The dads who lost their sons to suicide:
“I don’t want sympathy. I want change”
Last year, more than 6,300 people in the UK took their own lives. Globally, the annual figure is as high as 800,000. Those deaths could have been prevented right up until the final moment. That is the message two bereaved dads, Mike McCarthy, 65, and Steve Phillip, 63, who both lost their sons to suicide, want to get across this Christmas and beyond. They are on a mission to help bring about a “zero suicide framework” for Britain.
Mike and Steve are friends who wish they had never met. They live 60 miles apart and have known each other for only 18 months, yet often get together; sometimes with their wives, sometimes alone. Steve’s son, Jordan, took his own life three years ago today, aged 34. Mike’s boy, Ross, was 31 when he died last year. The men believe their deaths, like so many others, could have been prevented. “The act of suicide is a practical act,” Steve says. “How do we prevent that practical act?”
The NHS alone cannot, they say, be expected to solve a crisis of this magnitude. So they want everyone to be on high alert. Astonishingly, two thirds of people who die by suicide are not in touch with mental health services in the year before their death. Too often, says Steve, the mentality is: “Don’t let the neighbours know, don’t let granny know, better not let anyone know.” The first step is to get people talking.
To cut through the stigma, the grieving dads came up with the idea of the Baton of Hope. Crafted by the royal silversmiths Thomas Lyte — makers of the FA Cup trophy — it will be carried, Olympic torch-like, by families and friends bereaved by suicide through towns and cities around the UK next summer, beginning in Glasgow on June 25 and ending in London on July 6, with numerous events along the way.
Spreading hope is vital, Steve says: it is only when someone has reached a sense of hopelessness that they take their own lives, “but there are many stories of people emerging from the darkness”. “What better cause than to give fresh hope to someone who has lost the will to live?” Mike adds.
It is clear to the men — and to many mental health experts — that talking about suicide does not lead to it. Most people who feel suicidal do not want to die. “They just want the situation they’re in, or the way they’re feeling, to stop,” says the charity Samaritans. “Asking someone if they’re having suicidal thoughts can give them permission to tell you how they feel and let them know they are not a burden.”
The dads found each other while campaigning independently for better mental healthcare provision and first met at a Sheffield café in May 2021. Steve supported Mike through the early stages of grief. “I felt a responsibility to listen; I knew what he was going through,” he says.
“I often tell Steve that I wish I had never met him, but I’m glad I did,” Mike says, nursing a takeaway cup of tea at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, a serene spot near Wakefield where the pair sometimes meet.
Within months they had co-founded the Baton of Hope, which they describe as the biggest suicide awareness initiative the nation has seen. They’ve been hounding and teaming up with politicians, government departments, the NHS, businesses, schools, charities, individuals — anyone and everyone — to sign up to their vision of a society where suicide is openly discussed, warning signs are spotted early and far more is done to prevent it.
A “zero suicide framework” is not a new idea: it was pioneered in the US two decades ago at Henry Ford Behavioural Health in Detroit. Prior to the initiative, the suicide rate for Henry Ford mental health patients was 100 per 100,000. Care pathways were developed to assess suicide risk and immediate treatment was given to those identified as needing it. A centralised IT system meant results could easily be tracked. Medical staff collaborated with relatives and social workers, and patients could attend drop-in clinics and email doctors. By the first year, in 2002, the initiative had already produced an 80 per cent reduction in suicides. And during an 18-month period in 2009-2010, they reached zero.
A zero-suicide approach is already being tried in Britain, with the grassroots Zero Suicide Alliance, set up in 2017, at the forefront. It has more than 700 members, including charities, councils, businesses and various health trusts, led by NHS Mersey Care, itself inspired by the work in Detroit. However, they can only do so much.
“There are many dedicated, hard-working and poorly paid individuals doing the very best they can to save people, but the [mental healthcare] system is glacial and fragmented,” Mike says. And the demand is huge: there are more than one million people waiting for vital mental health support, with millions more needing help for milder issues that can worsen while they wait.
Mike says a key aim of the Baton of Hope is to gain “a cross-party agreement on a zero-suicide approach”. The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, and Labour leader, Keir Starmer, are among hundreds of politicians being lobbied across the UK. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former press secretary and a prominent mental health campaigner, is on board and the adventurer James Ketchell is considering sailing the baton around the world. “We’ve had offers to carry it by boat, plane, hydroplane, horseback, by a scuba diver and through a tunnel,” Mike says. “Who said trying to save lives with a serious message couldn’t also be fun?”
Mike laughs briefly as he remembers his “funny, loving and cheeky” son Ross, an industrial electrician, singing The Whole of the Moon by the Waterboys into a karaoke machine in 2020. “Charlie, his little boy, was looking at his dad, full of love and chuckling as Ross bellowed at the top of his voice. That was Ross at his best. That’s the son I remember.”
The next time Mike heard the song was at Ross’s funeral. He died in February 2021 after a prolonged battle with severe depression. He was found by his fiancée, Charlotte, who would have become his wife the previous year but for Covid restrictions. Ross had struggled for more than a decade, trying different medications and going “backwards and forwards to the GP”, says Mike, a father of three. “He really applied himself to finding salvation.” After a suicide attempt in March 2020, which briefly put him in hospital, Ross found and paid for his own counsellor, having tried others before. “He thought this counsellor had ‘cracked it’, to use Ross’s phrase. We celebrated that on Christmas Day 2020. The last time I saw him alive.”
