Breaking the Silence: Paul Harrison

By Charmayne Allison

As part of Mental Health Week, nine locals from Echuca-Moama and surrounds will share their stories.

After attending a traumatising crash scene while in the RFS, Kotta’s Paul Harrison was thrown into the dark world of post-traumatic stress.

If it weren’t for a friend persistently asking him ‘are you okay?’, he knows he wouldn’t be here today.

This is his story.

Produced by Cath Grey and Charmayne Allison

KOTTA’S Paul Harrison can still remember the moment his world came crashing down.

It was when he found the body of a little girl lying limp in the grass, 30m from where her intoxicated parents had smashed their car into another moving vehicle.

After seven years in the navy, 18 years in prisons and attending more than 30 crash scenes in the RFS, he thought he’d seen it all.

But nothing will haunt him as much as the innocent face of that little girl, still seared in his memory, still bringing a tremor to his voice.

Although it wasn’t until 20 years later when a friend began to persistently ask him, ‘are you okay?’ that he even acknowledged how much that moment had affected him.

“Like most men, I didn’t want to talk about it,” Paul admitted.

“I was angry, self-medicating with alcohol and I’d gotten to the point where I sort of didn’t care anymore, literally, about anybody or anything.

“I was lucky enough to have someone ask me if I was okay. I probably bit her head off at the time, but she didn’t give up.

“If she had, I certainly wouldn’t be around today.

“That’s the big thing – don’t just leave it at that. Listen to the answer. Make your own judgment on what you think is going on and persist with it.”

Joining the navy at the age of 18, Paul navigated the dangerous waters of bullying and sexual harassment for seven years before moving into defence security and later engineering for NSW prisons.

During this time he joined the RFS, where he attended the horror crash that would push his mental health to breaking point.

He went to a GP and psychologist and was put on anti-depressants – and while these treatments work for many, he said they left him feeling cold, numb and dangerous.

It was at this time his marriage of 29 years unexpectedly collapsed.

“Going through an event like that while on that type of medication, I think it’s very irresponsible if you’re not dealt with very carefully. And I felt I was irresponsibly dealt with,” Paul said.

“I got to the point where my thoughts were both homicidal and suicidal.

“But I struggled to open up to anyone about it – a lot of people could lose their jobs, their security clearances and even worse, their families for admitting that.”

It wasn’t until three years ago Paul made the switch from antidepressants to alternative therapies – and he hasn’t looked back since.

“Even now, I still struggle, don’t get me wrong. I can still be more reactive than I should be. But nowhere near the extent of three years ago,” he said.

Above all, Paul urges men struggling with mental health to seek help – whatever and wherever it may be.

“Women seem to have more guts and want to step forward and say yeah, I’m struggling. But to me, anybody should be able to do it,” he said.

“Make the call. Call anybody who is willing to listen. You don’t have to do it alone.”

If you or someone you know needs help now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. If it becomes a crisis go immediately to the nearest hospital or phone 000.