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"Everything I wanted is gone": John Brogden's journey through the darkness

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John Brogden spent his life working to become Premier of NSW – until a colossal fall from grace and a very public suicide attempt changed his life and priorities forever. Ahead of a visit to Adelaide, he talks to InDaily about his recovery, and his zeal to change public discourse around mental illness.

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“From as early as I can remember, I only ever wanted to do one thing, and that was to be Premier of New South Wales.”

John Brogden’s lifelong dream came crashing down, almost literally, overnight.

One day he was riding high in the opinion polls, seemingly months from leading the Liberal Opposition out of the wilderness against a flailing Labor Government.

But his actions on a booze-fuelled night brought that ambition unstuck. The nation was temporarily transfixed by a political fall so spectacular and sudden; and for Brogden, there appeared no way forward.

Three weeks after he strode into Sydney’s Hilton Hotel brimming with confidence and euphoria, the no-longer Leader of the Opposition found himself “sitting in a suicide watch ward at a mental health clinic with bandages on my wrists”.

“I remember talking to my doctor, saying, ‘My God – what do I do now? Everything I wanted is now gone.’

“He said, ‘John… things will get better.’

“And I thought, ‘Why are you teasing me? Everything’s crushed!’

“But he was right. Things did get better.”

Slowly, though.

And given his profile, and the intensity of the media glare, it was perhaps inevitable that John Brogden’s suicide attempt ultimately became one of the driving, defining moments of his life.

You don’t plan these things in any way, and certainly don’t wish them upon anybody… but it has become a very significant part of my life

Now, 11 years on, he is chairman of the suicide prevention service Lifeline, as well as managing director and CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, among other roles. He was previously CEO of the Financial Services Council.

Brogden – who will visit Adelaide next week as the guest speaker at the Freemasons Foundation Centre for Men’s Health business breakfast at Adelaide Oval – speaks about his own suicide attempt with a candour that is as refreshing as it is shocking. But he does so deliberately, determined to undo the common misconception that suicide remains a taboo subject for discussion.

Recent research on the subject, he has said, shows “you’re better to talk about it than not talk about it”, and that “by drawing it out you will almost certainly make it better”.

It is a shift in thinking that is still to catch on in many sections of the community – not least the media, which has long maintained a tradition of not reporting on suicides and suicide attempts (except in high-profile cases, such as that of Brogden himself). The thinking has long been that normalising suicide could encourage it.

But for Brogden, there is no avoiding it; it is commonplace. And it needs to be talked about.

“What happened to me happens to people every day… I guess the difference is mine was very public,” he muses.

But, he says, “as difficult as the downfall was, in terms of the incredible intensity of public attention, the level of public sympathy and empathy afterwards was in equal proportion”.

Brogden’s story is well-known.

A career politician, he was the youngest member of the NSW Legislative Assembly when he was elected in 1996, at age 27 – his third attempt to enter parliament.

In 2002 he challenged then-Liberal leader Kerry Chikarovski and won. Three years later, Labor’s long-serving premier Bob Carr resigned, wounded in the polls, and Brogden felt like the anointed one.

Then came the Hilton Hotel.

At a boozy post-function affair he held court with attendees, including journos. His behaviour that night transgressed the boundaries of what might usually be considered an event akin to Chatham House Rules.

He reportedly belittled Carr’s Asian-born wife Helena as a “mail-order bride”, and behaved lecherously towards two female journalists.

Politically, it was a mortal wound for a family man, a young father.

He immediately quit the leadership, but resolved to remain in parliament.

That resolve broke within 24 hours, as the media attention became unbearable.

The public revelations of the Hilton incident had opened the floodgates: he had been warned that the media had been digging and another hatchet job beckoned.

And at that moment he believed it not just his political life that had ended.

He resolved to kill himself.

As Fairfax told the story last year, he drove first to a supermarket and bought implements to gas himself before finding a priest to hear what was intended as his final confession.

But unable to shake the following media, he instead drove to his electorate office.

There he sat in the shower, and drank gin before trying to end his life.*

He was only vaguely aware of the ensuing whirlwind: media were banging on the door downstairs, one of his staffers – dining nearby – called police, and an officer, whom he recognised as the local inspector, strode in and took the knife from his hand.

With media in tow, Brogden was taken to Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital.

Hours later, there he sat, wrists bandaged, staring disbelievingly at the doctor who told him life would get better again one day.

“Because it was very high profile, everybody knew about it, but there was an enormous amount of support and empathy that followed,” Brogden tells InDaily.

And while it was undeniably “horrible on the way down”, that kindness on the journey through was revelatory.

It was not, however, universal.

It was reported at the time that then-Health Minister Tony Abbott was forced to apologise for joking about Brogden’s fall from grace – just hours after his suicide attempt. Abbott told a Liberal fundraiser that if the Government implemented a certain contentious reform, “we’d be as dead as the former Liberal leader’s political prospects”.

