Michael Beattie's photo, on display for the International Foto Biennale, holds a dark secret

This photograph of a teenage Michael Beattie has been used to promote the Ballarat International Foto Biennale, but it's story has a tragic end
This photograph of a teenage Michael Beattie has been used to promote the Ballarat International Foto Biennale, but it's story has a tragic end

NESTLED on a wall of a small gallery in Lydiard Street is a photograph of a teenage boy riding through a burst water main in Sebastopol on March 10, 1987.

The boy in the black and white image seemingly without a care in the world - which has prominently featured in publications promoting the Ballarat Foto Biennale - is 13-year-old Michael Beattie.

But the image of smiling boy lies.

Three days short of 15 years after the iconic image was snapped, Michael - who would become a father of two - would be dead.

At just 29, he was another number, another victim of suicide in Ballarat.

It has taken his partner Cheryl Vincent - mother of Michael's now 18-year-old son Zac - almost two decades to tell the real story of the man that was the 'Fountain of Fun' boy.

"Michael committed suicide on March 7, 2002 after a very long struggle with drug and alcohol addiction and years of mental health difficulties," Ms Vincent said.

"I know from working in mental health in the Ballarat area for a really long time, we have a very sad history of suicide.

"It's not just connected to the clergy abuse, it's for various different reasons.

"Just recently I went to a mental health symposium that the City of Ballarat put on out at The Eureka Centre and it dealt with how to deal with adversity.

"The CEO from the chronic health network which covers this part of Victoria got up and spoke about the 'elephant in the room' that Ballarat still has the highest suicide rate in Victoria per capita, top five in Australia. What's going on? This is 17 years later.

"I want to highlight that this photograph is a story of a real person who is part of that. All these years later nothing has changed."

Michael Beattie about a year before his death

Michael Beattie about a year before his death

Ms Vincent said Michael struggled in his early years. He was undiagnosed with what is now understood to be bi-polar disorder which ultimately led to him taking his own life.

"I met Michael through mutual friends, he was always very troubled, he told me a lot of stuff in confidence so I know what his lived experience was," she said

"He showed signs of struggling with his mental health in various ways.

"We all know there's an underpinning component of drug and alcohol abuse and addiction was one way in which he tried to cope with his mental health issues.

"He was a tradesman, he worked ridiculously long hours as a painter and decorator, so he would take drugs to help support that.

"I picked it quite early on that something wasn't quite right and tried to encourage him to seek some help."

When you see that photo you think about innocence, about childhood and they called it 'Fountain of Fun'. Unfortunately 'Fountain of Fun' is not the way I would title Michael's life.

Cheryl Vincent

Ms Vincent said she and Michael separated during her pregnancy and then tried to rekindle when Zac was born.

"Michael really struggled from the moment he was born, his mental health went completely downhill," she said. "He was very depressed, not knowing what to do, and unfortunately he seemed like a deer in a headlights.

"Michael connected with somebody who was having their own mental health concerns and he saw what help was on offer at the time which was psych services where they locked you up.

"He received no treatment. He was telling me everything and I'd just had a baby and I said I couldn't help him, I didn't know the signs, I don't think anybody does.

"He was having a really difficult time with work, debt and relationships and I believe collectively it was just too much for him to cope with".

Friends and family of suicide victims remember their loved ones in September this year.

Friends and family of suicide victims remember their loved ones in September this year.

"He tried to talk to me this particular day and I just said 'I can't, I don't have the time'. I came home and found him in the backyard, he'd gassed himself in the car in the backyard at my house."

Ms Vincent said her own life had never been the same.

"If you speak to anyone who's connected to a person that committed suicide, it forever changes their life," she said. "I was very fortunate that I was able to get into CAFS straight away, but that doesn't normally happen.

"One in five of us will experience some mental health difficulty. We all know what it's like to hit the wall and not know what to do, but when you're in those spaces where it's more serious or you could end up on medications or locked up for life, people hide away from it."

Far from being upset that Michael's image has been used across the city, Ms Vincent says it is a poignant way of remembering how fragile life can be.

"When you see that photo you think about innocence, about childhood and they called it 'Fountain of Fun', she said. "Unfortunately 'Fountain of Fun' is not the way I would title Michael's life.

"There is always a backstory and photos can generate those lived experience. Who knows, that might have been a great day? You never know what is going on behind the eyes."

The photo, top left, is part of the `Waterworks' display as part of the Ballarat International Foto Biennale in Lydiard Street. Picture: Kate Healy

The photo, top left, is part of the `Waterworks' display as part of the Ballarat International Foto Biennale in Lydiard Street. Picture: Kate Healy

Ms Vincent said the publicity surrounding the photo had prompted her to speak out, but also allowed her to connect on a new level with her son who was just seven months old when his father died.

She said she wanted to highlight the importance community education in building mental health and the importance of education in understanding mental health difficulties and in doing so breaking down the stigma attached.

"I want to celebrate Michael's life," she said. "They say the world has a way of letting you know when it's time to talk. Seeing this photo was a way for us to start a dialogue as a mother and son about a father he never knew.

"My advice is notice what's happening to your loved ones or to yourself. Talk to your kids, particularly your teenagers, prompt your schools to get involved in programs, bring it out into the open.

"I actually think if you say the word suicide it doesn't make people go and do it, but it prompts people to have the conversation.

"Had he got the help he obviously so needed at the time, and had people around him that understood, perhaps his outcome would have been different."

If you or someone you know needs support, help is available:

  • Lifeline 13 11 14
  • Mensline Australia Line 1300 789 978
  • Kids Help 1800 55 1800
  • Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467