Viewpoint: Losing a son to suicide
The suicide of Dick Moore’s 21-year-old son Barney led the former headmaster to immerse himself in the emotional wellbeing of adolescents. Here he tells Barney’s story and questions whether schools do enough to protect adolescents with mental health problems.
Have you got children? It’s a standard dinner party question, often an area of common ground. But it’s a question that I find hard to answer.
Friends, relatives and teachers all say that our four boys are delightful, but they haven’t half put us through the mill over the last 30 years!
Numerous visits to head teachers’ offices on disciplinary matters (including my own when I was their headmaster), drink, body piercings, dodgy cars and dodgier women, African bandits, police helicopters, South American conmen and any number of calls for help. Is this par for the course for parenthood? Or have we made some ghastly mistakes?
It seems to me that the pleasures generated by children are largely passive – a warmth that gently glows deep within like a large sip of whisky on a cold day – while the pain they provoke is anything but passive. It strikes hard and low (and usually by telephone) and when you least expect it. You’re left breathless, emotionally battered and several years older. But still your love as a parent remains unconditional.
Let me tell you a little about Barney, the third of our four sons.
He was reluctant to enter the world, arriving late and by Caesarean section, bawling as if to say: “Put me back. I don’t want to be here.” He was long, slim and, as babies go, beautiful.
Growing up he was challenged by the new – indecisive, gentle, wilful, kind, but painfully shy. His friends, and there were many, called him “The Gnome”. He was always there, reliable and unassuming, but saying very little.
He could laugh at himself, too, for example at his inability to pronounce the word “bulb”. His brothers teased him about “belbs”, to be rewarded with his infectious grin and chuckle.
Following his 15th Christmas, Barney entered a dark depression where going to school was not an option.
Stubborn, unhappy and uncommunicative, he would not be moved. In the weeks and months that followed and with the support of friends, family, kind doctors and medication, the true extent of his difficulty in coping with growing up – becoming independent and mixing with his peers – became apparent.
A longed-for girlfriend he met on the internet helped him to join the sixth form at the local school. A-levels and a place at university followed. During his gap year he qualified as a master scuba diving instructor and all seemed set fair.
Yet confidence was still a big issue and when he fell deeply in love again, he seemed to retreat from the world at large, devoting his whole self to his beloved.
When she, not unreasonably, wanted to spread her wings, Barney resented the perceived implication that he was not enough. He wanted them to live forever in their own little box. The relationship ended at the beginning of August 2011 and there followed a month of deepening depression and desperation.
Sunday, 11 September 2011, was a beautiful autumnal afternoon. The grounds of the girls’ boarding school where my wife and I lived and worked were bathed in soft, warm sunlight.
Suddenly, the peace was shattered by four police vehicles careering up the drive between the main school buildings. They had responded to our frantic call about Barney who was threatening to kill himself if his girlfriend did not return to him. The police were lovely, bumbling and well-meaning, telling Barney in firm but friendly tones to be more considerate to his parents.
The next day, Barney drove away from us in his little red car. During the five days that followed we received some texts in which he tried everything to cajole us – and especially his mother – to persuade his girlfriend to get in touch.
Eventually, in the early hours of Sunday, 18 September, having told us that he no longer had a family and that his mother was unfit for purpose, he informed us that the final deadline for his girlfriend to contact him was noon.
Monday, 19 September, was unremarkable. At 6pm I was working in the staff room when a colleague poked his head around the door. “Some people are here to see you,” he said quickly.
The people turned out to be a gentle policeman and a very beautiful young policewoman. It’s funny how you can notice such things at such moments. My world tilted.
My wife and I sat down. Barney had been found in a hotel room in Reading. It appeared that he had taken his own life. I remember thinking how sensitively these two people had delivered their terrible message and I apologised to them for their having such a foul job to do.
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Warning signs of depression
If you, or someone you know, experience at least four of the following symptoms over a period of weeks, professional advice should be sought, usually from your GP:
- Decreased energy
- Appetite and weight loss
- Insomnia/Irregular sleep
- Difficulty making decisions
- Persistent sad, anxious, or empty mood
- Thoughts of death or suicide
- Changes in mood
- Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
Twenty months have passed since that awful day. There has been much soul-searching and many tears. Each of us – my wife and I, and Barney’s three brothers – deal with Barney’s death in our own ways. I find the word “death” difficult to dwell upon.
