“The pain was intense, severe and all-consuming” – The Forgotten Survivors

When Ingrid’s daughter died by suicide she couldn’t imagine the trauma that would face her. Today Luke Hastings exclusively reveals the impact of suicide bereavement after the Health Select Committee recommended new measures of after-care for families left behind.

Michelle was 28 years-old. Her mother Ingrid von Hunnius says she was “bright and intelligent” after graduating with a master’s degree in Biochemistry.

Ingrid recalls the night they stayed up until the early hours of the morning partying before Michelle left for a trip abroad to work in India.

She then points to a photograph of Michelle on the mantelpiece. Ingrid’s next words are heartbreaking: “Six months later, she was dead.”

Michelle died by suicide after overdosing on pills prescribed to treat her depression when she returned home from India.

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A picture of Michelle. Photograph: Luke Hastings.

It was then that Ingrid’s “hugely traumatic” experience began.

“I don’t know how to describe it, it’s not just one emotion. It’s shock. It’s sheer terror. It’s indescribable.

“The pain was intense, severe and all-consuming. It’s tsunamis of grief.

“It felt like somebody had hit me in the solar plexus. It stunned me really. You go beside yourself. You’ve never really experienced anything like it. I think you get put onto the baseline of survival,” she says.

Ingrid explains she felt isolated and lost in society, depressed by the stigma that faces those who are bereaved by suicide.

“I find that with the general public or with friends I can’t fully express myself because she’s still part of me. I don’t bring her up because people don’t talk about bereavement by suicide,” she says.

With no postvention support, Ingrid was then left feeling suicidal.

“I had this sense that I was walking around this dark hole and I could just slip into it. One day it occurred to me that if I took a lot of tablets I could get into that dark hole, because I thought Michelle was in there,” she says.

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A painting of Michelle, which sits on the wall in Ingrid’s home. Photograph: Luke Hastings.

Now, the Health Select Committee has recommended new after-care measures for those like Ingrid – the forgotten survivors of suicide.

This follows the committee’s four-month inquiry into suicide prevention. The committee’s interim report, released in December, suggests more primary and secondary support for the families left behind after suicide.

The report says those bereaved by suicide are “not entitled to any support” or a family liaison officer, which would be standard practice in many other causes of death.

The full report will be released at the end of this month with complete details of the support the committee recommends.

Labour MP Ben Bradshaw was part of the inquiry and says those bereaved by suicide are “left to fend for themselves”.

“We (the Health Select Committee) feel very strongly that there’s not enough support for families. There’s not a consistent enough approach across the country in the way that families are helped and supported,” he says.

The committee’s MPs aren’t alone in feeling there’s not enough support. According to an exclusive Guardian survey a resounding 97% of people don’t think families bereaved by suicide are given enough help.

The committee’s report called suicide rates “unacceptable” and the Samaritans say a person takes their own life every 90 minutes in the UK.

After suicide, the Office for National Statistics found that between six and ten ‘survivors’ are left behind, meaning up to 61,000 people are bereaved by suicide every year.

Those loved ones are three times more likely to take their own lives, according to the Centre for Suicide Prevention.

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Mara Grunau, Executive Director at the Centre for Suicide Prevention, Canada. Photograph: Centre for Suicide Prevention.

Mara Grunau is the Executive Director at the centre, which is based in Canada. They have the largest collection of suicide research in the world.

She explains there’s “no grief like suicide grief” and says that “postvention is critical prevention”.

Mara also says research from the centre confirms those bereaved by suicide feel “shunned,” leaving their grief “un-dealt with”.

The Guardian survey reveals over three-quarters of people believe there’s a stigma around suicide bereavement in the UK.

Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS) say that the insensitive use of language adds to that stigma.

According to the Guardian survey, 60% of the general public would say a person ‘committed suicide’ – even though the term ‘died by suicide’ is recommended.

SOBS play a significant part in many survivor’s lives, including Ingrid. After being unable to find any suicide postvention support, Ingrid teamed up with the charity to start her own support group in Bournemouth.

Ingrid calls the group a “family”. However, she believes there’s even a stigma around attending a support group for suicide bereavement.

“A group is like someone touching your hand, it pulls you out of that dark hole, but the stigma around it stops you putting out that hand,” she explains.

Ingrid says that her own children even believe it’s “bizarre and sick” that she runs the group.

Stigma isn’t the only issue with support groups, as SOBS groups only run once a month, which can be a problem for many who need more help.

Halani Foulsham had to wait 30 days to attend a group after “having a bomb dropped on her life” when her mother died by suicide in 2014.

