Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45. 125 people die by suicide every week in the U.K. alone. 75% of those will be men. These are statistics that show the scale and severity of the epidemic of male suicide in this country.
In 2018, 6,507 people died by suicide in the U.K. The number was significantly higher than the previous year. I don’t even want to think how high those numbers could be when the data is gathered from the devastation caused by the pandemic. The numbers are high. Too high. But they’re just numbers. Statistics that hide the unimaginable personal tragedy associated with suicide. Of the 6,507 people who died by suicide in 2018, one of them was my younger brother Shaun. He was twenty-nine years old.
From the outside looking in, my brother had a good life. He had a fiancé, he called his soulmate, three beautiful daughters he adored and who adored him, and a great career in construction. So why did he walk out of his family home in Bristol, two days before he was taking his family on a two-week dream holiday to Greece, head into a wooded area and take his own life? Why? That’s the question that the families are left with when the dust settles. Why? The question with a plethora of answers none of which will ever satisfy. You look at what happened in the days leading up to it for clues. Shaun died on the Thursday, the last time I spoke to him was on the Tuesday when we were planning the stag do for his wedding. He was “buzzing”. He had landed a local job so he wouldn’t be away from his family, alone in digs. Things were, to quote my brother, two days before he died, “going to be okay now.” That’s what people don’t understand when it comes to depression, the most dangerous time is when things are going well because when you’re down you can’t do anything. That includes taking your own life. When you’re feeling positive and hopeful and something trips you up, the memory of how hard rock bottom was is too terrifying. Depression sits on your shoulder just waiting for you to question the fragility of the hope that’s keeping you going so it can pounce again. Especially when you’re a separated father like my brother and me. Life is ups and downs. Is there a better high than picking your kid up on that Friday and watching their face light up when they see you? But what goes up must come down and walking away on a Sunday for a week or two without your child never gets easier.
To really understand what led my brother to take his own life, the answers are at the start of his life not the end.
When I was born in 1981, I completed a family. But sixteen months later, my other brother Carl was born and his birth destroyed the family. Because of complications during delivery, Carl was born with brain damage and severe learning difficulties. He will never be able to look after himself. Carl’s birth threw my mother into deep post-natal depression and my father into deep alcoholism and me the young boy, who didn’t have the awareness to understand why all the smiles and laughter around me had dried up was left alone and sent away to stay with a friend of my mother’s while she tried to pick up the pieces of her shattered life.
When she finally did, she decided that she didn’t want Carl to be my only brother. She wanted me to have a “normal” brother, and so Shaun came along seven years after me.
The age gap was an issue. When he was a baby, I was a boy, when he was a boy, I was a teenager, and when he was a teenager, I was a man. But when we both became men, we became best friends, and regularly took trips away to watch boxing matches around the country.
The burden of Carl was too much and our parents divorced three years after Shaun came along.
After our parents’ divorce, we would wait in the window for our father’s weekend contact visit but time after time he wouldn’t show. We shrugged our shoulders and acted as if we didn’t care but deep down in our subconscious, we were learning that we weren’t good enough. We were learning we were worthless. My mother was always worried that as the more sensitive one that I would struggle, and I did, but Shaun seemed to shrug it off. We rarely spoke about our father other than when we both became parents and vowed never to let our children down in the way we had felt let down. I didn’t realise how much anger and hatred was burning inside my brother for decades until his fiancé found his diary three days after Shaun died. It detailed all his struggles with alcoholism and depression and how much he didn’t want to let his own family down. The recurring theme throughout was that he didn’t want to become his dad. That’s what he told himself. He chose alcohol over his family. That is not you.
Shaun was separated from his ex-partner and his twin daughters, seeing them on the weekends. I know how much he missed his children when he wasn’t with them. He never left his kids in the window waiting for him, but his battles with his mental health and self-medicating with alcohol were starting to get the better of him. My brother did everything to not abandon his children but he felt like an abandoned child and in the end that was too much for him to live with.
There’s two ways to deal with suicide, you can deny or ignore it or you can throw yourself completely into this terrible world in the hope that you can learn something and that whatever you learn may be able to help others and show them. I’m part of a community of people, all touched by suicide, people with whom I cannot live without now but whom I wish I’d never met. I decided I wanted to show that those who we’ve lost to suicide were real people with real problems who had a lot to live for. I wanted to tell these people’s stories to spread awareness so I started making the film ‘After Shaun’.
During production of the film, I visited The Anna Freud centre and interviewed renowned Professor, Peter Fonagy, and asked what damage might have been done to my brother by our father not visiting. How come he carried such anger in him all his life? He talked about the importance of attachment when it comes to protecting ourselves from the adversities of the world. Active rejection, like that which my brother felt all his life, was toxic, and when a child expects their parent to be there and they’re not, they find their own truth. That leads to inadequacy and shame. Experts believe that it is shame that brings about those withdrawing.
It would be reductive to say that what happened with our father was the reason that my brother took his own life. A multitude of factors contributed to his death, but the rejection he felt being the boy in the window, waiting, caused a shame he carried with him until his final moments.
But it didn’t need to be this way.
The ones we love only truly die if we forget them and I’ll never forget my brother but I just wish I had been better equipped to keep him alive in this world rather than just in my heart.
So, let’s equip ourselves. Don’t suffer alone because there is help out there. There’s always a reason to stick around and see what comes next because things can always get better.
If you are struggling with your situation due to family breakdown, please talk to us about our peer support group meetings and counselling service on 01233 680150 to see if this is something that would work for you. If you are currently experiencing suicidal ideation, please contact the emergency ‘Release The Pressure’ 24/7 phone line on 0800 1070160 or the Samaritans on 116 123. It’s okay to not be okay.