Now retired, Mike was a BBC and Sky News journalist who reported on tragedies from the Hillsborough football disaster to the war in Iraq over a 40-year career, but barely touched on suicide. He says nothing could have prepared him for losing a child. He often thinks about his final moments with Ross. He and his wife, Glenys, live in Sheffield and could not stay with their son at his home in Stockton, Co Durham, due to pandemic rules, but they went to visit. “He was in his conservatory, we were outside.” Amid laughter and “the odd bit of Christmas bickering”, they raised a glass to Ross’s progress. “It was the best thing that had happened to us that year.”
Mike believes that sometime between then and the night Ross died, he stopped taking his medication, perhaps thinking he was doing well. “Then the depression came back with a vengeance.” Ross was on a six-month waiting list for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), but took his own life two weeks into that wait. Mike doesn’t blame pandemic rules for the death of his son, but says they “added to his burden”. Ross was tired when Mike last spoke to him on FaceTime on February 20. “When you’re a dad and it’s your son, you so want to believe it if they tell you they’re all right. You cling to that, although I had doubts. The light had gone from his eyes.” In the early hours of the following morning the phone rang, with Charlotte’s voice bringing the worst possible news.
Many more males take their own lives than females, perhaps because they can be more inclined to bottle things up, and be more impulsive and violent. Worldwide there are about twice as many suicides as murders, and hundreds of thousands more people die by suicide than are killed in conflicts and natural disasters, according to Our World in Data. So, Mike asks, why aren’t we doing more to prevent it? “It’s like there’s toxic gas out there and bodies are dropping on the floor, but we’re holding our noses and stepping over them.”
Steve, a father of two who lives in Harrogate, thinks of the last time he saw Jordan, on November 11, 2019. They met up on a train to attend a whisky tasting event in Leeds. “The train was packed so we couldn’t sit by each other, but I walked down to see Jordan. I remember his forlorn, pale face. Even when he smiled it was not a big, beaming smile. But the evening got better — we had a nice time listening to a guy telling us about whisky.”
Later, Steve and Jordan took the train home. “He got off first and I carried on. And that was it. He walked off into the dark. Literally.” Jordan died on December 4. Steve’s eyes fill with tears as he adds: “It took me two years to get back on that train.” Now he talks about Jordan’s life and death most days for the Jordan Legacy suicide prevention organisation he set up in 2020.
Jordan was sensitive and empathetic, his dad says. He did not believe he had achieved much, but he’d travelled the world and had a lovely girlfriend and many friends. He owned his house and worked for the Independent Office for Police Conduct in Wakefield, investigating cases where families had lost a loved one in police custody. He had been an immigration officer too, seeing “people who were really struggling”. Jordan was “definitely someone for the underdog”, Steve says.
Jordan had been diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety in May 2015, which led to about three months of CBT and several rounds of antidepressants. His family knew he tended to wean himself off these when he felt better. He was also “a private person” and could be defensive. Steve was shocked to find out through Jordan’s journals that his son had suffered from body dysmorphia — self-loathing over his appearance. Like so many bereaved by suicide, Steve didn’t see it coming and suffered months of panic attacks after Jordan’s death; sometimes his whole body would shake. Even now, “trying to imagine what happened, my mind will go to those places and my head will twitch”.
The men are dismayed by the imbalance between physical and mental health treatment. Mental health problems cost the UK economy well over £100 billion a year. They account for 28 per cent of the burden but only 13 per cent of spending, according to the NHS Confederation. “You would not turn up at a hospital with terminal cancer and be told, ‘Bye, see you in six months,’” Mike says. “At the crisis end the services in this country are woeful. We know more about the surface of the moon than the planet inside our own head.”
A host of measures can be taken to try and prevent suicide. Mental health first aid courses are being pushed in organisations large and small. Architects are designing anti-suicide structures and solicitors learning to keep an eye on families going through divorce. Anyone can spend half an hour doing a free suicide prevention course online.
Steve has worked with Alice Hendy, a young cyber-security specialist whose 21-year-old brother, Josh, took his own life in 2020. She created an online tool, Ripple, a countermeasure for those flagged as searching for harmful content, urging them to seek support. Mike has worked with Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday football clubs to set up Talk Club Sheffield, where local men meet and, slicing through any machismo, are asked how they’re feeling on a scale of one to ten and why.
Mike says we all need to cast aside the notion that “I’m not the kind of person to struggle”. “We have a hell of a job to do,” he says, but believes we’re in a “zeitgeist” moment. Lives are being saved as a result. After the men appeared on BBC Breakfast in June, Steve received a message from a man with “a plan to take his life tomorrow. But he said he had just watched us on TV and couldn’t put his family through it”. A young woman whose father took his own life 20 years ago also contacted him, thanking him because her mother finally had opened up about her husband’s suicide.
The friends hope their sons are looking down on them proudly but Mike chokes up, saying he thinks he will see Ross again only “in my dreams”. “The bottom line is, I didn’t save him. He’s gone.” Handing Mike a tissue, I remind him that he is already saving people and will save more. “This is what gives me hope,” he replies. “I probably cut a very sad figure, but I don’t want sympathy. I want change.”
Sunday December 04 2022, The Sunday Times