Father-of-three loses eight-year battle with mental health

He appeared to be a regular, happy Kiwi bloke but after an eight-year battle with mental health issues, "super active" father-of-three Sydney Harris died by suicide in October. This three-part series looks at his life, the mental health system and what can be learned from his death. 

This is the first part of the series. Read part two and part three.

As the coroner wheeled her dad's body from their West Auckland home shortly after he had taken his own life, Georgia Harris wanted to say goodbye.

"Just warning you that he doesn't look like he did when you last saw him," a police officer walking beside her said. 

His three children walked down to the grass before the coroner lifted the blanket.

They hugged each other, kissed him on the forehead one by one before turning around and walking away.

"It was overwhelming and seemed like we were dreaming," Georgia told Newshub.

"Dad really didn’t have any fear in that water and taught us the exact same; whether it was teaching us to ride the rips out and swim back to shore or jump off the keyhole and body surf on a hot summers day," Georgia said in her eulogy.
"Dad really didn’t have any fear in that water and taught us the exact same; whether it was teaching us to ride the rips out and swim back to shore or jump off the keyhole and body surf on a hot summers day," Georgia said in her eulogy. Photo credit: Supplied / Harris family.

That morning on October 15th, the Oratia lifestyle block had been home to a close family-of-five with three horses, two dogs, four cats, one pig, bunnies, sheep and cattle scattered across 10 acres.

By the end of the day, the family had lost their devoted mentor and the property was overrun by emergency service workers. Patrol cars, an ambulance and a fire truck lined the driveway.

Only hours earlier the family’s champion protector had been discovered on the property where the family had made a life together for 17 years. 

It wasn't the first time Sydney Harris had tried to end his life, the previous seven or so attempts were unsuccessful.

The 53-year-old had a long history of mental health issues built up over years, triggered by a disruptive childhood. 

He had struggled to shake the tough experiences from his past and, for the eight years leading up to his death, fought to externally manage the battles inside his mind. 

Syd was hard-working, active, funny and a charming man dedicated to setting up his three children for a life to achieve their dreams.

Lynda Harris met Syd in the late 80s. They were friends at first, living together in London before later starting a relationship, marrying in 1995 and having kids.

"He was amazing. I always say you couldn't get a nicer person to be with, he was charismatic, nothing was ever too much trouble, he made a plan and he stuck to it," Lynda said.

"He was just a really lovely person to be around and I think others thought the same of him. He made sure that people were happy around him, that children were having fun, and were always engaged in good times."

"Dad was the best comedian and advice giver," Georgia said.
"Dad was the best comedian and advice giver," Georgia said. Photo credit: Supplied / Harris family.

Syd strived to build a wonderful life, the couple saving as much as they could so their children would have a place grow up with their furry friends by their side.

But almost two decades into their marriage Lynda felt a change.

"I started to see a few shakey grounds in our relationship and in his ability to maintain his charisma all the time," she explained.

"That was the biggest thing that changed for me in our relationship, I started to see little cracks and I didn't necessarily put that down to anything other than that the children were getting older, he had been working at the same job for a period of time, and life just changes."

"To my beautiful mum, you have spent half your life with dad creating the best memories and giving us the best life that you could despite him being sick.  You never judged him because of it, never gave up on him and you really are the strongest person I know. I love you," Georgia said.
"To my beautiful mum, you have spent half your life with dad creating the best memories and giving us the best life that you could despite him being sick. You never judged him because of it, never gave up on him and you really are the strongest person I know. I love you," Georgia said. Photo credit: Supplied / Harris family.

Syd became isolated and wanted to cut friends out of their formerly social and active lives. He wanted to be at home more and travel on their own more, including during camp trips opting to stay far from anyone else was who knew them.

"He didn't become unwell in the sense that he couldn't cope anymore until about that 18-year mark.

"That's when the lid came off his mental health and I realised we had a picture to deal with for our family."

Syd went to his doctor, who he trusted immensely and had followed from one surgery to another.

He told his wife he wanted her to come with him to the doctor and they visited mental health services that day.

