Surviving Winter

Words by Tess Astle

Annette Baker is a mental health advocate in Albury Wodonga. After establishing Survivors of Suicide and Friends in 2013, Annette and her team now host one of the most prominent mental health community events in the region—the Winter Solstice. Annette has been nominated for the Australian Mental Health Prize and been a finalist for the NSW Regional Woman of the Year. I sat down with Annette to learn more.

First things first, what are the origins of the event?

To begin with, it was really personal. My daughter, Mary, took her life at the age of 15 in 2011 and in my very complicated grief, I found myself searching for somewhere to talk about surviving suicide. In 2012, our family and the Border Mail created a Walkley award-winning campaign called Ending the Suicide Silence. In the months that followed my husband Stuart and I were contacted by so many people who also had someone die by suicide. 

I think I had more coffees and wines over those three months than I ever had before. One day a man asked, “why do you talk in public about this?” I said, “because to me, not talking about this is not healthy.” Immediately he told me the story of the death of his sister 30 years ago. It was the first time he had told anyone. It became glaringly obvious that there was no support for people struggling with surviving suicide or those with their own mental health battles. And this realisation led to the idea of the Winter Solstice event. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I’ve had to plan the event myself, alongside Stuart and our community, the Survivors of Suicide and Friends.

Why did you choose the night of the Winter Solstice?

In our family, the Winter Solstice has always meant overcoming the darkness. Our kids would long for the long night that had the promise of summer, the relief that light was coming. Winter is often the darkest time for those struggling with mental illness. The Solstice is a symbolic night of darkness. Bearing the cold night represents what tough and hard grief is all about. It’s not our event anymore. It’s Albury Wodonga’s event. We just organise it. It’s beautiful to watch the community take over and own the night.

What do you hope the future looks like for Albury?

Despite mental health awareness, our mental health facilities remain pretty ordinary. I want what Patrick McGorry, mental health guru, calls “mental health hubs”. A place of no stigma, no fricken silence, no matter what. You are given 100% wonderful treatment and you do not get to leave the hub without a diagnosis or medication if needed. 

Have you seen other rural communities creating similar events?

Yes, I have. This year we livestreamed to Darwin and Benalla. Media stations in Albury keep asking us to stream or broadcast the speeches. But we never do. To us, it’s more important to have people there. To have people breathing the cold and enduring the darkness together. 

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