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Halani looking up to her mother. Photograph: Halani Foulsham.

Halani is the founder of Thought Climber, who have recently released the ‘After Journal,’ a one-of-a-kind interactive and creative book to help those who have been bereaved by suicide to get through their grief.

“The hope is that the journal has shared experience of others to help and is a campaign tool to say we need people to listen. Suicide is a social epidemic. We need to tackle the rampant stigma,” she says.

Following the Health Select Committee report, Halani says she’s concerned that even if there’s more support available in the future, it “won’t mean much” if people don’t know it exists. She says this is a big problem in her experiences with current services.

Ingrid and Halani are not alone in trying to make a difference to postvention, which currently fails bereaved families.

Shirley Smith lost her “normal, bright and witty” 19-year-old son Daniel to suicide in 2005.

She believes the new report is a “huge step” in bringing suicide postvention into the forefront of the political spectrum. However, she’s wary that the report could be “just noise”.

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Shirley Smith, founder of ‘If U Care Share,’ was bereaved by suicide in 2005.

Following the death of her son, she founded the charity ‘If U Care Share’ alongside her children who were left “devastated”.

The Health Select Committee mentioned Shirley’s Durham-based foundation in their report, as they’ve pioneered a system in England to help those who are bereaved by suicide.

Working closely with Durham Public Health D.C.C, they provide a 48-hour service to the survivors left behind after a suicide in the area, helping them with everything from emotional support to how to deal with the coroner’s inquest.

The system is based on a model from Northern Ireland by Barry McGale and since it started in September 2014, the service has helped 94 people to get through the aftermath of their tragedy.

Shirley believes her charity’s system is “critical” for those who have lost a loved one through suicide and says it should be funded nationwide.

“The pain was intense, severe and all-consuming. It’s tsunamis of grief” – Ingrid von Hunnius

Durham’s Labour MP Kevan Jones believes similar arrangements to the ‘If U Care Share’ system will need to be put in place if the newly proposed support is to work.

He thinks the report is a “very important” step in the right direction and stresses there needs to be “clear pathways” for those bereaved by suicide to get support.

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Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb. Photograph: Flickr Creative Commons.

Liberal Democrat Shadow Health Secretary Norman Lamb thinks there should be a consistent national support network in place. He says current services are “wholly inadequate”.

The North Norfolk MP had his own experience with being bereaved by suicide after the loss of his sister in 2015.

He believes it’s “incredibly important” that the government fund new support services and allow third-party voluntary organisations to run them.

“People find it impossible to move on after a suicide. There’s often a lot of guilt and sometimes anger. The net effect of those emotions is that the person becomes quite trapped.

“Ensuring that someone has access to counselling and support is critical,” he says.

Conservative MP Charles Walker is the vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Suicide Prevention and says he’s concerned about the current lack of suicide postvention support.

However, he’s worried further funding will be unlikely due to economical restrictions.

Suicide attempt survivor Paul Scates thinks it’s “pathetic” that the government use austerity as an excuse for not providing suicide postvention support.

Paul attempted to take his own life at the age of 17 and is now a mental health expert, working alongside the NHS supporting people who suffer with mental health conditions, including those bereaved by suicide.

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Suicide attempt survivor Paul Scates. Photograph: Paul Scates.

Paul believes we are “letting people down” when they are “left with nothing” and adds that it “doesn’t cost much” to team those affected by suicide bereavement up with experts like himself.

He also thinks the new report is “vague” and is concerned it will simply be “lip service”.

For now, the families left behind after suicide will have to wait and see if the government will accept the recommendations made by the Health Select Committee. Four years ago, the same committee released a similar report. However, critics including Halani Foulsham and Shirley Smith said it resulted in very little being done.

Perhaps now the tide is turning. As well as the Health Select Committee’s inquiry into suicide, Public Health England recently released their guide to providing local services to those bereaved by suicide and Theresa May said the government will tackle suicide last week.

We will find out soon if the government will take action and more after-care will be provided for the forgotten survivors of suicide.


VIEW – The full layout of this investigation, made as if it would go into the Guardian newspaper: https://indd.adobe.com/view/ee840b6c-e149-4101-8c8c-cdb60d4b0378

LISTEN – An exclusive interview with suicide attempt survivor Jonny Benjamin.

WATCH – Exclusive interviews from Maytree suicide sanctuary.

READ MORE – Read more about suicide bereavement, as the investigation meets Lin, a woman bereaved by the suicide of her husband: https://theforgottensurvivors.wordpress.com/2017/01/11/lin-story/

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Behind the article – the entire process (final part)

Happy new year!