He later conceded the comment was “probably” insensitive, but noted: “I have never claimed to be the world’s most sensitive person.”

If nothing else, it suggested the brutal cut and thrust of political life was no environment in which Brogden could recover.

Sydney, January 16, 2002. NSW State Liberal opposition leader John Brogden in his office today. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING

John Brogden, the new Opposition Leader, in 2002. Photo: Mick Tsikas / AAP

He was subsequently diagnosed with depression. An obvious question is whether it was a depression brought on by his sudden fall from grace, or whether it had been there before, or even helped foster the behaviour that brought him down.

“I’m convinced I had depression before that,” Brogden insists now.

“Looking back, in retrospect, I’m not sure it ever would have come up.

“It’s a very interesting question – whether I would have known [I was depressed] if I hadn’t had a breakdown… not to say I’m pleased I know, but it’s good to know [because] to have something physical or mental and not know what it is can be very frustrating and soul-destroying.”

And by speaking about his own journey “through darkness”, Brogden hopes he can help others see that there can be light in the distance.

He has learned much from his mental illness, “but for me the most important one is being much more self-aware”.

He jokes that the very notion of seeking “self-awareness” is something he would have once dismissed as “Buddhist claptrap”.

But now he takes solace in understanding “what you’re good at, what you’re bad at, what you like, what you don’t like, what gets me upset…”

The journey through darkness is one of constant, often dogged motion.

“I continue to see a psychiatrist on a regular basis and take medication, and that works well for me,” Brogden says.

“The dosage has changed over time, but it’s still a very important part of what makes me work.”

And what he works at is trying to change attitudes around mental health.

Brogden’s story is reminiscent of that of former Labor Senator Nick Sherry, who also succumbed to a very public suicide attempt amid ongoing controversy, and recovered to return to public life, including serving as Minister for Superannuation and Corporate Law in the Rudd Government.

“Nick and I knew each other long before that happened to him; I knew him before I went into politics and we’ve known each other very well since we both left politics,” Brogden says.

“We’ve probably never sat down and talked in great detail, but it’s a very important shared experience… it almost doesn’t need to be talked about.”

He also draws inspiration from former Trade Minister Andrew Robb, who publicly announced his own depression battle, took some personal leave and returned to continue a successful and influential political career.

For Brogden, that was a pivotal moment in proving that “we’re moving to a point in public life where you can treat mental illness in the same way you can treat physical illness”.

He concedes many people “leave politics very bitter and unfulfilled”, but insists while “I didn’t leave fully of my own free will” he does not regret it.

“It was a very – incredibly – hard time for me, and I did need some private time to recover,” he reflects.

“I would have loved to be Premier of NSW, but I’ve had – and am having – a wonderful life.”

We talk very openly to the children about my depression and my suicide attempt

He recently visited the electorate of a mate who is currently serving in the NSW Liberal Government.

“His mother, who is my mother’s age, said to me: ‘You’ll make a greater contribution doing this than you’d ever have done in politics’,” he recalls.

“I went into politics at 27 and left at 36 – I spent nearly four years as Opposition Leader, and that was an incredible privilege, to be elected to public life and lead a party and be the alternative premier.

“I feel I was given a great privilege and I feel a responsibility to return that privilege through service in this area.”

The events of mid-2005 changed John Brogden’s life forever: his success has been to turn those changes into positive influences.

“You don’t plan these things in any way, and certainly don’t wish them upon anybody, let alone yourself, but it has become a very significant part of my life,” he says now of his suicide attempt.

“Because when you get to that dark point in your life, it puts so much in perspective.

“I don’t know that I’d ever be brave enough to say I’m glad I had a suicide attempt, but I can certainly say it was a transformative event in my life, that brought me to terms with my own mental health [and] turned me around with a better understanding.”

His son Flinders, named for the famous explorer Matthew Flinders, was a toddler when Brogden tried to take his own life; he is now 12.

He has two other children, aged 10 and 8, and his wife Lucy is an organisational psychologist, a patron of Partners in Depression. He says “we talk very openly to them about my depression and my suicide attempt”.

“In this day and age, they can read it on the internet anyway [so] we haven’t sought to hide it – not because it would be hard to hide, but because you have to be open and honest.”

The children have been “very understanding”.

“It was the 10-year anniversary [of my suicide attempt] last year and there was some media around that, and the kids were sad… but they’re incredibly wise,” he says.

“The fact that I’m still here with them is something which they’re very pleased about.

“I never thought my life would be as rich as it is, not ever… I’m in a place I never thought I’d be in – a very happy place.”

John Brogden is the guest speaker at the Freemasons Foundation Centre for Men’s Health business breakfast next Wednesday, September 7, at the Ian McLachlan Room at Adelaide Oval from 7.15am till 9am.

If you or someone you know needs help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit the website.

*This paragraph has been amended from its original publication on the advice of the Mindframe National Media Initiative.

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