Suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK – 84 take their own lives every week. A new campaign, Project84, aims to raise awareness and sees sculptures placed on the top of a London tower block.
“People say the wounds heal but you still have the scars,” says Jonny Sharples, whose elder brother Simon, 36, took his own life in 2014.
“I remember when it happened. I was at home on my own watching a rerun of Match of the Day and I got a phone call from my sister.
“I was in tears. I went down to see her in Staines, where she lives, and then we saw my parents in Cornwall. It was Christmas, which made it more difficult.
“Simon adored Christmas, even in his thirties he would get up at five in the morning and wake everyone else up to open presents.
“It was difficult to be together [after his death], to look around a room and see he was absent.”
Jonny is helping to remember his brother through the Project84 campaign, set up by the charity CALM.
Eighty-four sculptures have been erected on top of London Television Centre, with each figure representing one of the men, each week on average, who ends their life.
The campaign aims to raise awareness about the prevalence and devastating impact of male suicide in the UK. And the fact that mental health issues affect people from all sections of society.
Jonny says of his brother: “He was a normal, level-headed and unremarkable in many respects. But to anyone who knew him he was a really special person. He was always smiling and making you laugh.
“He’d always give you an honest answer, would always give you a helping hand.”
Away from friends and family, though, Simon – a father of one – was suffering. A year of upheaval saw him change jobs and move out of his Preston home. In December 2014 he took his own life.
“It’s only with the benefit of hindsight you knew he wasn’t quite himself,” Jonny says.
“When he was watching football or playing golf, doing the things he loved, he was distracted. He was not quite as smiley but was still enjoying himself.
“It’s only with the knowledge that he did end up taking his own life that things fall into place. His death was maybe the missing piece of the jigsaw.”
Marcus Chapman was 33 when his best friend Nelson Pratt, from Hampshire, and also 33, took his own life.
The two met on a snowboarding course in France and, after just a week, decided to move in together.
“Nelson was very old fashioned British gent, impeccably polite, moral and well-mannered but also incredibly talented,” says Marcus. “He was very self-deprecating. He had the chance to be arrogant but chose to be the opposite.”
Nelson had a successful snowboarding career and became a coach for some of Britain’s Olympic riders.
He had a supportive and loving family, but as his friends began to settle down and have children he found himself conflicted.
“The stage of life he was at, a lot of us were settling down, getting married and having families and I think Nelson had a lot of different pressures,” says Marcus.
“Balancing his snowboarding career with jobs back in the UK. There was definitely a bit of a wrestle there.”
Nelson sought help, however, Marcus feels he was “let down”.
“Nelson went to see his GP, there was a waiting list for therapy and he was given an online course to do. Two days later he took his own life.”
The experiences of men who take their own lives vary, but those left behind are unified on how society should prevent their stories recurring.
They say stigmas and stereotypes need to be abandoned and avenues for support must be opened up.
“The myth is that someone who takes their own life is weak,” says Jonny. “I don’t think for a moment my brother was a weak person. I think he was very strong.
“We need to create a society where men are comfortable to talk about how they are feeling in the knowledge that the person they are speaking to will offer them the best help and solutions they can.”
Marcus adds: “It’s about having those very early conversations, sometimes close family members are the hardest people to talk to. That’s why things like the CALM helpline are so important.
She wants GPs to be unable to prescribe anti-depressants to under-18s without the knowledge of their parents.
MSPs have ordered more information on whether children are prescribed anti-depressants as “the first port of call or the last port of call”.
Annette sees this as a turning point in her fight.
She said: “For me this is about the minister for mental health agreeing we have a real problem with teens and treatment and the way we treat children.
“No child should go on a first visit to a GP with depression and leave with any medication without being referred first to someone who deals with mental health.”
She wants the change for her other daughter and for her son and everyone else’s sons and daughters.
Young people contact her with similar problems: “The number of young people who have reached out to me, who I’ve spoken with and helped to get in contact with someone who can help them has helped me too.
“I’ve even had messages from people who said they were going to end their life but once reading my Facebook wall – the stuff I keep public – and watching my videos they say they can’t leave their parents in the pain I’m in.
“It’s bitter sweet – Britney’s story is saving not only her friends who knew her but also people she never knew and for me that’s a positive thing.”
Annette takes comfort in watching Britney’s friends living their lives to the full and never taking for granted what they have.
She wants to talk to as many young people as possible and get them to help each other when they have mental health issues or concerns for each other.
And at the end of the petition she named Britney’s Plea, Annette wants at the very least to see better guidelines for GPs when prescribing medication for young people.
She said: “Hopefully they will agree to bring in place new training for GP’s and I also hope they make it that no child or person is given pills on a first-ever visit to a GP.
“I want them to have to be referred and seen by a mental health professional before any treatment is given.
“If that had been in place with Britney she wouldn’t have been given those pills.”
She wants more discussion of the issues.
“I don’t want this to be the end.
“I want to be out there helping people, taking to them about mental health – about Britney.”
