The Lost Boys: How two towns cope with the impact of suicide

The Lost Boys: How two towns cope with the impact of suicide

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.

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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.

Lloyd Welsh
Lloyd Welsh’s family try to remember him as the smiley practical joker

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.”

Faith and Naomi
Paul Gerard Aiton’s partner Naomi with Faith, the baby daughter he never met

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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Are you struggling to cope?

Call Samaritans free on 116 123 (UK and Ireland) or visit the Samaritans website to find details of the nearest branch. Samaritans is available round the clock, every day of the year. Mind has a confidential telephone helpline – 0300 123 339 (Monday-Friday, 9am-6pm).

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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.

Man with head in hands

BBC Suicides in Scotland

2011-2017

  • 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.”

Mother and son, Anne and Chris Rowan
Anne, whose son Christopher killed himself, established a counselling service to help those who feel suicidal

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?

After a 20-month period where none was in place at all, the Scottish government launched a new suicide prevention plan in August 2018, pledging to cut suicides by 20% in the next four years.

More awareness

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.”

PG Aiton and John Fowler
PG Aiton and John Fowler, together celebrating their football team’s win, have both taken their lives

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.”

Walk of Hope
Friends of PG Aiton took part in a “Walk of Hope” in his memory

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.

One mum’s plea after her son took his own life

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.

“You’re somebody’s world

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Dundee-based mental health project Foolish Optimism launches new films with message of hope

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Charity match for tragic Dundee man Lee Welsh in doubt over bouncy castle laws

Charity match for tragic Dundee man Lee Welsh in doubt over bouncy castle laws

Lee Welsh’s parents, Phil Welsh and Lesley Nicoll, next to a mural painted in Lee’s honour.

 

 

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Dundee has highest suicide rate in mainland Scotland as numbers rise across the country

Dundee has highest suicide rate in mainland Scotland as numbers rise across the country

Dundee has one of the highest rates of suicide in Scotland as the national figure rises.

Data published by the ISD (information services division) show that 784 probable suicides took place in the country in 2018 — a 15% rise on the 680 recorded in 2017.

There had been a dip in overall rates across Scotland between 2013 and 2015, but it has steadily risen since then.

In Dundee, 19 people per 100,000 people have committed suicide in the last five years — second only to the Orkney Islands with 20.1.

The national average between 2014 and 2018 was 13.2.

Angus was below that, with 10.1 per 100,000 people — the fifth lowest in Scotland.

In Perth and Kinross the rate was 13.3 and in Fife it was 12.9.

Dundee City Council launched a campaign earlier this month, focusing on social media, that highlights where to go for support.

Across Scotland, the rates for men are three times higher than for women.

The highest rate for men occur between the ages of 35 and 44, but for women it is between 45 and 54.

In August 2018, the Scottish Government launched a suicide prevention action plan.

The National Suicide Prevention Leadership Group is expected to publish its first annual report in September.

As of the end of April this year, there has been more than 2,800 referrals to specialists help from front-line services.

Clare Haughey, mental health minister, said: “Any suicide is a tragedy.

“An increase in deaths by suicide last year is concerning and is sadly reflected in other parts of the world, too.

“We remain committed to building on the overall 19% decrease in suicide rates in Scotland between 2004-2008.

“Alongside mental health and suicide prevention groups, we are working to raise public awareness and improve crisis support services for at risk groups.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “These are startling and heartbreaking statistics.

“More than two people a day are dying by suicide and there has been an unbelievable rise in deaths among young people.”

Scottish Conservative MSP Annie Wells said: “The Scottish Government may have spent more time talking about mental health in recent years, but these figures show that hasn’t been matched by action.

“We’ve gone backwards and the hundreds of who took their own lives last year are a tragic testament to that.”

 

 

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Patients’ concerns highlighted in NHS Tayside mental health inquiry report

Patients’ concerns highlighted in NHS Tayside mental health inquiry report

Illegal drugs on wards and concerns over patient restraint have been highlighted in a report into NHS Tayside’s mental health services.

The independent inquiry’s interim report has identified “key themes for further investigation” after hearing evidence from more than 1,300 people.

It said some patients were frightened of certain staff members.

NHS Tayside said improvements had been made in key areas highlighted in the interim report.

The inquiry is reviewing safety, care standards and access to mental health services.

An investigation was initially ordered into Dundee’s Carseview Centre but was expanded following a campaign by families of people who took their own lives.

More than 200 written submissions were received by the inquiry team following its call for evidence, and more than 70 oral evidence sessions were held.

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.”

People talking

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.”

‘Top priority’

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.”

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Report into Tayside mental health services to be published ‘imminently’

Report into Tayside mental health services to be published ‘imminently’

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.”

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