Noni Hazlehurst has opened up on the devastating effect post-traumatic stress disorder had on her English-born mother following the Second World War – saying it impacted an entire generation of people at the time who were too afraid to speak about their mental health.
The Aussie actress, 65, has revealed in an exclusive chat with Starts at 60 how her mum hid away her trauma and memories, refusing to speak openly about them to her children or even her husband.
“I think probably most people who went through the war went through that [PTSD],” Noni revealed. “The sad thing is that if we front up for another one [war] we haven’t really learnt from history the effect it has on people. To be told that my father and other soldiers were absolutely told not to talk about what they’d experienced, not only was that hiding the reality from their families but it was also keeping their trauma locked away – so there was no opportunity to share it.”
The actress slammed past ridicule of psychologists and the crucial work they did, saying it instilled fear into many people about being honest about their mental health concerns – whereas now there are names for conditions like PTSD and they’re more recognised and accepted in society.
“I think when people keep things bottled up and aren’t allowed to share it or know that they’re not alone, [it] has awful consequences,” she said.
This was the case for Noni’s mum and it meant that while they were always close, she never realised the extent of her mother’s suffering until she was on her deathbed.
“I remember she [mum] said to me when she was dying, I was talking to her about how brave she was, and she hadn’t complained or broken down, and she said, ‘I’m afraid if I start crying I’ll never stop’,” she recalled.
“I didn’t say it, but I thought, ‘Well you would’. But that was how she coped. She didn’t tell my father what she went through, to my knowledge, so she had a huge well of grief inside her which we certainly didn’t have access to and she chose not to have access to it herself. So that meant we missed out on a really close relationship, which I regret a great deal.”
In fact, she distinctly recalls both of her parents hiding their troubles from her while she was growing up and said they often fell silent whenever she caught them having a discussion.
“I remember as a kid when I started to go to other people’s houses and things I was thinking, ‘They have these really in depth conversations that we don’t have in our house’,” she said.
“It was a puzzlement to me that my parents would always shush up whenever I came in the room about something trivial. They protected me, but I think in a sense they over-protected me because they didn’t really teach me about that the world can be a horrible place!”
Noni revealed she’s concerned for younger people growing up now, due largely to the “preponderance of negativity” many of them are encountering, particularly through social media.
“I think we do need to talk and we do need to stop pretending that we’re all coping and we’re all fine, because I don’t know anyone who’s not going though some kind of trauma on some level,” she added.
Performing runs in Noni’s family and, while she knew from a young age that’s where her talents lay, she admitted her mum always imagined her in more of a classic musical and acting role rather than the edgy and often daring TV and theatre roles she took on.
“I think being a fourth generation performer she and I both thought that it was inevitable that this would be my career,” she said. “She wanted me to be more like a Julie Andrews, which is where she came from so I understand that, but I think she probably wouldn’t have wanted me to be as outspoken as I sometimes am!
“Again, she was a product of her time. She was 35 when she had me, my brother is 12 years older so that’s a big gap. A lot happened in those years. Mum died in 2001 and I was doing pretty well then, and I know she was proud of me. Even though I did a few too many films with nude themes when I was younger, for her liking!”
Noni has built up a huge name for herself over the years, and is particularly loved in Australia for her character Elizabeth in A Place To Call Home.
She is now celebrating the release of the final series of A Place to Call Home on DVD this month, having bid farewell in series six. The DVD is out now.