It was a grim but familiar picture last week, when the Office for National Statistics released its annual figures for the rate of suicides across Britain.
In 2018, findings revealed, a total of 6,507 suicides were registered by coroners in the UK. It was the highest level for more than 15 years, and an 11.8 per cent increase on the previous year. There were all-time highs registered for young people and young females, too, but according to statisticians the general rise was driven by men, who took their lives at a rate of 17.2 per 100,000. The 2017 figure was 15.5, the lowest since 1981.
Pundits can, and will, debate the broad reasons why such a tragic spike has occurred after what seemed like progress, but a groundbreaking new Channel 5 documentary, Suicidal: In Our Own Words, timed to coincide with World Suicide Prevention Day today, attempts to get to the heart of why suicide is still the leading cause of death among 20-49 year old men by asking not just experts, but the people perhaps best-placed to answer that question: men who know exactly what it feels like.
The six men featured in the documentary have 20 suicide attempts between them, and talk with startling honesty about what they’ve experienced and what led to them feeling they have no other option but to try and end their lives.
The film is thoughtful and revealing of how suicide is the product of a tangled web of issues, rather than one. It also handles the human stories behind the numbers with remarkable sensitivity, but there are also a number of alarming, simple statistics. One stands out: during the time it will take you to watch the 90-minute programme tonight, one person in the UK will have taken their own life.
Stewart Hampton, from Preston, is one of the men who shares his story. A father of six children aged between 12 years old and 11 months, he joined the military at 17 – drawn by the camaraderie and outdoor nature of the work. He was a tempestuous teenager who’d “always had anger issues” that the drinking culture in the Forces didn’t help.
“Physically, mentally, it gave me something to focus on, but in the military there was a mentality of ‘put up and shut up’ if you had an issue,” he says. Had he ever raised a concern with a senior officer, he reckons he would have been “brushed aside” and told to man up. “It was seen as weakness, so you didn’t want to say anything. Personal pride got in the way, which was a generational thing as much as the military.”
Throughout his 15 years of service, which included five overseas tours, Hampton, 36, never considered his mental health and wouldn’t – or couldn’t – open up to anybody at home, least of all family and friends, who he was afraid might see him as weak. Nights out would involve drinking and fighting, “but I saw that as stress relief, and not a problem, because my dad was the same. It was a part of family life.”
As it was, Hampton’s reluctance to talk about his mental health and proud insistence on trying to function normally meant the cycle of anger and frustration medicated by drinking and fighting became worse and worse. After a difficult chain of events occurred at home – matters he declines to go into detail about – he reached breaking point and decided to act. First, he took an overdose of prescription medication last year, “not even as an attempt on my life, I just wanted to sleep, because I wasn’t eating or sleeping properly.” Then, in February, he tried to crash his car into the barrier on a motorway.
“It was impulsive. Some people who do things like that think about it for a long time, but I wasn’t like that. I just let it bottle up and bottle up, and snapped. I was drinking on my own, angry and emotional, then I just thought, ‘yeah, I’m going to do it.’ Luckily for me it didn’t work. And looking back it took something like that to make me realise I needed help.”
Hampton’s attempt failed, and after recovering from his injuries, he was placed in the care of Central and North-West London Mental Health Trust, where his problems were finally addressed. Today, he says, he is happy and healthy again. He also has a newfound ability to share what’s troubling him, and has come to realise his friends and colleagues would have been perfectly supportive, rather than dismissive, about his problems if he’d come to them. In the documentary he describes the failed attempt on his life as “the best thing that’s happened” – but wishes it hadn’t taken such an extreme event.
He is now out of the Forces and a stay-at-home father (his wife is a care worker near their home in Lancashire) who “doesn’t dwell on stuff, or let things go round and round” in his head anymore. In the last year he’s also noticed the amount that mental health is discussed in the media, especially by the young royals and sportsmen, but feels a lot more can be done, not least for people like him.
“There are two sides of it. The celebrities, and then there are normal people. My upbringing was quite rough, on council estates, and there you get it drilled into your head that you just shut up and have to be quite hard-faced about things,” he says.
“There’s still a lot of people left out, a lot of grey areas, and a lack of services. I think some people don’t care as long as it doesn’t affect them in their day-to-day lives. There’s people like me left behind – they don’t know who to talk to, and don’t know how to get help. And I’m guilty of it too, it’s not until it happens to you that you know.”
It’s why he feels the documentary has treated the topic in the correct way, in that it tells the stories of six very different men (ages range from 18 to 63), each with a unique set of mental health concerns, and shows how easily a culture of suffering in silence – as well as traditional male attitudes to getting medical help – can result in a crisis. Or worse, repeated crises.
“A lot of people go through difficult, complex problems – and Prince Harry might talk about it, but as much as he’s a good bloke, he doesn’t relate to everyone, does he? So you’ve got to have different backgrounds, people rich and poor, that’s why it’s good,” Hampton says.
He knows that people might watch and relate to his story, but whether they then admit that to anybody is the difficult next step. What would his message for those men be?
“Don’t try and deal with it on your own, it doesn’t work. I was brought up to think you deal with it yourself and crack on, but you need to recognise it and just go to the doctors, because they’re impartial. And for everyone else, if you think your friend’s struggling, have a word with them. A lot of it can be nipped in the bud there,” he says.
It was an instant response, and he knows how obvious it sounds now. “That’s why I’ve done this. I’m just an average bloke, so if I can get through to one or two other average blokes to get help, then I’ve done my bit.”
Suicidal: In Our Own Words is on Channel 5 tonight at 9.15pm