In August 2020, when lockdown restrictions had just been eased, my beautiful 22-year-old son, Robbie, took his own life. Robbie chose a permanent solution to a temporary problem and his family, friends and teachers have been left wondering why someone with such a lot to live for could have made this decision. His limitless potential, boundless energy and his gentle soul were lost to us forever. There are many ways in which depression can materialise in people and so it’s important to be aware of all signs. In Robbie’s case it was a quick deterioration.
When lockdown began, Robbie, like millions of others was forced to change his plans and fly home from his 2-week stay in India following five weeks of travelling in Sri Lanka and he was in high spirits. He was just grateful for what he’d been able to do. He should have been flying off to Nepal to climb Annapurna but he knew he could pick up on this at another time – he had the travel bug and was planning more. The week after arriving home in March 2020, his R World travel blogs which demonstrate his lust for adventure and his love of life, were up on his Facebook page. He carried this energy into his lockdown activities, seeing it as an opportunity to utilise his creative mind and make the most of this free time. To name a few activities, he did a mural of his favourite album covers in his bedroom, applied to go onto Race Across the World, and volunteered for the NHS. He also wrote many reflective poems about lockdown, constantly listening to podcasts to improve, as well as running many miles a day to train for his next marathon venture. He was never one to sit around doing nothing.
In mid-July his usual coping mechanisms of exercise and meditating seemed to fail. This was when he asked for help but was categorised as low risk and CBT was recommended. By his follow-up appointment two weeks later, it had not been organised and he chased it up. Nevertheless, his diagnosis didn’t seem too serious, the consultant didn’t seem particularly worried about him and Robbie met a few friends and appeared to be recovering. Whenever I asked him how he was feeling, he told me he was feeling more balanced – a positive sign.
With hindsight, it was evident that Robbie was not as well as I had thought. There is no doubt that he was trying to protect me from his dark thoughts. Unfortunately, the statistics on mental health say it all and make you realise that Robbie’s decision to take his life is not a one-off tragedy. Four months after his passing, four other youths in the Canterbury area who I know of, between the ages of 16 and 22 have also taken their life. Most of them were also academically gifted and had bright futures ahead of them just like Robbie.
And so, the idea for R World was conceived which will continue his legacy of helping others. With a group of Robbie’s friends, we got it off the ground almost straight away with support from his school, Simon Langton School for Boys and his University (Nottingham). We know Robbie would have approved of us providing life-changing opportunities for gifted students to carry out research in Africa. Without a bursary, they would not be able to afford to travel. We are therefore working with a small charity (the High Five Club) which Robbie’s dad Simon supported for many years. My aim is to build a school for an African community in memory of Robbie and Simon.
In view of the current mental health crisis, we have also chosen to direct funds into improving the mental health of young people. There are many admirable foundations dedicated to improving mental health, such as the Ollie Foundation which focuses on delivering suicide awareness, intervention and prevention training by empowering professionals and young adults in their own communities to lead suicide prevention activities. As suicides continue to rise in England and Wales, this is essential. There is also a foundation dedicated to helping those bereaved by suicide such as the Joshua Nolan Foundation.
Academic articles focus on how prevention must be prioritised and the Mental Health Foundation embraces the challenge of prevention. As half of mental ill health starts by age 15 with 75% developing by age 18, it is in schools and universities where we, as a team, think we can make a difference and where there is currently a gap. In 2017, the government made a commitment to train a dedicated mental health lead for every school and college from 2020 but reports of underfunding even before the arrival of the pandemic, could make this difficult. We have therefore chosen to introduce mental health first aid into schools and universities which don’t currently offer it.