 crisis support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or call 000 in an emergency.

Osher Günsberg: A Matter of Life and Death premieres at 8:30pm Sunday 19 September on SBS and SBS On Demand, as part of the Australia Uncovered strand of documentaries. All documentaries will be repeated at 10pm Wednesdays on SBS VICELAND from 15 September. 

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