According to the Samaritans, in 2017 alone there were 5821 recorded suicides in the UK. Chances are, unfortunately, you either know someone or of someone who’s taken their own life, be it a friend, a family member, a colleague or a neighbour.
For 18-year-old Ben West that person was his younger brother, Sam, who tragically took his own life in January of this year at the age of just 15. On the night Sam died, it was Ben who had to perform first aid on his brother before emergency services arrived. Sadly, Sam couldn’t be saved.
Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50. But we often think of suicide as something that targets men with experience, men with ‘reason’ to have these thoughts. We don’t often think of suicide and depression as things that latch onto the next generation, but perhaps we should.
There were 121 suicides last year by men aged between 15 and 19 in England and Wales, compared to 74 in 2010. It’s not just men who are struggling, but young guys too.
“He was incredibly talented at art and music. He also played tennis and went cycling a lot with his friends. I know it sounds weird, but he was just really normal,” explains Ben. “People have this expectation that people going through mental anguish are going to come across as being different, but they really aren’t, and it’s trying to prove the fact that it’s not going to change you, you’re not going to change on the outside, but you’ve got to respect what’s happening on the inside.”
Suicide doesn’t discriminate, it targets the young and old, the rich and poor. Unfortunately, the stigma that men feel about expressing their feelings and talking through their problems also doesn’t discriminate. Sam was diagnosed with depression, but really didn’t want anyone to know outside of his closest friends.
“He thought he’d go into school and people would treat him differently or he’d be treated differently by me and his family, so he tried to keep it quiet,” says Ben. “When it did come out, he kind of felt quite annoyed that people had found out because he thought he was going to be treated differently.”
Obviously, then, we need to get men of all ages talking, and inspired by the loss of his brother Ben has set out on a mission to do just that.
With a group of friends Ben organised ‘Walk to Talk’, a 200km charity walk to Westminster that aimed to promote the idea that “it’s ok not to be ok”. “It really surprised me how many people had come from a long distance to come and walk with us that we didn’t even know,” says Ben. “They came up and introduced themselves and each one had their own story, and it was really nice to have that because that’s the aim at the end of the day: it’s to try and spark that conversation.”
Having now completed the walk to Westminster, and raised over £15,000 in the process, Ben isn’t stopping there. He’s launched the Save our Students petition, which at the time of writing has 172,000 signatures. The petition’s aim is to get the government to support teachers and get them to undertake mental health first aid training. As Ben points out, teachers are ideally placed to spot when students may be struggling with their mental health, but that doesn’t absolve the rest of us. It’s on all of us to look out for each other.
“You need to be able to sit down with someone and say, ‘are you alright’ every so often,” says Ben. “Maybe your friend isn’t coming out to the pub as often, maybe he’s just sitting at home and you haven’t really heard from him, he’s staying off social media, becoming more isolated and not really wanting to be part of things. Obviously, it changes person to person, and you can’t say for definite these are the signs, but that’s a good little indication.”
Since tragedy struck Ben’s family and he began his campaign to raise awareness around mental health issues, he says he’s had people reaching out to him who are struggling and want help. These typically aren’t men, which illustrates the point that men aren’t talking. But even without the statistics, we all know from personal experience that men are suffering.
“I went into Maidstone Football club the other day and I went up to some guy and asked if it was alright to leave some leaflets about teenage mental health,” says Ben. “He said that he’d lost five people to suicide. Then, another guy comes up to us and goes ‘You’re supporting mental health – my brother ended his own life.’ When you start going into it you realise almost everyone has someone they’ve known that’s gone through something, gone through terrible times, had problems with mental health or ended their own life. It’s just such a massive impact on people.”
It’s probably a situation he would rather have never found himself in, but Ben is now a passionate mental health advocate, and driven by the memory of his brother that will never change. “This is going to be my life’s goal to try and sort this out,” says Ben.
Ben and his family have established the Sam West Foundation in Sam’s memory. You can donate here