Suicide in Scotland is at a five-year high with three times more men than women taking their lives last year. Families from two former industrial towns, Motherwell and Wishaw, speak about losing brothers, sons and partners.
It was a blustery February afternoon when Yvonne Welsh shut the door of her Motherwell home. She had gone to run errands and had left one of her three sons, Lloyd, playing video games in his bedroom.
Having been away for no more than 40 minutes, Yvonne returned to an unusually quiet house. “I shouted up to Lloyd that I’d got a McDonald’s. I texted him. He didn’t reply. He always had his phone on him. I shouted on him. No reply.”
Moments later she discovered her son was dead.
The 22-year-old had taken his life in the family home but had given no warning and had left no note.
Lloyd’s parents and brothers try to remember the smiling young man who would play practical jokes, and not the boy who retreated into himself in the last year of his life.
Yvonne says she sometimes feels angry and guilty but mostly she feels sad that her son could not come to her. “Lloyd doesn’t know what he’s done to this family,” she says.
The death has had a profound impact on Jordan, Lloyd’s 26-year-old brother. He is a standout player for local amateur football team Motherwell Thistle, a club which has been scarred by suicide.
‘I know that he loved me’
In 2017, Thistle player John Fowler killed himself. It was the beginning of a number of suicides connected to the team. In August last year, the team’s goalkeeper Paul Gerard Aiton – or PG, as he was known – killed himself at home.
When the team lifted a trophy at the end of the season, they wore black armbands bearing his name. His family – including an infant daughter PG would never meet – watched from the stands.
Like Lloyd, PG gave no warning. His mother Catherine says she feels “angry, embarrassed and ashamed of him”, but she still loves him.
“I love him to bits, it’s unconditional. It’s so hard, knowing you’re never going to see him again – ever.”
When PG died, his partner Naomi was three months pregnant.
It was “brilliant” when Faith was born, says Naomi. She adds: “But at the same time when I was in the hospital I was thinking, ‘where is he?’.
“And his family, you could see that they were visibly upset because everybody’s thinking ‘he should be here’. It does make you question – especially when we used to talk about the future – it does make you question if it was all a lie, but, I know that it wasn’t. I know that he loved me and he would have never hurt me.”
Motherwell Thistle, like each of the families, is having to cope with the grief of suicide. Four young men who are linked to the club have killed themselves in the past two years.
Margaret McMillan, the club’s secretary, said she felt she had lost sons. With so much sadness surrounding the team, there have been times she has contemplated giving it up. “But I’ve got 18 other guys on this team that you can’t give up on. You’ve just got to keep going, and try and do your best, and that’s all we can do.”
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In Wishaw, three miles east of Motherwell, there have been more deaths – Daryl O’Rourke (17); Stephen Mearns (19); Callum Dunne and his friend Murray (both 16) all killed themselves within a seven-week period in the spring of 2018.
Some of the boys were friends, others knew of each other and, like Lloyd and PG, none gave any warning.
They left behind families, friends and a community still asking why so many young lives were lost in this way and so close together.
“It felt as if there was one suicide after another,” said Shannon Brown, the sister of Callum.
On 23 May 2018, a front page of the Wishaw Press featured three black-and-white photographs of Murray, Callum and Stephen, with the headline “Why?”.
“Enough is enough,” it declared. “We need to talk about suicide.”
Motherwell and Wishaw sit in Scotland’s central belt, 20 miles east of Glasgow and 40 miles west of Edinburgh. They were towns built on a powerful industrial base of coal mines and steel works. All are gone.
Ravenscraig steel plant, on the border of the two towns, was once the busiest steel-maker in Western Europe employing more than 10,000 people. Now it’s one of the continent’s largest brownfield sites.
Lloyd’s brother Jordan plays home games for Motherwell Thistle at the new sporting complex near the site, which is named after Ravenscraig.
The area has been in economic decline and it wears the signs – shuttered shop fronts and pawn shops offering to buy gold.
