A couple of years ago, my younger brother took his own life. It was incredibly sudden and shocking.
My brother was mentally ill, but undiagnosed, and he successfully hid his illness from everyone in the family. As you can imagine, his death has had a deeply profound impact on my life and it has raised a lot of very hard questions.
I see a lot of information about suicide prevention week, and about raising awareness about mental illness. I applaud the effort, but I do wonder what any single person can do to prevent suicide. It will take an all-of-society effort, a radical rethink not just of our health service but our entire culture.
Until then, one thing I am able to do is talk to people who have experienced similar things to me. And, carrying a camera around with me wherever I go, gives me an excuse to talk to all kinds of people.
Recently I had the great pleasure of meeting Lauren, a bright 22-year-old woman living in a small town in Wales, with her mum and a pet tortoise. She takes her tortoise, Cookie, for walks in the town, so her mum knitted a jumper for it.
I got talking to Lauren about her life. She is a funny, quirky young lady who speaks her own mind. She also has a notably frank relationship with her mum. Seeing the two of them together is an instructive experience: if more of us were able to be so open with our thoughts and feelings with our parents, how much easier life would be. How much pain might be avoided.
Lauren describes herself as contented and cheerful, despite suffering from depression. The fact that the two things might simultaneously be true - feeling contented, and suffering from depression - was something I had not previously appreciated.
Her depression, in many ways, seems to be the cause of the rock-solid relationship with her mum. A couple of years ago things got so bad that Lauren took an overdose of paracetamol. Her mum found her in time and took her to hospital. She made a full recovery and, since then, the two of them have been very open with each other.
“A couple of days before it happened, the decision became clear to me, and there would have been no talking me out of it. It was completely non-rational. It’s like a switch had been flicked inside my brain and there was no other way - I had to end my life, and end the pain. I felt nothing-ness, I was done.” says Lauren.
Cheryl says that Lauren was laughing and joking the day she tried to kill herself. “It was just like any other day,” says Cheryl.
I remember my own brother came to visit me a few days before he killed himself, and I could not remember a time when he’d last been so friendly and attentive. It’s one of those cruel things, the calm before the storm, when a person has reconciled themselves to suicide and there is a period of acceptance that comes across as good spirits.
Since it happened I have asked myself many times whether there was anything I might have done to talk him out of it, that is, if I’d somehow known what he was planning. But hearing Lauren talk like this, I’m pretty sure nothing could have stopped him once he’d passed the point of no return.
These days, to try and prevent things from getting bad, Lauren is incredibly open with her mum about how she is feeling.
“If Lauren is hyper, or tells me she’s feeling down, it makes me panic,” says Cheryl. “It helps to know how Lauren is feeling, even if it means that I worry more than usual.
“Obviously, depression has a massive knock-on effect on the family. I felt so guilty that she went through this, and I didn’t know,” says Cheryl.
Lauren steps in immediately and says that her mum mustn’t live with guilt, because she isn’t to blame. “Some people have situational depression. But for me, it’s to do with how my brain works, the chemicals, my Asperger’s. It’s just how I am.”
So, she has her mum, and her love of animals. What else helps Lauren? She mentions two things. First, she is a keen artist. She has hundreds of sketch books and she says that drawing brings her relief. Each time they go on holiday she sketches, and now she has a massive visual record of some of her most important memories. As a photographer, I can certainly attest to the affirmative power of being creative. And second, moving to a new town has helped her feel more contented. “It’s about finding somewhere you fit,” she says.
“I know that I will always have depression, and I’ve accepted it. In the past I’ve been so high that I never thought I’d feel depressed again. And then later on, I felt so low that I’ve tried to take my own life,” she says. “Now, I’d say there’s only a 0.1% possibility of trying again to take my own life, but you never know. There’s always that possibility, however remote. And that means it’s really important to keep talking about this stuff even when people are feeling better.”
She is so matter of fact about this. And her mum is standing next to her, nodding supportively. It is really quite extraordinary, and refreshing. Lucky Lauren, and lucky Cheryl, to have each other. I’m sure they will for many years to come.