It was shocking for Lynda; until that point they had never mentioned mental health.

"I had always just said that I think you're unwell and we need to get some help, but he had never actually mentioned it himself so it was a big step for him to go there, but that was really the start of a huge road to some peaks and troughs," Lynda explained.

"Even though we won’t see you during the most special times of our lives, I know we will feel your warmth in each moment," Georgia said.
"Even though we won’t see you during the most special times of our lives, I know we will feel your warmth in each moment," Georgia said. Photo credit: Supplied / Harris family.

Over the next eight years there were times when Syd looked really well and presented well, and also times when Lynda doubted that wellness was true.

In other examples it was "no that's being put on at this point in time" and they needed to contact the crisis team for more support.

Syd would end up either spending some time maybe in hospital or being home with Lynda to support him.

The family focused on balancing life as he knew it and finding the good things that he enjoyed while monitoring his lows and medication.

Lynda recalls his first self-harm attempt occurring before he broke down, but didn't realise that was what it was until one they had started being more open at home.

"Then when he did have a self-harm attempt I was more intuitive to that and actually had message to him that day and so that was something that had brought him back home," she said.

"I always felt like I had my finger on the pulse of what was happening but that was something that was taxing all the time on our relationship as well."

No one else knew about Syd's condition because he was adamant to keep it from his children and friends.

"It became a really difficult time because it meant that I needed to isolate myself as well from many people," she said.

"Every time he had an attempt at self-harm and it wasn't successful I always believed that that gave us another six months or another year of really great memories with him.

"We gained more of Syd from that but there was a pattern around that it was going to happen again or you know things wouldn't go well as much as he desperately wanted to stick around for me and the kids and loved what we had and he created a real paradise here for himself, stepping outside of it was often too much for him to consider."

"Dad you are never going to walk me down the aisle, see your son graduate from his course, give my sister a hug for deciding what incredible thing she would like to do for a career or watch mum make us proud when she becomes a Nana for the first time," Georgia said.
"Dad you are never going to walk me down the aisle, see your son graduate from his course, give my sister a hug for deciding what incredible thing she would like to do for a career or watch mum make us proud when she becomes a Nana for the first time," Georgia said. Photo credit: Supplied / Harris family.

His family believe that although he was surrounded by so much love, it was hard for him to see what he needed to hang on.

She believes that he always wanted to get better, explaining: "He always saw great things for living but I think he started to see more sunsets than he did sunrises."

In the lead up to his death the family had a "great" couple of weeks and a family dinner the night before he passed away.

Georgia and her boyfriend Sam were supposed to go to the movies but Syd insisted they stay at the home and eat together as a family.

"Now that I think back I feel like it was maybe you know something that I could have picked up on but it's just really to go back and think what could we have done differently," Georgia said.

"I didn't pick up on any of that because he seemed so normal the last two weeks before he passed away whereas previous times he was really sick like really down."

"I have what I have and I am happy. I have lost what I have lost and I am still happy."
"I have what I have and I am happy. I have lost what I have lost and I am still happy." Photo credit: Supplied / Harris family.

Within hours of their last meal together, Syd Harris died at the family home.

It was a horrific ending to a drawn-out encounter with the issues people face while struggling with their mental health. 

"I don't believe he committed suicide he didn't commit a crime, suicide killed him. I believe mental health killed him.

"If Syd had a choice, would he have chosen differently? Yes, I believe he would have but when you're in a really black space and you've got mental health that's that debilitating I don't think there's a choice at that point in time and that's my personal view on it.

"Maybe it's a coping way of coping for the next few weeks, months, years but will always blame myself? Yes, I will always feel guilty for the things that didn't happen that day or I didn't do or I'd changed, yes but you know I didn't do it."

In her eulogy given to family and friends at her dad's funeral, Georgia reflected on Syd's final moments.

"I will always wonder if you thought about us Dad when you did it.

"Or maybe you didn't so our beautiful faces and memories of your life with us wouldn't change your mind."

Newshub.

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