BBC Suicides in Scotland
5,286Total number of deaths
73%Suicide deaths were male
47%Aged 35-54 when they died
73%Single, widowed or divorced
67%Employed at the time of death
Source: National Statistics
NHS research suggests suicide is three times more likely among those living in the most economically deprived areas than in the least deprived, and more likely to occur in areas which have experienced deindustrialisation.
Three quarters of people who kill themselves in the UK are men. In Scotland, which has the highest suicide rate in Britain, more than half of those who died in this way last year were under 45.
When Scotland recorded a five-year high of 784 suicides in 2018, one of the striking aspects of the data was the 50% rise in deaths of those aged under 24.
BBC Scotland’s Disclosure studied 845 death records of those under 50 in Motherwell and Wishaw over a 10-year period from 2008 to 2018. There were at least 72 suspected suicides.
The number of those aged 25 and under who killed themselves in these years remained low, with one or two a year. However, that number rose to seven last year, the year that Murray, Callum, Stephen and Daryl died.
‘I felt guilt that I couldn’t save my son’
Anne Rowan’s son Christopher killed himself in 2011. After struggling to come to terms with his death for a number of years, she founded a charity in his name, Chris’s House.
Occupying an old bank building at the foot of Main Street, it is a crisis centre offering 24-hour direct support and counselling to those at risk or bereaved by suicide, the first of its kind in Scotland.
According to Anne, it is a vital service for those in need in the area, helping hundreds of people since being established in 2015. And it’s getting busier. “In one month, we had 948 counselling hours,” she said.
“Through Christopher dying, I felt such a failure, really overwhelming guilt that I couldn’t save my son. I just knew that there had to be something to bridge the gap from people just getting a prescription and having a [NHS] waiting time. I just knew there had to be something immediate.”
The “whole aim” of Chris’s House is to stop people dying from suicide, something Anne says is “everyone’s business”. “You know you’re halfway there when they’ve come through the door,” said Anne.
“I don’t envisage that we will obliterate or eradicate it. It would be nice if we could minimise it to the point where the NHS can deal with the suicide rate on their own, that we didn’t need the charities, but I don’t think we’ll ever see that.”
Few of these young men were in touch with mental health services prior to their deaths. Getting this cohort to come forward and ask for help remains a major challenge. If services don’t know someone is in crisis, how can they help them?
The issue of suicide has seeped into the local consciousness – the press coverage, the charity football matches and the online tributes.
Locals share messages on social media about mental health and the Wishaw Press campaign continues.
Dr Alastair Cook, a consultant psychiatrist for NHS Lanarkshire, believes it is important to recognise that suicide is “an extremely rare event”.
“But it generates a huge amount of fear within the community around what might be happening with our young people.”
He thinks the ability of social media to influence the way communities respond to suicide means there is much more awareness around young people’s mental health and wellbeing.
And for Dr Cook that awareness is a “double-edged sword”. “I think awareness is actually a good thing, provided awareness doesn’t then generate fear. And it’s how we help people to understand that, I think is really important.”
Motherwell FC has become the first Scottish Premiership club to display suicide prevention messaging on its shirts – such is its proximity to the issue. It has made social media videos featuring its first team and partnered with the local council to promote awareness among fans who include those most likely to kill themselves – men in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
According to the Fir Park club’s chief executive, Alan Burrows, at least 24 of its supporters have taken their lives in the last two years. Lloyd Welsh, a diehard fan, was one of them.
“We have examples of the football club where we have managed to stop something tragic happening. The problems that you have, we can get you help. We can speak to people, we can put you through to the right people. And that’s the message that we’re trying to drive as a football club.”
Football is woven through this story. Many of the young men who’ve died not only played the sport, but football was seemingly a central pillar of their identity. But has something grown up around the culture of football and the way that it’s consumed that’s perhaps detrimental to young men’s mental health?
Match days consist of watching the game, but also often of excessive drinking, drug taking and smartphone gambling either side of it, all of which can be key drivers of mental ill-health.
Burrows, though, sees the sport as a positive. “I see football as the way that people can come and forget their problems, have that release. Have time with their friends and family, to talk to people if they need help.”
