Heartbroken family’s plea after losing their girl
The grieving parents of an 18-year-old school student who took her own life are urging people to connect face-to-face with their loved ones - do more than just send a text.
Fiona and Matt Neale say that while things might appear 'normal', turmoil can bubble just below the surface; so take the time to call, to listen, to speak face-to-face.
The Blue Mountains couple is reeling from the loss of their daughter Claudia - one of nine north shore school students to die from suicide since January.
They chose to share their story with The Sunday Telegraph in the hope of helping other families prevent tragedy.
Last Sunday, as part of our Can We Talk campaign we revealed the cluster of suicides, one of whom was Claudia's friend.
Another of her close friends suicided a year ago.
The Neale's are still trying to understand how the elite swimming team captain and scholarship recipient, A-grade student, and confident girl who had the world at her feet would choose to take her own life.
They can't understand why, in the days before she died, she applied for her green P-plate licence and purchased earrings - every day actions of a teenager.
Both items arrived in the mail the next week but she was gone.
"If I had a chance to speak to her right now I would say it's a totally different place when you finish school," Mr Neale, 50, told The Sunday Telegraph from his Blaxland home.
"When you finish school, life changes and it does change for the better. It just opens up what you can do. You don't have to do physics any more."
Claudia's parents say she was a happy kid until some personal issues around July last year, and other factors, sent her into a depression.
Weeks after there was the suicide of her close friend, who was a fellow student in Year 11 at the north shore private school they attended.
"To other people looking in it was like she was on fire and was doing really well," Claudia's older sister Gabby said.
"Girls thought it was OK to be unkind without realising that she was struggling and internalising it. She was dealing with those issues but then hadn't dealt with all of the other stuff that had gone on. She stopped sleeping and was crying most nights."
What followed was a whirlwind of psychology and psychiatry appointments in early 2020, a suicide attempt and a diagnosis of depression.
In March, Claudia turned 18, meaning Mrs Neale was shut out of about 10 medical appointments.
Claudia missed appointments but her family felt powerless to intervene.
"Even though she was better I knew she just wasn't right," Mrs Neale, a 44-year-old midwife, said.
"Before she died she said 'I'm not me, I'm not who I was'."
Her parents say their daughter was also struggling with COVID-19 restrictions, which limited her swimming schedule and put a dampener on her 18th birthday party and those of her friends.
As a boarder at the school, COVID-19 restrictions meant she was only able to interact in "a bubble" with the two other girls she was staying with.
Unable to deal with the isolation, she started staying with a close friend's family during the week and then went home to the mountains on the weekends.
She was also feeling the pressure of HSC exams. In July, another fellow student and friend took her own life - exactly one year after her other friend's suicide.
Claudia took her own life on August 1, less than two days after the funeral of her friend.
Since Claudia's death, Mr and Mrs Neale and her older siblings Dan and Gabby, have agonised over what they could have done differently. What went wrong?
"If I've heard anything from the people who have visited us (since) it, is that they are all checking on each other - not just texting," Mr Neale said.
"Visit them and see someone. Don't just do it now because this has just happened, you're going to have to keep doing it."
Mr Neale said kids today relied so heavily on "electronic talking" but it was time to "pick up the phone and ring people".
"We have got to keep talking to each other," he said.
"Other than being two steps behind them all the time, there is nothing else Fiona could've done.
"The kids have got to realise that they themselves are enough - enough for everything. Your relationships are enough. You, yourself, are enough."
The family do not blame any person or event for Claudia's death - saying depression was the scourge which took their daughter's life much too soon.
"People do not realise what's going on in other people's lives and the outward appearance that people see is not necessarily what they are really going through," Mr Neale said.
"We must reach out to each other."
Can We Talk is designed to encourage people to discuss the issue of mental ill-health in young people. We are calling for extra support for students and teachers.
News Corp's regional websites are featuring the stories from The Sunday Telegraph's Can We Talk campaign.
Originally published as Heartbroken family's plea after losing their girl in suicide cluster