Dad's the word

For years Meg Southcombe’s bright smile hid a dark, family secret.

At around 15 years of age, the natural-born leader’s vivacious spirit became temporarily dampened by her father’s private and debilitating battle with mental ill-health.

In 2018, Michael, a fit and active member of the Muswellbrook community, was diagnosed with clinical depression.

“A few weeks after Mum and Dad told us he had depression, seeing no improvement in his condition, he was ‘scheduled’ by his doctor," Meg said.

For Meg, her father’s admission to Warners Bay Private Hospital for treatment came as a relief. She knew he would be in safe hands.

In the weeks leading up to Michael’s hospitalisation, the family ensured there was always someone with him. For Meg’s younger brother Will, then 13, this meant he had days when he did not attend school while their mother was at work. Meanwhile, Meg, who has always had a powerful bond with her father, continued at school to avoid the brutal reality of seeing him so unwell.

“The onset of his depression seemed somewhat sudden – it was like something had taken over his mind.” said Meg.

Michael’s friend had died by suicide only months earlier, and from there, his own mental health spiralled out of control, so the family’s fears weren’t unfounded.

In Australia, over a million children live in a household where at least one parent has a mental illness.

For the Southcombe children, the impacts of their father’s mental ill-health were amplified by their locality. Michael, supported by his wife Sarah, had to travel long distances to access specialised psychiatric care.

Being in different locations meant they did not regularly see their dad while he underwent treatment, which was difficult for the tight-knit family. They were also acutely aware of the stigma that surrounds depression.

“We realise now that if we had told people, there would have been more help available from loved ones, but there’s so much stigma around mental illness. So, living in a small community and on top of everything else, we didn’t want everyone to know Dad’s business as we weren’t sure how they would react,” said Meg. 

It’s been almost three years since Michael’s hospital admission, and while he keeps in regular contact with his psychologist, he is no longer required to take anti-depressants.

Michael is back at work and doing things he loves most, like exercising with his children. The family has adjusted to their new ‘normal’, which includes sharing insight about their darker days to give others hope.

Meg is currently studying for her Higher School Certificate at St Joseph’s High School in Aberdeen. For her Year 12 Independent Research Project, the school captain wrote about the impacts of mental health on a family’s wellbeing.

So, when Meg heard that the Governor of New South Wales, Her Excellency Margaret Beazley was visiting the Upper Hunter earlier in the year, she trekked out to Gundy Pub to share her insights into the challenges of dealing with mental ill-health when living in rural areas.

"I explained to the Governor that my dad has depression and how when he was placed in a psych ward in Newcastle, my mum had to continue working long hours to keep the family afloat, while also finding the time to take Will and me down to visit him,” Meg said.

The Governor was so impressed with what Meg had to say that she invited the advocate to send her a copy of the research paper.

A few weeks later Meg received a letter from Her Excellency saying she’d read the ‘excellent’ report with great interest. “We’ll be using this in the future when making decisions,” it states.

Meg, who is also a student ambassador for the Upper Hunter mental health project, Where there’s a Will, was ecstatic to know that her research may influence how government supports families dealing with depression in rural areas.

Weeks later, broke the story of Meg’s brush with the Governor and, in the process, very publicly lifted the veil of secrecy that the Southcombe family had been hiding behind for years.

“Once the article went online, our phones didn’t stop buzzing,” Meg said.

So, the next day, once they’d had a chance to reflect on people’s comments, the Southcombe’s came together to discuss what had transpired.

“We were so humbled, Dad in particular,” Meg said. "It was lovely, after years of not speaking about our own experience to have people reach out to us in support.

“Dad, who had carried around the secret of his mental ill-health for years while also battling the condition, was particularly moved. But, it was the comments from strangers who said how much our honesty had impacted them and made them feel like they weren’t alone in what they’re going through that meant the most to him.”

Now, when Meg smiles, it’s because she knows she is using her own family’s experiences to help others in need.

“We’ve been touched by the love and support we’ve received from the community; it’s great to be able to share that with others.”


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Lizzie Watkin

Lizzie is Team Leader Content for the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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