In May this year, hundreds of people walked through the night along the banks of the River Clyde in Glasgow in memory of friends and loved ones they had lost to suicide. The annual Walk of Hope event also raised funds for Chris’s House. Jordan Welsh was among those who walked until the sun rose, as was Naomi Foster Aiton.
All the participants were invited to light candles for their loved ones, and many lined up to throw yellow roses from a bridge into the river, the petals floating across the black glassy surface in the first light of that misty morning.
This is not a story about those who have gone. Instead, this is a story about those who are left behind and how they have chosen to try to come to terms with their loved one’s deaths.
Catherine wants to stop other boys being lost to suicide. And she has a message to those who find themselves in crisis: “Step back, take five minutes, think about what you’re doing to the people who love you.
“Think about what you’re doing to your mum. Do you want your mum to be like me? Even if you don’t feel as if you love yourself, somebody does.
Michael Alexander hears how a Dundee mental health project is using World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10 as the launch pad for new films about hope.
Daniella James has never wanted to commit suicide – but there have been times when she simply wished she wasn’t alive.
Born in Aberdeen and brought up in the Borders, the 25-year-old Stirling University international politics graduate, who now works in HR and payroll for Edinburgh City Council, suffered a nervous breakdown last year and had no choice other than to move back home with her mum – a woman with her own history of depression.
However, as Daniella speaks out to help raise awareness of mental health issues around this year’s World Suicide Prevention Day, she says she wishes she’d spoken to someone about her problems sooner instead of being “isolated to the point of despair” and reaching crisis point.
“There’s not an event in my life I can put my mental health issues down to,” she said in an interview with The Courier.
“It was probably just the pressure of writing my dissertation in my last year at university, possibly not looking after myself.
“I kind of suppressed those feelings during that year because I had too much to do and didn’t even think about it or even want to acknowledge the fact that things were going on. I put on a brave face.
“It was probably after I graduated and the transition from being a student and being part of an institution and then being chucked out into the world and being on your own and not really knowing what to do – that is probably when I said ‘oh, wait a minute’… By that time I was in a crisis.”
Happier and healthier than before, Daniella says she is now more into “self-help” than using mental health services. She came off medication after deciding it “wasn’t for me” and thinks the “blow out” of her nervous breakdown has helped her stay positive.
But another way she is helping to give hope to others is through her support of a ground-breaking mental health film and national roadshow that launched in Dundee.
As previously reported by The Courier, the project, titled Foolish Optimism, focused on the harsh realities of three mental health sufferers and explored mental health triggers, stigma, seeking help and coping mechanisms.
Initiated by young people, and aiming to carry a message of hope, the project was brought to life by Dundee Hilltown-based arts, education and social care charity Front Lounge, who attracted funding from the Year of Young People National Lottery Fund and Life Changes Trust.
Daniella was part of the original working group that went on a residential before the film was shown to anyone and came up with a plan for touring workshops across Scotland. The aim was to “change the conversation” around mental health and build trust about speaking out.
Now, in a bid to explore the positive steps young people can take to feel better and manage their conditions more effectively, Daniella features in a follow-up film being released on Monday September 9 – the eve of World Suicide Prevention Day – the first of six new films in the run up to World Mental Health Day on October 10.
Entitled ‘Things to Live For’, the film captures Daniella and her friend Andrew Compston having an everyday chat about their strategies to ‘keep going’ and the opportunities to stay positive in everyday life.
“I think the axis now for Foolish Optimism is looking for something to move forward with looking at hope,” said Daniella.
“The first part of Foolish Optimism – the first film – was really honestly quite bleak. “That was a good conversation starter and gave people a little zap to talk about things. “This kind of thing now is about actually trying to help yourself, your friends, your family – just anything that’s going to give us anything to hold on to.”
Daniella said her film was “literally just a video podcast”.
She said: “Me and my friend in a coffee shop just talking about our mental health, but in a fairly light-hearted manner. We still talk about things that are fairly heavy but nothing in comparison to the first Foolish Optimism film. It actually seems to be more of a positive conversation – it’s not a talking heads film, put it that way.”
