Standing tall for mental health
By Fleur Chapman
Bold, brilliantly blue trees are appearing across our nation. From Wilgoyne and Mukinbudin, to Moora, Walkaway, Jurien Bay, Uduc and Williams in Western Australia, across to St George in Queensland and Young in NSW, a movement is growing. At last count, 150 trees have been given a ‘blue lease on life’, and each tells the story of both heartbreak and hope. These trees are part of what has become known as the Blue Tree Project, supporting those affected by the tragedy of suicide.
The Blue Tree Project’s story begun in 2014, when Jayden Whyte and friend Tjarda Tiedeken decided to paint a tree on Jayden’s dad’s property in Mukinbudin. They had been working on the farm and found some old tins of paint, and loved the idea of a bright blue tree standing out in the landscape. It was painted as a laugh, a crazy moment between friends, but now symbolises so much more.
Jayden tragically took his own life in November 2018. Tjarda shared the story of the blue tree at his funeral and from there, many of his family and friends decided they wanted to paint a tree blue in honour of Jayden too.
Simon Comerford, Jayden’s best friend, was the first to paint a blue tree for Jayden on his family farm in Wilgoyne on Christmas Eve last year. He took a photo and shared it on social media, and it went viral.
“It was very unexpected and it was at this point when we knew we had to take this further and thus the Blue Tree Project evolved,” said Jayden’s sister, Kendall Whyte.
“Before we knew it, there were people sharing photos of the blue trees they had painted for their own reasons. Whether it was in memory of a loved one or just helping raise awareness around mental wellbeing and helping create these visual reminders.”
The Blue Tree Project is coordinated by Kendall and her sister Erryn Whyte, along with Tjarda, Simon and support from Simon’s sister Anthea.
This simple idea is backed by national charity Beyond Blue and is making incredible headway in getting people talking about mental ill-health, and suicide in particular. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, suicide is the leading killer of those aged 15 to 44. In 2017, shocking statistics showed that eight Australians dies from suicide each day, 75 per cent of whom were men. Over that same year, 65,000 people attempted suicide. These numbers bring into perspective just how crucial it is to do away with taboo and break down the stigma associated with illness that causes such despair. As Kendall reminds us;
“These aren’t just numbers- they are people just like my brother Jayden.”
The blue trees not only provide a hands-on project for a family or group to become involved in, but the finished products leave an eye-catching mark on the landscape, offering a waypoint for discussion as people pass by for years to come. Getting involved is as easy as choosing a tree (a dead one, so as to not damage it) and setting aside a day to get painting.
“It may be a simple idea, but it speaks volumes to so many people. I think it’s because it’s so striking to see a blue tree in our natural landscape. It takes people by surprise and brings about curiosity as to why the tree is blue,” Kendall said.
“Many people have said it has been a very cathartic feeling painting a tree and it has offered great conversation staters in communities and even on car trips with kids.”
The Blue Tree Project has seen a diverse range of people picking up a paintbrush and spending a day (or two!) painting a tree. From sporting groups and youth groups, schools, coffee shops, families, health services and even hairdressers have joined the cause.
“It has been phenomenal seeing such a diverse mix of groups and people painting trees. And I think this illustrates the effect mental health is having on our society. So many people have fought their own challenges and have been affected by suicide in some way,” said Kendall.
“People have sent photos in sharing their own stories of their loved ones they lost. We have also had groups wanting to raise more awareness and create an environment where people feel safe to speak up and to reach out in their times of need.”
For her tireless work in getting this project off the ground and bringing awareness to the issue of mental health in our community, Kendall has been nominated for the The West Australian of the Year Awards in the youth category. This is a huge accolade not just for Kendall herself, but for the team, although not one they ever hoped for.
“There was no doubt that I knew we were helping make a difference to so many people but I really didn’t expect to be recognised within such an award. It’s very humbling and bittersweet and I’m just glad that it will allow us to help spread our project and awareness,” she said.
“I’ve already had the privilege of talking to some of the other finalists and it’s so nice to hear of what these people are doing in our great state. I feel very humbled to be standing next to them.”
Winners are yet to be announced (at the time of writing), but regardless of the outcome, The Blue Tree Project will continue to grow, standing tall and making a difference to the lives of so many afflicted by illnesses no one sees.
“I feel that with every newly painted blue tree I visualise Jayden’s cheeky smile. It’s very bittersweet seeing the project flourish, but knowing it has helped so many people already brings about a sort of healing effect.”
If you would like to find out more, or register your own tree, visit https://www.bluetreeproject.com.au/
Standing tall for mental health