If you are feeling emotionally distressed and would like details of organisations which offer advice and support, click here or you can call for free, at any time, to hear recorded information on 0800 066 066
In 2011, the writer and author was the subject of accusations of plagiarism that led to the end of his career as a newspaper columnist. His new book, Lost Connections, explores the problems with our understanding of mental health
Johann Hari is a writer and author of several books, and a former columnist for the Independent. His latest book, Lost Connections, explores the causes and cures of depression and anxiety. It argues that the notion of inherent depression has been overstated, and that environmental factors are too often neglected. In 2011, he was the subject of accusations of plagiarism that led to the end of his career as a newspaper columnist.
You started work on the book, you say, because you were puzzled by several mysteries. But did you have an idea of what conclusions you would come to?
I think most of the things that are in the book I had inklings about. For many years I had wanted to find out what causes depression and anxiety and how to really solve them. However, I was afraid that if I dismantled the story that I had about depression and anxiety – even though that story hadn’t worked well for me – I would have no story at all, and it would feel really chaotic, and I would feel really vulnerable. For the 13 years during which I was taking antidepressants, despite some doubts, I did believe in the theory that saw chemicals as the main approach.
As well as taking antidepressants, you’ve seen a therapist for 14 years. How effective has that been?
There are three kinds of causes of depression and they interact. There’s the biological causes, which are real, and can make you more vulnerable to depression, but don’t cause it on their own. There’s environmental causes, which are about how we live together socially. And then there are psychological causes, which are about how we think about the world. Clearly, therapy speaks most to the psychological causes, which are very real. Therapy helped me to think about that aspect of it.
Do you think that therapy has worked for you?
I experienced some quite extreme acts of violence when I was a child, from an adult in my life, when my mother was very ill and my father was in another country. I felt a significant fall in depression once I was eventually able to talk about those experiences with my therapist. Given that we have the evidence that therapy does indeed help with the specific area of the psychological causes of depression, I think it’s fair to assume that, when therapy is done well, it can also help with other forms of depression.
Why do you think it is that doctors hand out so many antidepressants when the wealth of evidence as you present in your book suggests they are largely ineffective?
I wouldn’t want to overstate their ineffectiveness. Between 65 and 80% of people taking antidepressants become depressed again within a year. However, that’s not 100%. Of course some people would have recovered anyway through natural processes. I’m not critical of doctors for this. Part of the problem is that we’ve put the onus for solving these problems on to people who are not in a position to solve them alone. Telling people, as I was told by my doctor, that depression is caused by a problem in your brain is, firstly, untrue and it is also really problematic because it cuts people off from finding the real causes of their depression and anxiety. We’ve been telling ourselves this chemical story for 35 years and every year depression and anxiety gets worse.
Why are depression and anxiety issues on the increase?
The umbrella answer is that human beings have innate psychological needs just as we have physical needs. We need to feel we belong, that we have meaning and purpose, that people value us and that we have autonomy. We also live in a culture that’s not meeting those psychological needs for most people. It does not manifest as full-blown depression and anxiety in most people; for some people it’s just a feeling of unhappiness and a life less fulfilling than it could have been. We’ve built a society that has many great aspects, but it is not a good match for our human nature.
In the book you mention a crisis in your life that was “unequivocally terrible”. Was that when you lost your job at the Independent in 2011 and returned your Orwell prize, after being accused of plagiarism?
Yes, it was that, in combination with someone I love very much having a bad addiction crisis. Just to outline events, because some people won’t know, I did two things that were completely wrong. One is that when I interviewed people I often presented things that had been said to other journalists or had been written in books as if they had been said to me, which was not truthful. The second is that I edited Wikipedia entries regarding other people under a pseudonym and, sometimes, in very nasty ways.
Most people who go through your experience tend to flee from public view. You’ve come back and had success. Has that been a difficult process?
When you fuck up and do several things completely wrong, as I did, it should really hurt. And you should pay a really big price. It did hurt and I did pay a really big price, as is entirely right. The reason I’m reluctant now to go into how that felt for me is because that’s saying to people “see it from my point of view”. However, I don’t think that they should see it from my point of view. I think they should see it from the point of view of those people who were harmed by me: my readers, the people I was nasty about and the people at the Independent that I let down.
Have you apologised to the people who were affected by your Wikipedia tampering?
Yes, I wrote to two of the individuals involved, and I’d rather keep private what was said.
Has what you’ve learned by writing this book helped to alleviate your depression? Are you, for want of a better phrase, a happier person?
Massively, but I want to just caveat that. What this book is not is a simplistic guide saying: “Hey, I did these things, and now you can do them too.” I think that would be quite cruel because I was in this incredibly privileged position. I had money from my previous book, which meant that I could change my life in quite radical ways in order to strip out some of the causes of my depression. Lots of people are not in a position to do that.
A big part of the argument of the book is to say that we need to change our culture so that more of us are free to do the things that I was very fortunate to be able to do. In my own life I’ve been able to devote much less time to seeking status and external achievement and much more to engaging with what I think really matters, the people I love and the causes that I think are important. Before, when I started to feel bad, I would have done something for myself. Now, I can see it’s better to cheer someone else up. That’s had a radical effect on my mental health.