Waves of grief still roll in from time to time and there isn’t a day that goes by that a memory is not stirred, a wistful thought provoked by a smell or a song or a photograph. But we are OK; we have survived and, perhaps oddly, we are able to enjoy life again.
For me, that restorative process has been directly linked to my search for knowledge about the emotional wellbeing of young people. And with knowledge has come some understanding. Not about how Barney’s story may have had a less tragic ending, but about the epidemic of emotional turmoil that can threaten to engulf some young people. About the efforts of some to make a difference. About the apparent lethargy of others in positions to make a difference but who fail to do so.
I can remember my mother and father telling the 15-year-old me that they hoped that my headmaster was correct in his assurance that I would emerge from this “horrid phase”, this “adolescent tunnel”, and that I would become the charming young man they yearned for.
Adolescence, which presents huge and frightening challenges, begins with the onset of puberty but it doesn’t end until as late as 25. It is only then that the part of the brain responsible for decision making, planning and organising, for common sense, catches up with that area of the brain which develops earlier and which, amid contortions of shape and size, is responsible for our developing emotions.
Depression, anxiety, self-harm, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts are now common place among young people.
Seventy-five per cent of mental health disorders originate in adolescence.
The statistics are horrendous:
- About 13% of sixteen year olds have self-harmed. Why?
- Suicide is now the most common cause of death – above even road traffic accidents – in men aged 17 to 34. Why?
Too many schools appear to prioritise academic results above the emotional wellbeing of their pupils, without seeming to appreciate that the former rely on the latter.
They won’t admit as much, of course, but sticking plasters don’t work – bolt-on counsellors and one-off training are a drop in the ocean. Real progress requires long-term commitment and a genuine desire to change the culture in our schools, our universities, our politics, our medical services and our homes – not least so that those suffering from emotional distress don’t feel too embarrassed and stigmatised to access help and support.
Distressed young people often need to trust before they will engage. Such trust is no longer conferred by status, by labels such as “father”, or “doctor” or “teacher”. GPs are often the first point of referral. But it is increasingly likely that the GP will not know their patient. If they do, it is a 50/50 call whether they have any mental health training. How, then, can they be expected to earn the trust, the engagement, of a person in an average consultation of 11.1 minutes?
School staff, too, are often overwhelmed by planning and targets and emails and paperwork. Young people need to be listened to too, patiently, regularly and non-judgementally. Parents may try, but the sting of emotional involvement makes such listening difficult.
Some schools have been triggered into action by tragedy – just as I have. But some have their heads stuck firmly in the sand. Some schools have invested in a sophisticated network of preventative measures, and support services – a full time counselling psychologist, a retained psychiatrist, health education specialists attached to each group of pupils, open and structured communication between medical and pastoral staff, and a structured programme of training for all staff.
Too many other schools, judging by their websites and their policy documents, have no such provision and prefer instead to talk proudly of their excellent sports injury rehabilitation clinic.
Regrettably, too many schools are akin to the council who fail to respond to the village campaign for a speed limit outside the local school until a child is killed by a speeding motorist. We need to act before the tragedies happen.
The stiff upper lip was arguably indispensable in the 20th Century. Talking about our emotions may not have helped in times of world war and widespread carnage. But the world has changed. The stiff upper lip is a deformity and it’s causing so much damage.
I implore school leaders, politicians, and parents to remove their heads from the sand and smell the heartache. Life is not wholly about grades even during this, the exam season. It is time to reassess priorities. It is time to talk. It is time to act. It is time to educate. It is time to invest – for there can be no health without mental health.
Life is not about waiting for the storms to pass. It is about learning to dance in the rain – a lesson our Barney didn’t manage to master and which led him to leave the world with more determination than when he joined it.
This piece is based on an edited version of Dick Moore’s Four Thought on BBC Radio 4