The theme of this year’s 19th Annual Bruce Woodcock Memorial Lecture is ‘Sharing stories, changing lives’. Each week, as we count down to the event we’ll be featuring blogs from talented storytellers in our community. They’ll be sharing with you their moments of transformation—reflections about overcoming barriers and gaining strength, support and knowledge. The final in our series is Frank Woodcock’s reflections on his son, Bruce, and why the lecture is important for shining a light on mental health issues in our community.

We didn’t realise for quite a while that my son, Bruce, was living with a mental illness until after its onset. When he was 22 he started smoking marijuana, which had a very adverse impact on him. Some people can take it and others can’t. He was one of those who couldn’t handle it as he experienced hallucinations and that sort of thing. 

We realised something had to be done, but when my son was quite ill, there was very little in the way of services available to him. It was back in the late 1970’s, so we were really on our own.  

We had the facility out near the university nearby but that was shocking. Bruce was in a locked ward at the time. They had a piano and about 20 residents off to the side in a central area and they couldn’t get out of there. The patients often tried to escape when the doors were left open for visitors. Bruce was not in there all that long but he did get treatment there and also had electric shock treatment.  

Mostly, Bruce was in the open ward so he’d come and go as he pleased. Unfortunately, he was at the stage where he still needed control and support so I would get a call saying, “Bruce has left the facility. Can you find him please?”

I would start looking from Preston out to towards the University and, strangely enough, I would often find him and drive him back to the facility. But it was a worry. 

As a child, Bruce did very well at school. He was a pianist and loved playing jazz music. 

We funded Bruce to study music for a year in New York. He had about $1,400 left to get him home from New York and some other kid needed the money so Bruce gave it to him.  Never saw it again, that was the type of person he was. He was always trying to help others.  

Bruce did a philosophy course in his first year at university because he liked that sort of thing. He was also very good at sciences. Later in life he worked at CSRIO in their science area, but that didn’t last more than six to nine months.

He was quite itinerant as a young man and went up north at one stage to play music. He went to Darwin for a short time and then he married and went to Perth and that marriage broke up. Bruce came back to Melbourne at about the same time that his mother died. 

Bruce cherished his relationship with his brother Ian, who suffers a disability, and certainly with his mother, because she was also a pianist and gave him a love of music.

Bruce was 32 years old when he took his own life.

Our family were devastated by his death, but I strongly felt that something positive should come out of the tragedy we experienced.

By supporting the lecture in Bruce’s name, my family and I wanted to put something back into the mental health and disability area that might generate more action from various organisations to help those people most in need.

I don’t think there’s ever enough being done to fight mental illness. When our family needed it 30 years ago, mental health services and support didn’t really exist. 

Young people deserve assistance, so my message to anyone suffering mental health problems is to connect with organisations like Wellways, so that you and your family can take advantage of their help and support.

Frank Woodcock