Warning: This article is about youth suicide and may be distressing for some readers.

As part of our Break the Silence series on youth suicide, we are publishing a number of first-person pieces. Today, Jean Balchin talks about what she's learned from the death of her brother, John. In her own words:

Three years ago, my brother John died from suicide. He was only 18. He was my best friend, a gentle boy who saw the best in everyone.

For a long time, I refused to acknowledge the true circumstances of my brother's death. I buried the memory in the attic of my mind and desperately tried to distract myself.

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And then, when I too began to spiral downwards into that deep, dark pit of depression, I kept my mouth shut. I was too afraid to tell anyone that my hair was falling out in clumps, that I woke up each morning with a heavy weight on my chest, pushing me down into the mattress.

I was too ashamed to admit that I couldn't sleep, that I was beginning to hear voices, or that secretly I longed for everything to just stop. I was on the brink of suicide myself, and it wasn't until a friend confronted me with five simple words, that I realised I needed help. "Are you thinking about suicide?" she asked.

Suicide is truly an awful beast. It's frightening and mysterious, looming out of the darkness to catch family, friends and colleagues off guard.

There is a great deal of stigma attached to the word suicide, but it's time we talked about it. By reaching out to each other, helping those struggling, and sharing our difficult stories, we can actually save lives.

One common myth claims that talking about suicide can plant the idea in someone's head. Numerous studies have shown the opposite.

There is a palpable sense of relief that accompanies expressing one's feelings. The desire to blend in, to "toughen up" and get on with things prevents people from seeking the help they desperately need.

Talking about suicide and mental health struggles opens up communication about a topic that is often kept a secret. These secrets, exposed to the bright light of day, often lose their power.

We have the worst teen (15-19) suicide rate in the developed world, and the second worst youth (25 and under) suicide rate. Given that the annual rates have remained largely unchanged for about two decades, we obviously haven't been doing enough for our young people.

After John died, people didn't know what to say. They'd awkwardly hug me, tell me he was in a better place and that he wasn't suffering any more. They'd skirt the issue of his death as if it was a huge, shameful secret.

I don't think they meant any harm by this. I think people are afraid of discussing suicide because they don't understand it.

We need to demystify it, and make it so people feel free to express their suicidal thoughts. Suicidal thoughts don't make one selfish or weak. They're merely symptoms of an illness, and like a broken leg or breast cancer. There should be no stigma or shame in talking about suicide.

Education, treatment and compassion are the keys to suicide prevention. About 90 per cent of people who die by suicide suffer from a mental health condition such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder.

It's vital that we keep channels of communication open, and keep a close eye on loved ones who might be experiencing mental health issues.

Another common myth about suicide is that people who want to take their own lives will always find a way. This is not true. Many people are relieved to survive a suicide attempt.

Jean Balchin says talking about suicide and mental health is a matter of life and death. Photo / Supplied
Jean Balchin says talking about suicide and mental health is a matter of life and death. Photo / Supplied

It is the fear of losing more people to suicide that drives me forward. I am no longer ashamed of how my mind plays tricks on me, or the deficient levels of dopamine in my brain.

Talking about suicide and mental health is a matter of life and death in New Zealand. Let's start the conversation now.

• Support Youthline by donating via youthline.co.nz/breakthesilence.

WHERE TO GET HELP:

If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call 111.

If you need to talk to someone, the following free helplines operate 24/7:

DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757
LIFELINE: 0800 543 354
NEED TO TALK? Call or text 1737
SAMARITANS: 0800 726 666
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633 or text 234

There are lots of places to get support. For others, click here.