A life changing year

Have you ever done something that you never thought you'd do, and then looked back on thought, "Wow"?

After 12 months of what can only be described as one of the most intense learning curves of my life, I'm very proud to say that I've successfully completed my first year of university. This week I graduated with a Graduate Certificate in Suicide Prevention Studies from Griffith University in Brisbane. I'm also proud of the fact that I achieved high enough grades to qualify to continue on next year into the Masters of Suicidology program, which will allow me the opportunity to conduct my research aimed at linking the comedy industry to that of mental health. Sometimes I can't believe that this is the direction that my life has taken. This blog is both, my account of how I came to be a student in this challenging field of Suicidology, and, a reminder that sometimes, your life will lead you in a direction that you may never have thought possible.

After having been announced as the 2013 Singularity University Global Impact Comp Australia runner-up, my mentor and friend, Dr Clarence Tan, suggested that I needed to partner with the health faculty of a university as a way of further exploring my proposal of linking comedy to mental health. Upon checking out my options, it quickly became obvious that I needed to speak with someone from The Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention, based at the Griffith University Mt Gravatt campus. Little do I know at the time, the significance of the meeting I was about to have, and the relationships I was about to form.

One Thursday morning early in August 2014. both Dr Tan and I met the Professor Diego De Leo, who, at the time was the Director of The Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention (AISRAP). Professor De Leo is, to put it simply, and without exaggeration, a world leader in suicide prevention, research, and training. Now, the term 'world leader' gets tossed around far too often in my opinion, however in this gentleman's case, it is an incredibly befitting title. Prof De Leo is also the founder of World Suicide Prevention Day on the 10th of September.

At our meeting, I was interested to hear Prof De Leo's thoughts on the numerous documents I had previously sent through outlining my research proposal and the industry partnership I was hoping to establish with Griffith University and AISRAP. The meeting lasted for 2 hours, and it was at that meeting that Prof De Leo made mention of his interest in my line of work, and the ideas I had put forth. He believed that the idea of using humour and laughter in suicide prevention was worthy of pursuing. The insight, wisdom, and knowledge Prof De Leo shared with us that day was incredible, and his encouragement of me to further explore my ideas was quite humbling. Prof De Leo also suggested at that meeting that if we were to possibly undertake any future research collaborations, it might be a good idea if I undertook formal education in the fields of Suicide Prevention and Suicidology. Within a week of that meeting, I had received an email from AISRAP inviting me to apply to undertake formal study at the university.

When I found out however, that this was a Post Graduate course and that the entry requirements for the course was an existing bachelor degree, I thought to myself, no way in the world am I going to be approved for entry into this course. I mean, I'm a guy who never even finished high school, leaving in grade 10 to go and work on the tools, sure, I'd undertaking some study in the five years I was with the Qld State Emergency Service, and I'd spent three years studying acting, both of which however hardly compare to having done a university degree. Disheartened, I rang AISRAP, and told them of my concerns in not being qualified to undertake this level of study. Not only did I have doubts about not being accepted, I also had doubts as to whether or not I'd be able to do the work and understand the content, given the fact that I hadn't had any previous university experience. What I was told at the time was, just fill in your application the best you can, outlining everything that you've done, and we will take it from there. So, that's exactly what I did.

Part of the approval process involved a phone interview with the course head lecturer, Jacinta Hawgood, who is also a well-respected leader in the field of suicide prevention. While we were talking on the phone Jacinta made mention that Prof De Leo had excitedly spoken to her about our meeting  and what it was that I wanted to work on. One of the main things that got me over the line I believe was the fact that I've been a comedian for over 17 years, whatever it was that got me over line, being given the opportunity to study at a post graduate level was very exciting, and very daunting at the same time.

The first semester was an eye opener to say the least, not only learning about how incredibly multi-dimensional this problem of suicide is, but also, all of sudden I had to learn about the academic style of writing, which is something within itself. However, the main thing to come out of learning about academia is that it really opened my eyes as to the importance of referencing facts and figures. All too often we here figures being quoted in the media, or even for that matter, around the BBQ on the weekend. When you learn about referencing it highlights the importance of supplying accurate information, especially when quoting facts and figures to the media, as I'm now increasingly being asked to do.

After successfully navigating my way through the first semester and being quite happy with my test results, the second semester I was sure was going to be a lot easier. In fact, the second semester this year was quite a challenge indeed. More involved assignments about research studies, learning about the legal issues surrounding suicide prevention and interventions, and, gaining insight into the best way to intervene in an active suicide attempt was all quite confronting.

The problem of suicide and its prevention is so multi-faceted, that attempting to give an overview of what I've learnt is something that goes way beyond the purpose of this blog post, that will be the job of future blogs to come. The purpose of this blog post is to say that, sometimes, your life will lead you in directions that you may never have thought of, and when doors open, making a decision to walk through them can by a turning point of great significance. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever give thought to becoming a university student, especially not at the age of 45 that’s for sure. Doing this course has been without a doubt one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and I know now, that this is just the beginning of my studies in the field of Suicidology.

In the new year, I'll be firstly giving an overview of the subjects that we covered this year, then subsequent posts will hopefully offer insights that may help anyone who is either, in a deep dark place, living with someone who is in that place, or having to deal with the aftermath of a loved one's suicide or suicide attempt. If this is you, then please take comfort in the fact that there are numerous people, with much more knowledge than I, who are tirelessly working on this extremely complicated problem.

I sincerely hope that everyone has a safe and relaxing Christmas and New Year's break, and that you get to enjoy time spent with family and friends.

Until we meet again in the new year, look after yourself my friends, and please, look after each other,

and   "Remember to laugh". 

Mark McConville


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