Daniella said the main message she wanted to come from the latest film is “how do you have a conversation with your friends and family about something so tragic without it causing hysteria”?
“Sometimes you just need to vocalise things that are happening in your mind,” she said. “There needs to be a kind of understanding that you feel a certain way when 8/10 of your pals probably feel that way too. That doesn’t mean people need locked up in a psychiatric ward or given medication!”
The other area where Daniella thinks society has a lot of work still to do is with regards preventative mental health.
“Everything that happens now is just reactive,” she said. “We are waiting until people get to the point where they are having a personal crisis and reacting to that.
“I’m not sure in the point of that because it’s already done or you’ve gotten to the point where you are ready to kill yourself.
“If there was a greater understanding of why people might feel that way in the first place and where pressures in life are coming from, a lot of these issues could be avoided.”
Dundee man Marc Ferguson will feature on a later film to be released on September 23.
The 30-year-old information technology professional is the voice of ‘Hope in Action’ which also gives practical tips on how to be hopeful, aimed at those who struggle to envisage life changing or improving.
A negative experience in a former workplace led him into what he describes as a ‘downward spiral’ in both his mental health and general self-care and, although he is in a better place, he remains ‘in recovery’.
Viewing himself as a ‘methodical’ thinker and a ‘problem solver’, Marc believes that taking a practical, and not just emotional approach, can make a huge difference to those struggling with mental health, and has created a framework around three main themes: Firstly, identify what you are hopeful for, then feel, reflect and react and, finally, pay it forward.
Marc said: “I decided to build my film around hope and how to introduce or reclaim it into your thought process.
“The first stage is identifying what your dreams and goals are, and setting incremental goals so you can gradually work towards them. What do you want to achieve? Where do you want to be?
“The middle stage is about reacting to and reflecting on failure, an inevitable part of goal setting!
“Acknowledging how you feel when you hit a low point is crucial because repressing these emotions can create a whole load of new problems.
“It’s then about reacting, turning hope into action, not just an emotion, taking the step that’s required to try and reach that goal, however small that step is. After all, nothing will change if you don’t take action.
“The last stage is about refining your outlook based on changing circumstances and learning lessons from previous failures. You can then use these experiences to help others in your community and social circles – hope is contagious and you can really help your friends and others you come into contact with by sharing your experiences.
“In my opinion and from my experience, if everyone could take these steps, mental health wouldn’t have reached the crisis point that it has reached today.”
The films have been made by Nathan Inatimi, supported by Jack Stewart, Shona Inatimi and Andrew Brough all part of The Aperture Project, also a Front Lounge initiative with support from Sonia Napolitano, Elixabele Riley, Rhian Malcolm and Ailsa Purdie.
*For more information, and to watch the first and future films, go to https://www.foolishoptimism.org
For support in dealing with mental health issues visit https://www.mindfulnessscotland.org.uk/ , https://www.samaritans.org/ or https://habitica.com/static/home
It said the key themes were patient access to mental health services, patient sense of safety, quality of care, organisational learning, leadership and governance.
Referring to risk management, the report said: “Patients report telling staff they were suicidal but the risk was not taken seriously until they made a serious attempt to take their own life.”
‘Violated and traumatised’
In relation to patient safety, the report noted: “Some patients report being frightened of certain staff on the wards who have a poor attitude to the patients in their care.
“Others mentioned that another patient had assaulted them whilst they were on the ward.”
The report said the use of restraint within inpatient facilities was of “great concern” to patients, who had experienced it or witnessed it taking place.
It said: “Patients feel violated and traumatised, particularly if they have personally suffered violent abuse in the past.”
It added that staff seemed unable to control the availability and use of illegal drugs on the wards in the inpatient facilities.
“Both patients and families report seeing drugs delivered, sold and taken within the Carseview Centre site,” the report said.
“Staff confirm this is a serious issue which is not being adequately addressed.
“There is a lack of support from management for frontline staff attempting to address this issue and it is having a detrimental effect on patient care and treatment regimes”.
‘Unexpected and concerning’
In a section on the Crisis Service, the report said that the Crisis team “struggles to respond to sudden surges in demand on the service.”
