Explaining the T Shirt

I’ve found myself being away from home for a few days longer than I anticipated – and short of clothes. But I keep a couple of emergency t shirts in my suitcase and resorted to one this morning. It’s a t shirt promoting a campaign by the SA Synod called “Suicide: It’s No Secret”, encouraging people to talk about suicide, it’s possible causes and its impact in families and communities, rather than conceal it as if it were shameful in some way. http://nosecret.org.au/

The secrecy around suicide seems to compound this deep wound in the Australian community. And, in the earliest stages of the campaign’s development, it became clear that this was one place where Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians could come together in solidarity. The suicide rates among Indigenous Australians are horrifying, but are on a continuum of trauma that includes rural Australians, young Australians, and the community as a whole. The South Australian experience has been that this campaign has brought a surprisingly diverse group of people together. In the event, it has been about reconciliation.

Anyway, wearing my “Suicide: It’s No Secret” t shirt this morning got me into a long conversation with a security guard at Melbourne airport. He’d been looking at me as I emptied my pockets and got ready to go through the security scanner. Then he asked me what my t shirt was about. I said, It’s a campaign to encourage people to talk about suicide when it happens rather than feel that it’s a shameful secret that they have to hide. Oh, I see, he said. And I went through the security scanner.

He kept watching me as I was sent back three times before I found the keys that kept setting off the alarm. He watched me as I was stopped by the guy who tests your clothes and hand luggage for…I don’t know, bomb stuff. And as I finally got to reassemble myself and my gear he approached me again.

A good conversation followed about secrecy, trauma and the way that unshared pain just compounded problems for people. Well, not really a conversation. He just talked to me, sharing all the things that had been going through his mind since I’d explained the meaning of my t shirt. As he drew his reflections to a conclusion, he ended up recommending the church as a good place for people to talk about the darker aspects of their lives. Priests can be be good people to talk to about things you couldn’t tell anyone else, he advised me. Thanks, I said, I think you’re right.

I hadn’t had a chance to tell him what I do. That didn’t matter. This man, who didn’t appear to be a religious person himself, had talked us to a spot where we could both see that a community of faith and its representatives, priests and ministers, could turn out to be a matter of life or death.

When I got to Sydney I drove to Auburn where I was scheduled to visit a group of Fijian and Tongan lay leaders who were taking an intensive course for lay preachers. Again, my shirt became an issue. In this case, they were expecting someone who looked like a President. Not some bloke in jeans and a t shirt. They were pretty pleased about my informality, and were keen to tell me. But the shirt was just a puzzle.

So I told them about the campaign. And, for good measure, I told them about the security guard’s reflections. And, for even better measure, they told me about the seriousness of the problem of suicide in Pacific Islander communities. The Tongan students wanted to me know the word they had for suicide: taunakita (pronounced downa-keyta). And they don’t talk about it either.

These students, as a group, had been taking part in the week of prayer and fasting for justice for Indigenous Australians while they did their intensive course. Now they had found another space within which they could identify with and stand in solidarity with their sisters and brothers in the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander community – suicide.

In this important week – A Destiny Together: A Week of Prayer and Fasting for Indigenous Australians – I thought I’d share this story. http://www.assembly.uca.org.au/adestinytogether



  1. Thanks Andrew, I’ve just been thinking about the power of the T-shirt – been wearing a ‘Healing Spirit’ shirt from an Indigenous Festival this week for ‘A destiny together’ – has been an entry point into interesting and unusual conversations. Blessings.

  2. Oh the power of a T shirt!
    It certainly has its positive place in our community.

    I had to turn my T shirt which said “refugee rights are human rights” inside out before being allowed into an immigration detention centre for non criminal asylum seekers….Told to be ‘ silent’ on human rights.

    Sadly, with so many innocent people now in a longterm state of deprivation of liberty, work rights and separation from loved ones, the attempted suicides and the inevitable decline into irreversible mental illness in our asylum seeker cohort, will increase and more will succeed in ending their miserable lives. These suicides are preventable, avoidable .The “collateral damage” on extended families “overthere” is negated, not acknowledged or factored in by our policy makers. .

    Psychiatrists and advocates have urged for an end to mandatory indefinite detention of (non criminal) asylum seekers as a deterrence -for twenty years! The inhumanity- deliberate cruelty- of our Parliament and majority of politicians makes my heart break. I am vicariously traumatised by the unnecessary suffering .

  3. Thanks for this post. I have had to wrestle with this issue following the death of my husband by suicide. Twenty years experience in pastoral ministry meant I have thought about this question for others and I knew instinctively that I wanted to speak truthfully about how Michael died and what had contributed to his death. This has opened up many helpful conversations and I was helped by clergy who spoke tenderly and truthful about Michael’s life at his funeral. But it is also costly and it seems to invite some people to share their most unhelpful assumptions about suicide, Michael and the life we shared with him. Ultimately though I loved him and wanted always to speak about him with love and not shame and that’s why I have always been open about his death.

  4. Sharon Hollis your story is so very moving. Thanks Andrew for posting about this. It is amazing the depth of conversation that something like a t-shirt can take us to: shame, grief, fear, desperation, mental health and so on. I’m so grateful you not only wore the tshirt but have people the time to talk. For too long, we (society) have been to afraid of the pain to even go there. I like to think we are turning that ship around slowly.

  5. Well done Andrew on your walking the talk – may you run short of clothes again soon! I’m reminded by your story of the time prior to hip surgery when after a long day (or walking through a large airport) I would tend to limp associated with the pain. I would encounter a colleague who in a jocular fashion would say ‘Torn a calf or is it your ankle?’ which I found quite flattering in a sense – that they thought at my best I’d be a sporty guy! But when I raised my trouser leg and showed my extension prosthetic on the same side, and said it was part of my disability, we quite often got into a conversation (though not as in depth as yours) about the opportunities that technology offers those with disability. I was also blowing away stereotypes as they admitted ‘I didn’t know you had a disability.’ I was able to talk about the many things I can do with just the right assistance, like many others dealing with diversity – racial, ability, cognitive or even religious.

    We perhaps need to sport our diversity a bit more (such as our T shirt wearing President) to spark these conversations. More food for thought during a week that has been one of looking forward with hope and expectation of how God will take us forward in our walk, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, together with dignity.


    Andrew F Dutney wrote: > thirteen2012 posted: “I’ve found myself being away from home for a few > days longer than I anticipated – and short of clothes. But I keep a > couple of emergency t shirts in my suitcase and resorted to one this > morning. It’s a t shirt promoting a campaign by the SA Synod called “” >

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