Mercedes van Royen loved her granddad, or “Graddles”, as she called him, very much. Though she was only six years old when he took his own life, and doesn’t recall the finer details of the circumstances surrounding his death, she does think of his “cheekiness” often.
“I don’t remember a whole lot about what he was like when he was totally happy,” the now-12-year-old says.
“The depression was always there, but there was always something about him – this cheekiness, I guess. We’ve got these two pots either side of his gravestone and they say ‘gentle giant’, and that’s so true. He was quite a big man but he was a total softie.”
You’re right in guessing this Timaru youngster is no ordinary tween. With a maturity well beyond her years, Mercedes is speaking out about a topic that many still consider taboo – mental illness.
She knows the subject may make some people feel uncomfortable, but it’s one that’s close to her heart. She often stayed with her grandparents on their Waimate farm while her mum was doing shift work, and she recalls being aware things weren’t quite right.
An aspiring film-maker, one of her teachers at Craighead Diocesan School suggested she enter a movie-making challenge. After attending a mentoring workshop, where she was encouraged to make a film about a subject that meant a lot to her, she knew what she had to do.
Her documentary, Just Another Word, was born. Impressively, Mercedes wrote, filmed and edited the five-minute piece herself on her iPad – and she won top honours in the primary and intermediate category at 2016’s Outlook for Someday sustainability film challenge.
She says she had wanted the family’s pastor, who had also married her grandparents, to narrate some of it, but timing wasn’t right. Her next choice was her mum, “but she didn’t really want to go in front of the camera”, so her grandmother Marlies Denee stepped in.
The 61-year-old speaks openly about her husband’s struggle, bravely putting her voice to her granddaughter’s plea for a more open and honest discussion about mental illness.
Marlies tells how she met Graeme in 2000 through her daughter, Mercedes’ mum Merel van Royen. They were married for just two years before he died.
“I knew about his depression. He talked about it with me and would often say I shouldn’t have to put up with it. He suffered from bad depression and anxiety throughout his life and so did his father. He was always on medication and even had electro-convulsive therapy in the hope that would help.”
Marlies and Mercedes had been out grocery shopping the day Graeme, 54, died.
“He used to sit for hours on a couch. The last day, he wasn’t there, he was gone. I can still see Mercedes now, standing on the couch, looking out of the window, saying she wished we hadn’t gone shopping because then Graddles would still be there. She and Graeme used to have so much fun. He loved the grandkids.”
Proud mum Merel is behind her daughter all the way, saying she had no concerns about Mercedes making the video. She’d spoken to her about her own struggle with depression and about Graeme, who, despite having to be forced to get out of bed, shower and eat at times, had been her “rock” when she was at her lowest.
“Mercedes is a kind and caring person, and has felt the pain that depression and suicide can cause first-hand. She wanted to bring awareness to an issue that is not always addressed as it should be, and she has the depth and maturity to be able to do good.
“She’s had a lot of messages from people already saying that it brought them to tears and was very touching.”
Just Another Word is not Mercedes’ first foray into the world of film-making (she has her own YouTube channel) but it’s definitely the one she hopes will have the most impact.
“I wanted to make it personal but I also wanted to show that people who have depression are scared and frightened, and they think no-one’s going to understand them,” she says, adding that she felt excited and honoured to receive the award.
“It’s kind of a stereotype, but males being males, they think they’re the man, you know? I want to show that it’s okay to be the man, but it’s also okay to ask for help.
I think the main message is that for anyone who finds themselves in a situation like Graddles, there’s always help.”
Who to call for help:
• Suicide Crisis Helpline 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
• Depression helpline 0800 111 757.
Both available 24/7.
Words: Julie Jacobson
Watch one of Mercedes' videos below. Click here for the full version