The fun-loving guy dressed in the lion suit (pictured right) seems a long way away from suicide now, but Shaun McNeil believes distressing experiences when he was a child triggered his anxiety and depression as an adult – and eventually his attempts to take his own life.

“When I was eight or nine, my Dad’s job was transferred from the city to a small town,” he says. “I had to change schools, leave my friends and start again. Then my parents split up and my mum disappeared out of my life.  I was very close to my mother… it was extremely difficult to cope with such sudden changes so close together.”

Despite this, Shaun’s life went on.  He left high school early, married his girlfriend, and had two beautiful daughters. “We were poor and life was hard, but busy,” he recalls.

His first career in banking ended suddenly after his branch was the target of an armed robbery. He decided banking was no longer for him and instead retrained as a mental health nurse, something he’d been interested in for a while. 

Shocked by first attempt

It was in this role, aged 33, that he first attempted suicide.

“I failed, and in tears, and shocked by my actions, I took myself to my hospital’s emergency department.”

His diagnosis was severe suicidal depression and “free floating” anxiety. He worked through a number of different treatments and after a few months was discharged.

“I returned to my nursing career, but people treated me very differently. I was the embodiment of what my colleagues feared for themselves; that the healers would become the wounded.”

Shaun moved to a role transitioning tangata whaiora into the community before the hospital closed, leaving him looking for a new role. 

Recovering from a second attempt

Shaun’s next job involved managing a small mental health advocacy NGO, but it didn’t last long.

“Around the same time my marriage fell apart; I left home and ultimately my job. At one point I was homeless,” Shaun says. “I became depressed and rented an isolated cottage. No one called or visited me for 16 weeks. I felt that no one really cared if I was here at all.”

In the depths of depression, Shaun (then aged 39) tried again to take his life, but the attempt was thwarted when his friend Karen phoned him. ”When I answered, she knew immediately something was wrong and dialled for an ambulance.”

Shaun remembers what helped him in his recovery afterwards – being patient with himself, finding people who stood by him, including his family, a supportive GP and other helpful health professionals, and volunteering at a national advocacy organisation. 

Finding a new balance in life

Twelve years on, Shaun has worked hard to achieve the work/life balance he now enjoys. He builds his resilience by enjoying the small things, giving himself a break when he needs to, and staying open to new opportunities and challenges. He also remarried, and credits his new wife Shona's contribution to his continued wellbeing.

“I need to have a role and purpose in life, so feeling I still had something to contribute to an organisation gave me self-worth and eventually led me back to paid work and a job with Emerge Aotearoa that I love,” he says.

The best advice he got was to seek out the company of people who will support you unconditionally, allow you to progress and make mistakes, listen to you without judgement and without feeling the responsibility of having to “fix you” and come from a place of understanding, respect and love.

As a suicide attempt survivor, Shaun takes every opportunity he can to share his story. “I hope that my recovery journey resonates and inspires others.”