The two high-profile suicides of Caroline Flack, Keith Flint and Mike Thalassitis which were highlighted in the media recently, have really resonated with us. It’s been very poignant and made me recall our own family experience with suicide.
It’s made me question, has much changed in mental health support since the 1970s?
My grandad was 64-years-old when his body was found in the River Thames, London, by a sailor on a small boat near Westminster Bridge in the 1970s. At the Coroner’s Court, it was established that he had entered the cold October water around Waterloo Bridge.
He was a frequent visitor of the Maudsley Hospital, where he regularly stayed for treatment for his diagnosed illness, Manic Depression, which is now known as Bi-Polar disorder.
Several years ago, I spent time piecing this loving, kind gentleman’s life together to try to understand what caused him to want to kill himself, to leave his family and ripple effects this still has in our family today.
Where it all began
My grandad was born in the Borough of Lambeth to poor working-class Irish immigrant catholic parents. One of five children, I would often hear stories that they rarely had shoes on their feet as children. At that time, the Victorian British way of life when you faced adversity was, to ‘pull your socks up’ and the quiet, deep thinking Tally didn’t seem to be like the other ‘tougher’ members of his family.
As a young man he worked for the GLC (Greater London Council) as an engineer on the London underground and even developed tools to maintain the lines for passengers to ride the many miles of underground tunnels. So important was his role that when World War II began the Government requested he to stay in London and not to join the forces.
Although his family were relieved that this sensitive man would not be joining the ‘fodder’ in the Army or Navy, it actually had the adverse effect on him Men were in uniform everywhere and the public had a very visceral response to men who were not seen in uniform; they were deemed to be cowards and conscientious objectors. For five years, Tally had to navigate the unjust bullying and abuse from strangers wherever he went.
The war took a traumatic turn for him when on the 17th April 1941, (one of the nights known as The Blitz) his cousin, an air raid warden, shouted and whistled for everyone to get in the near bomb shelter at the Walkling’s Bakery, on the corner of The Cut and Greet Street in Waterloo, which was across the road from where he lived with his parents above a shop.
His mother didn’t want to go into the shelter that night as there had been a dreadful ‘Blitz’ the night before, (these two nights were the biggest of all the London blitzes) so she decided if her ‘time was up, it was up’, so her caring son stayed with her. Many other relatives, including uncles, aunties and young cousins rushed into the shelter. Devastatingly, the bakery took two direct hits killing all 54 people inside. A total of 13 members of the family died that night and the surviving men in the area (including Tally) were asked to ‘piece together’ what was left of their loved ones in the rubble so they could be taken to the funeral parlour - as it was known then.
My family chose to have the 13 loved ones’s funeral all on the same day and a procession of 13 coffins, including children, were led down the Blackfriars Road. The bombed bakery site today is now the Young Vic Theatre and it has a commemorative plaque outside and the names of the victims (including my 13 family members) inside in a corner on the ground floor.
Another shocking trauma
We discovered that a young man, aged 15-years, worked for my Grandad as an apprentice in the Underground and he sadly accidentally died due to standing on a live tube line whilst working down a long dark tunnel. Although it was not my grandad's fault, it had a huge impact on him as he felt responsible and had to move the young boy’s body from the tunnel and explain the dreadful news to his colleagues and the boy’s family.
My Grandad was brought up in the aftermath of the Victorian era after World War I, when men were not encouraged at all to speak about the traumas they had witnessed or express any emotions, and if you did so, you were deemed weak.
Later, after he became a father of three boys, all of his pent-up emotions and his internal secrets had its toll on him, and he began treatment for his dark moods. This led to yet another social stigma for the family as my Nan had to explain to people why her husband wasn’t around whilst she was bringing up their three young boys and her having to work three jobs to pay the bills, as the financial support was non-existent, (I’m sure the worry and stigma impacted my grandad’s health further).
PTSD and 'survivor's guilt' followed
I began to see what had led him to take his own life, no doubt looking back now, I can see that he was suffering from PTSD and was plagued with ‘survivor’s guilt’ and if it were today, he may be offered EMDR Therapy, which I am qualified to use, which can help people move away from pain and past trauma.
We can only imagine the pain he must have held inside and the energy it must have taken to conceal all the emotions and the mental depths he must have gone to. It was these that drove him to end his life - death being greater than the will to live - and to choose not to see his family grow, seven grandchildren and currently seven great grandchildren.
Now I wonder if very much has changed 40 years on? As there is a mental health crisis of an epidemic scale of men taking their own lives, has much evolved in those 40 years?
As I think of the lives and recent deaths of Keith Flint and Mike Thalassitis, I can only imagine the pain and ripple effect this will have on their families for decades.
Four decades later
My grandad's death still resonates through my family and now with a new generation we give love, compassion and understanding to his memory.
Understanding more about Mental Wellbeing, along with my own experience of past mental health issues, led me several years ago to create my business, Beyond EAP. We now support employees when they are facing adversity and mental health issues, often away from the darkness into the light.
I’d like to end with an old Cherokee tribe Native American saying that I heard many years ago that I follow, ‘Don’t pass judgment on another person until you’ve walked a mile in their moccasins’.