The Forgotten Survivors investigation is nearing it’s conclusion, so here’s an insight into the entire process of putting together this exclusive investigation. Strap yourself in, it was a bumpy ride.

The beginning – pitching the idea

As I walked into Bournemouth University on the morning of October 17th I was shivering for two reasons. 1 – it was the day of my pitch and 2 – it was cold.

It was a scary experience, being summoned into a room by two (admittedly very nice) tutors so they could criticise (constructively, I hoped) what I thought was a fresh and original idea.

Thankfully, they agreed that it was and The Forgotten Survivors investigation was born.

By the time I walked into that pitch I already had an angle and interviewees ready to speak to me.

I had been researching suicide bereavement and postvention for around two weeks and already it was abundantly clear that there wasn’t enough support for victims of suicide bereavement.

Dr Andrew Mayers, a psychology lecturer at Bournemouth University with a passion for mental health put me in touch with several people via Twitter to get me going in the investigation.

Lift off

From there,  I didn’t look back and proceeded to interview MPs, including Oliver Colvile, Charles Walker and then Kevan Jones.

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I was conducting at least one interview a day for a couple of weeks, even using Skype to contact Canada to speak to their Centre for Suicide Prevention.

Mara Grunau is the Director there and she was brilliant. She told me that “postvention is critical prevention” – in response to which I punched the air with delight. But it even got better, as she hit me with some great quotes about the stigma around suicide bereavement. I hadn’t even considered stigma up until then.

That’s where the twin pillars of my investigation were built. I sat down with my brilliant tutor Andy and we decided these concepts would be where I would always come back to.

I then had the chance to speak to suicide attempt survivors Jonny Benjamin and Paul Scates, both passionate campaigners for mental health.

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Jonny Benjamin with the man who talked him down from Waterloo Bridge in London. Photograph: Jonny Benjamin.

So far I had, had the pleasure of speaking to some incredible people and we hadn’t even hit November yet.

The investigation is Trumped

But then, the US Election rolled round and I, alongside two of my colleagues, was given the incredible opportunity to travel to Washington D.C to cover the historic election live for Bournemouth University’s coverage.

It really lived up to my expectations too. What an amazing experience, covering the election on TV, Radio and Online. I even made a couple of appearances on the University of Maryland’s coverage.

I still can’t believe Donald Trump won it.

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US flags at the Washington Monument.

Back down to earth

After all that excitement, I flew straight back to sitting on my bed on my laptop, sending out tens of emails everyday to try and get people to talk to me.

As I’m writing this post, it means they did. Thankfully.

The biggest challenge

After several phone conversations I went to see a woman called Ingrid, who kindly agreed to talk to me. She was bereaved by the suicide of her daughter Michelle eight years ago and now runs the Bournemouth SOBS support group. She was precisely the interviewee I needed.

I had MPs and experts, but no emotion.

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Ingrid Von Hunnis holding a photograph of her daughter Michelle, who died by suicide eight years ago.

Ingrid told me her heartbreaking story that left me fighting back tears as we spoke in the living room of her Dorset home.

Staying emotionally detached here was virtually impossible. I left that house feeling drained. Ingrid’s story had a big effect on me.

At this point, I will take you back to when I met Dr Ann Luce a couple of weeks after the investigation started. I didn’t interview her, we just spoke (for over two hours) about looking after my interviewees – and myself. When Ann said that to me, I didn’t understand at the time.

Fast forward under a month and I knew exactly what she meant. How I felt must’ve not even compared to how Ingrid was feeling after I left.

Another visit

Ingrid was not the only bereaved person I met during the project. I travelled to Hampshire to meet Lin, who was bereaved by the suicide of her husband four years ago. She wished to stay anonymous due to the media coverage surrounding her husband’s suicide.

After phone conversations with her, she was dubious of being involved due to that media coverage. This presented her with trust issues, but I built a rapport with her and the interview went smoothly. Afterwards, I gave her the list of helpline numbers and she said she would consider attending a support group. This was probably the most professionally rewarding part of the project.

Inside the suicide sanctuary

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Filming inside Maytree suicide sanctuary in London.

For the video element of the project, I travelled into London to meet Maytree suicide sanctuary director Natalie Howarth and volunteer Steven Altman.

Natalie spoke very passionately about suicide, whilst Steven told me his incredible story of going from a politician, to attempting suicide, being imprisoned and then being bereaved by suicide. You can see the two minute video in the investigation.

More interviewees

The project continued to progress as I spoke to Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb, a man who spends everyday campaigning for mental health equality.

