'Every other call is from a parent desperate about their child' - How bereaved Herts parents hope to overhaul suicide prevention in the UK
- Credit: Chris Sibley
In July 2014, Chris Sibley was informed that his 16-year-old son, TJ, had just taken his own life on the railway.
TJ had no known mental health issues. He was “the happiest, friendliest young man,” says Chris.
Desperate to make sense of the tragedy, he followed the investigation closely, even asking to see the CCTV. After viewing it, he had “absolutely no doubt” that TJ had died by suicide.
But at the inquest, something strange happened.
“They said because there wasn’t a suicide note, they couldn’t be sure he wasn’t just trying to get to the other platform,” says Chris. “It was the most ridiculous statement.”
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That night, Chris told a support group how the court had failed to rule TJ’s death a suicide, despite clear evidence.
“There were about 12 people there,” he recalls. “About 60 per cent of them had not had suicide verdicts. In some of those, there had even been notes.
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“Because of the stigma around suicide, unless they really have to give a suicide verdict, they go down as misadventure, accidental, narrative verdict, open verdict. I was astonished.”
While the burden of proof placed on coroners was well-intentioned, Chris realised that if suicides were being so under-reported, that must seriously impact the urgency with which the problem was treated and the funding it received.
By summer 2016, he had co-founded a charity with two other bereaved parents from Herts. They called it One Life Lost Is Enough – or OLLIE.
“We don’t work with people with a mental illness. We are not clinicians,” says Debi Roberts, who became OLLIE’s CEO in 2018.
Debi has spent the last few months communicating with a 30-year-old man experiencing suicidal thoughts.
“He's facing a long wait for help,” she says. “He’s been to A&E twice in that time.”
His case, says Debi, demonstrates a critical failure in the UK’s approach to suicide prevention.
“Most people's assumption is that if you’re suicidal, you must be mentally ill,” she says. “The reality is, in many suicides, there is no mental illness.”
Rather, says Debi, people are often suffering from “emotional overwhelm”.
“And maybe they have a good reason,” she adds. “Their partner left them. They’ve lost their job. They’ve lost their house. Those are good reasons to be upset. But our default is to call it an illness.
"Their GP can refer them to a mental health service – but in a lot of cases, they aren’t mentally ill. So we’re trying to push square pegs through round holes. Why haven’t we got another pathway?”
A person suffering from emotional overwhelm might benefit from counselling. But, says OLLIE co-founder Stuart Falconer, "I spoke to a guy this morning who was saying he was on the waiting list for four months when he was suicidal. You think, what’s the point of that? It could have been too late.”
“There are some weeks where every other call I get is from a parent who is desperate about their child and not getting any help,” says Debi.
With no other options, GPs sometimes resort to medication.
“Long waiting lists put GPs in an almost impossible situation,” she says. “They can’t say, ‘I’m very sorry about your predicament, here, let me lend you £5,000 for the debt you’re in’. Where appropriate, they can prescribe antidepressants, but there’s not much else they can do.”
But antidepressants can cause their own problems. In a small percentage of cases, they can cause people to become more suicidal – particularly young people.
“There was a young man in St Albans who took his own life this July,” says Debi. “He had just started antidepressants.”
OLLIE is lobbying politicians and officials in Herts to approve a pilot scheme, requiring anybody prescribing antidepressants to make a personalised “safe plan”.
The document would create a 24/7 support system, meaning the patient always had somewhere to seek help if they started experiencing suicidal thoughts.
As the problem is more likely to affect young people, the charity is also running free online wellbeing courses until February for Year 11, college and university students.
Ultimately, believes Stuart, the best long-term way to prevent suicide is to change the school curriculum, so it teaches children to be “more resilient”.
He and Jane Johnstone, OLLIE’s third co-founder, believe this should begin in primary school.
“There are children in primary schools who are already struggling,” says Jane.
In 2018, there were 16 suicides in UK children aged 10 to 14, up from five cases in 2016.
“We have to make sure kids grow up with an awareness and understanding of some of the things that are, at the moment, left to chance,” says Stuart.
*For more information on OLLIE’s courses and campaigns, visit www.theolliefoundation.org