The silent killer
Suicide: A taboo topic in the Greek community. Thomas Andronas speaks to a family who want to help others recognise the signs and do something, before it’s too late.
Approaching the Zafiropoulos household in Melbourne's south-eastern suburbs, it's impossible to comprehend the tragedy that has befallen this family.
Theirs is a home like any other, and yet its occupants have no choice but to carry the burden of a recently deceased son, brother and uncle.
Kostas Zafiropoulos committed suicide in February this year, aged 30.
His father Elias approached Neos Kosmos to tell his story, to try to send a message, to save other families from a grief he begrudgingly knows too well.
Elias Zafiropoulos says the road that led to Kostas' suicide was a long one, that began with him being expelled from school as a teenager, and ended in a deep depression, where communication was non-existent.
"We tried to help him but there was nothing we could do because he was shutting us out, he didn't communicate, he was keeping everything to himself," Mr Zafiropoulos says.
He stops short of going into detail about his son's death. It's too recent, too raw.
But he summons the courage to make a heartfelt plea. He says that mental illness and suicide need to be talked about more openly, in the hope that they may be treated and prevented.
"We have to be careful, every one of us. You can see your kid's behaviour changing from one minute to the other, you can see that they've got depression, you can see they're not doing that well at work, or they don't go out to meet friends … they're all symptoms that there must be something wrong.
"When you see your child acting in a funny way, try do something about it, don't take things for granted," Mr Zafiropoulos says.
Elias' wife Georgia - Kostas' mother - slips into the room. She says nothing, but places four framed photographs of her youngest son, Kosta, on the coffee table.
As she sets them down she stares distantly at them before sliding back out of the room as quietly as she entered - except for her sobs, which she tries to suppress.
"This is something you can't fix, you know. You can fix anything else but not a death," Mr Zafiropoulos says.
But mental illness and suicide are taboo topics - people don't want to talk about them, the media are tentative to report on them. Mr Zafiropoulos feels this is exactly the wrong approach to take.
"This psychological disease, in the future, is going to be the worst of them all - forget about cancer, forget about road toll or whatever - I think this is going to be the biggest [issue] because there's so much pressure on this new generation," he says.
The pressure he speaks of is social pressure, and the shame and embarrassment that comes with not being able to achieve what some perceive, is expected of them.
For Tina Douvos, Deputy Director of the Australian Greek Welfare Society, shame and embarrassment are key issues.
"[Mental illness] is still a taboo, or a hidden issue in the Greek Community, as it is in many other communities, and as such at times it doesn't really get spoken about. It's not something that's communicated to people in a positive way, and that can have implications for individuals and families," she says.
In particular, she says, the Greek community struggles with mental illness.
"It's not a topic that's discussed, people try to deal with it within their own families and capabilities and as a result sometimes assistance is not sought, or support is not available to them, and that creates difficulties not only for the person that has the illness, but also the family that's supporting that individual," Ms Douvos says.
The key she says, echoing Mr Zafiropoulos, is open and honest communication.
"Usually if there's a hunch, then there is something going on, so it's very important to try to communicate with that child and see whether they're happy to discuss what is going on. If not, I'd certainly be encouraging families to contact a professional," Ms Douvos says.
She goes on to explain that there are myriad resources available for people suffering mental illness, including the Australian Greek Welfare Society, which provides case workers and counselling services.
For Elias Zafiropoulos and his family, in the aftermath of the loss of Kosta, they've realised that there's one key to mental illness, and it's something they now employ as a coping mechanism.
"We talk a lot about it. I try to tell them that we have to realise Kosta is not with us any more. We're going to have him always in our hearts, but we have to go on with our lives, we can't stop," he says.
He's pleading for others to start talking about it too, before it's too late.
For support and information about mental illness and suicide prevention contact the Australian Greek Welfare Society on (03) 9388 9998. For 24-hour help call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
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