I had a phone call with Shirley Smith too, getting in touch after Kevan Jones MP suggested we talk. She told me about a new system If U Care Share are pioneering in Durham where volunteers help those left behind after suicide, filling in the gaps of a non-existent after-care system.

Whilst all of this was going on, I received a message through the blog from a person called Halani Foulsham, she said she had been bereaved and wanted to talk. So we did, after several times of rescheduling due to various issues. When we spoke Halani was very open and passionate about talking more about suicide and reducing the stigma. She founded Thought Climber, which is a new interactive, creative journal to help those bereaved by suicide.

Putting it together

After doing more interviews than I can count, many of which unfortunately won’t make the final article due to word restrictions, I then started to put the entire project together.

The 1500 word article was put together initially in just one afternoon. It almost wrote itself. Since then though, I think I’ve written about 100 drafts!

The video element took some time to put together, as did the audio part (with Jonny Benjamin). Over a few weeks I fine tweaked the pieces to the point that I’m happy with them.

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I also created a survey to get some primary research for the project, which gave some very interesting results (view the results here).

Meanwhile, I’ve been updating the blog, social media, creating interactive timelines/infographics and doing all the (slightly boring) admin!

Changing my perspective

The experience has completely changed my perspective on how I view a person who dies by suicide. It’s changed the language I use too, I learnt that saying someone ‘committed’ suicide implies it’s a crime (from before the Suicide Act, 1961) and I now don’t use that phrase as it adds to the stigma around suicide. (learn more about that here)

Breakthrough

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Ben Bradshaw MP.

But then, suddenly a big moment. I needed a firm news angle for the article so I had been closely following the Health Select Committee inquiry into suicide prevention and postvention.

Ben Bradshaw MP, who is part of the committee, agreed to talk to me and he exclusively revealed that the committee strongly feel there isn’t enough after-care for those bereaved by suicide, meaning they will be recommending new measures that may even include more funding.

The week after, the committee’s interim report was released and I frantically got back into contact with many of my interviewees to get their reaction to the report.

After that, it was a case of getting everything together and putting it on buzz.bournemouth.ac.uk so my tutors can look at it and decided what grade it’s worth.

Thank you if have supported this project and/or read the blogs. I really appreciate it. I hope you enjoy the finished project.

Remember, it’s coming on January 12th 2017.

Follow the investigation on Twitter and Facebook for regular updates.

 

 

INTERACTIVE MAP: Find a suicide bereavement support group near you

Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS) are a charity who provide support groups around the country for people bereaved by suicide.

If you’ve been bereaved in this way, a support group may help you to try and move past your tragedy by talking it through with others in the same situation.

They don’t work for everyone, but here’s an interactive map so you can find a SOBS group near you…

 

(Map replicated and edited from http://uk-sobs.org.uk/)

Behind the article – the interviewees (part 2)

Time for part two of the blog looking into the interviewees making The Forgotten Survivors investigation possible.

(If you missed part one, read it here)

For the project so far, you’ve seen blogs on meeting Lin and going to Maytree to film the video element. Here’s a look at some more interviewees likely joining Lin in the written piece…

Members of Parliament

Several MPs have been interviewed so far in the investigation.

Conservative MPs Charles Walker and Oliver Colvile have given an insight into whether our new Prime Minister Theresa May will be looking to further fund suicide prevention and postvention in the UK.

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Kevan Jones MP making a speech about defeating depression in January 2016. Picture from: Flikr Creative Commons

Labout MP Kevan Jones also exclusively spoke to The Forgotten Survivors investigation about his own battle with depression in a revealing interview.

All of the MPs spoke of their concern about the lack of support for bereaved families after suicide. Find out if they think the government will fund support in the full investigation – coming soon.

A charity’s perspective

I also recently spoke to Jessica Snape, a Suicide Prevention Advisor from Papyrus, a charity working to prevent young suicide in the UK. Jessica spoke in depth about the people who call the HOPELine at Papyrus looking for help with their mental health illness.

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An individual’s view

In the final part of this behind the article post, we are going to look at the incredible story of Dorset resident Paul Scates.

Paul had problems with his mental health from a young age. He was abused by a friend of the family and both his father and grandmother had psychosis, which was passed down to him.

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Paul Scates presenting his documentary ‘Life With Hyperhidrosis’. Picture from: YouTube

After attempting to take his own life in at the age of 16 by jumping from a first floor window, he was left with a broken back.

Now years on, he is self-medicating with his diet and fitness routine. Paul works as a motivational coach and alongside the NHS helping people who are feeling suicidal.