It said: “There are occasions when the length of time to wait to be seen is long and families supporting someone in crisis are advised to phone the police or NHS24, if they are worried.
“This advice is unexpected and concerning to carers coping with a crisis in a domestic situation.”
The report said the centralisation of the out-of-hours Crisis team to Carseview Centre has had a “detrimental effect on those patients in Angus and Perth & Kinross who are experiencing mental health crisis”.
It said: “There is a perception that whilst the Crisis service has expanded in recent months, the situation has worsened in terms of patients being assessed then not being offered any crisis intervention, or referred back to the GP.”
Inquiry chairman David Strang said: “The themes which have been identified will shape the next stage of the inquiry.
“Our final report will include conclusions and recommendations which will lead to the improvement of mental health services in Tayside.”
NHS Tayside chief executive Grant Archibald said: “We are taking on board all comments in the interim report, alongside the feedback we received from the Health and Social Care Alliance (the Alliance) published in their report in December 2018.
“The key themes which have been identified in both the Alliance report and in today’s interim report are recognised by the board and the mental health leadership team – and we are taking action on these.
“I also recognise and want to thank the many staff who are already working really hard to improve services and look forward to their continued support.
“It is clear that we have further work to do but since I came to Tayside, I have made mental health a top priority and I am confident we can learn lessons, strengthen our engagement with patients, service users, families and the public and make the right kinds of changes, at the right time, to transform our mental health services.”
He added: “We would like to thank everyone who has shared their experiences so far and we look forward to the independent inquiry’s final report and recommendations which will be a major influence on the future shape of mental health services in Tayside.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said an interim report into mental health services in Tayside will be published “imminently”.
Responding to questions from Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard about the inquiry, Ms Sturgeon said she would expect relatives who campaigned for the inquiry to be given advance copies of the interim report, which is expected to be published this month.
The inquiry was launched following a public campaign by families who blamed poor care at the Carseview Psychiatric Centre at Ninewells Hospital for a series of suicides.
The interim report will be published next week although it will be several months before the full inquiry report is completed.
Mr Leonard told the First Minister that some of the relatives whose campaigning led to the inquiry feel they have not been kept up-to-date with its progress and believe it is not “transparent”.
He said that when the inquiry was set up then health secretary Shona Robison said it should be seen as “a force for good” and asked if Ms Sturgeon believed this aspiration is being met.
Mr Sturgeon said it would be wrong for the Scottish Government to “pre-empt” the inquiry but said its findings would be scrutinised and any recommendations acted upon.
She added: “Of course we want to learn lessons and our sympathies are with the families who have experienced those losses.
“We established an independent inquiry in Tayside. That hasn’t yet reported. I hope it will report soon and it will be fully scrutinised by the government.”
Mr Leonard said Mandy McLaren, the mother of Dundee suicide victim Dale Thomson, has lost confidence in the inquiry.
He said: “She asked me to ask you directly if families will see an advance copy of the interim report before it is published.
“Will you listen to the voices of those families? Will you do what you can do to restore their confidence in this inquiry?”
Ms Sturgeon replied: “This inquiry is being led by David Strang. It is an independent inquiry.
“If the government was interfering in the conduct of that inquiry, I am sure Richard Leonard would be raising that in the chamber.
“I understand David Strang has met with family members. It would be full my expectation that an advance copy of the report would go to those directly affected.
“I will pass that specific point to David Strang but I would stress it is an independent inquiry.”
Earlier, Conservative MSP Bill Bowman pressed health secretary Jeane Freeman over plans for a 24-hour crisis centre in Dundee.
Councillor Ken Lynn, the the vice-chairman of Dundee Heath and Social Care Partnership, has pledged his “total commitment” to creating a centre in Dundee, but Ms Freeman the issue had not been raised with her or the minister for mental health, Claire Haughey.
Mr Bowman said later: “It was clear from the cabinet secretary’s answer that the SNP are disconnected from the challenges faced on the ground.
“There seems to be no plans for the new centre in Dundee, or for the government to help NHS Tayside create one.”