During the interview, Paul was incredibly passionate about mental health, as well as suicide prevention and postvention. He spoke of the importance of a support network and called for more funding to help the bereaved families left behind after suicide.

Paul is a remarkable man with an amazing story which has led him to now helping others on a daily basis.

Keep your eyes on www.theforgottensurvivors.com to see part three of this post, plus more from behind the article.

Make sure to follow @TheFSurvivors to keep up with everything to do with the Forgotten Survivors investigation.

A big step: meeting Lin

In a big step for the investigation – I met Lin – a woman bereaved by suicide four years ago.

This was my first face-to-face meeting with a forgotten survivor of suicide.

Lin wishes to stay anonymous (other than her first name), due to the media coverage in a national newspaper causing her great distress in the aftermath of her husband’s suicide.

Lin exclusively revealed that she received no emotional or financial support following her husband’s death.

She spoke about her husband and how his financial issues led to him taking his own life.

In an emotional interview, Lin demanded more support for bereaved families after suicide.

The project has now become very real after facing a woman left with nearly nothing.

Read more about Lin’s journey from being “cross” at her husband’s decision to take his own life, to understanding his mental illness in the full investigation – coming soon.

 

Suicide in the news – Week 1

On The Forgotten Survivors blog, there will be a weekly post summing up a few of the news stories related to suicide. Here’s week 1…

Social networking site Instagram have added a new suicide prevention app which lets users anonymously report worrying posts that they see on the site.

This is a major development in moving to breakdown the stigma around suicide and could get support to thousands of people in need.

Read more about the new Instagram tool here.

Also in the news there is a harrowing report about a mother who took her own life just one year after her son committed suicide. Stories like this really highlight the need for a conversation around how bereaved families are treated after their traumatic event. The Forgotten Survivors investigation will be starting that exact conversation.

Read more on the report from the inquest here.

The final story is international, as it has been revealed that young Chinese women are taking their own lives at an alarming rate. China is the only country in the world with a higher suicide rate for women than men.

Read the report here.

Check back here next week for more news reports related to suicide and it’s forgotten survivors.

 

The pitch, the handout and the project

The Forgotten Survivors investigation was given the official go-ahead on Wednesday 19th October.

Here’s an outline of the project from my handout for my pitch, made for a newspaper format…

ANGLE

There are growing calls for more action, in terms of support for the families of suicide victims. Support will be in all guises and will be refined further through my interviews, whether that be more professional staff or funding.

WHY?

In the UK one person dies every 90 minutes from suicide. From a single person that takes their own life, 60 people are bereaved. Spouses, children and family members are left behind. In the media and society, we are starting to talk more about suicide. But there’s something that we aren’t talking about: the forgotten survivors of suicide.

ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS

  • My interviews will be at times sensitive; therefore, I will follow various guidelines on reporting suicide from the World Health Organisation, the Samaritans and Editors Code of Practice.
  • I have spoken in depth with suicide expert Ann Luce on reporting responsibly on this topic, being sensitive with interviews and respecting anonymity. I will also be talking to my supervisor about how to approach the interviews appropriately.

TARGET MARKET

  • The Guardian newspaper due to their extensive coverage of mental health and suicide.
  • The Guardian is known to left wing and liberal, meaning this style of article asking for change in the system will be welcomed by their progressive audience.
  • I have found something unique that they aren’t covering.

INTERVIEWEES

  • Two case studies of families members who have lost loved ones to suicide.
  • Mental health experts and charities – including Paprus.
  • Four MPs – including Kevan Jones and Charles Walker who will talk about their own mental health issues and the funding for bereaved families.
  • Two people who have tried to take their own lives who are now working to prevent suicide.
  • All of these interviews are either completed or booked for the coming weeks.

MULTIMEDIA ELEMENTS

  • Audio – Two people who have felt suicidal/tried to take their own lives, getting their perspectives on whether suicide is selfish or cowardly. Relating it back to their families.
  • Video – Inside the suicide sanctuary at Maytree (London). Where suicidal people go for help.
  • Online – Engage the public and ask for their stories, as well as a poll to get audience views.
  • Blog – Updates on progress, info graphics and news on the topic, with links to ‘The Forgotten Survivors’ social media accounts I have created.

Welcome to ‘The Forgotten Survivors’ blog

One in three people are bereaved by suicide, but we aren’t doing enough to support them. This is an exclusive investigation into what more we can do for families bereaved by suicide.

Do we have the resources? Let’s find out.

On this blog you will find news, views and facts on suicide prevention and bereavement.

You will also find updates and developments to the project, as well as a behind the scenes look at interview snippets.

Enjoy.