Writer Jonny Sharples on the loss of his brother Simon, and what needs to be done
There was a time in my life when waking up on a Sunday morning to a few missed calls was the sign of a good night; whichever one of your friends had sobered up enough first to tell you the embarrassing stories of the night before, and to check your head and your heart were both feeling okay.
Sunday morning missed calls from your friends when you’re in your early twenties are one thing, Sunday morning missed calls from your parents and your sister when you’re in your late twenties are something far different.
There were four or five of them when I looked at my phone on the morning of Sunday, 21st December 2014 – a couple from my mum and dad’s house phone, a couple more from my sister’s landline. The next time it rang, my sister again, I answered. They wouldn’t ring, and keep ringing, if it wasn’t important. I said hello and from the other end I heard the two words that changed my life, and changed everything, forever; “Simon’s died”.
She said more, but I can’t remember what that might have been. My mind fixated on those words, but there was something she didn’t say; how my brother had died. But she didn’t need to – my last few conversations, meetings, and interactions with him raced through my mind and then everything suddenly fell into place – Simon had taken his own life.
Simon was 36 at the time of his death and he was, on the surface, completely normal. He liked to watch football (Preston North End were his team), play golf (although I’m not sure of his handicap), listen to music (mostly Green Day and Foo Fighters) and go to the pub – drinking warm and overly carbonated lager with his friends. Whenever he was doing those things, he always seemed to be happy, always seemed to be having a great time – smiling and laughing. His smile was always the first thing you would notice about him, it’s always the first thing I think about now, but behind that smile there must have been more going on – perhaps when he was away from the match or the golf course or the pub, away from his friends and his family, he was hurting and struggling in ways that it pains me still to imagine.
And yet, it’s a struggle that many men are faced with each year and a pain that many other families are left with. It was only after Simon’s death that I came to learn just how common suicide was in the United Kingdom, especially among men, where it is the biggest killer of those under the age of 45. On average, 12 men take their own lives each day in the UK – 84 each and every week.
To many, the number 84 doesn’t sound very big – we live in a world where musicians are selling thousands of records each week and footballers are switching clubs for transfer fees into the tens of millions every year – but the breadth of the issue was highlighted in March when, with the help of CALM, 84 mannequins made their way to top of the ITV offices and This Morning studios. The visual representation of the true scale of men’s suicide in the United Kingdom was striking, with #Project84 trending on Twitter and photographs being shared across Instagram and Facebook.
The impact was heightened further by the knowledge that each one of the 84 mannequins on London’s South Bank represented a real man lost to suicide, each with a story to tell and each with a network of friends and family left behind in the aftermath of a life lost. Once that is considered, the number 84 becomes much bigger – every one of those men is a son. Some were fathers, some were husbands or boyfriends, others brothers, others uncles, many of them friends. Simon was, at one time or another, all of those things – and a mannequin representing him stood proudly on top of the This Morning studio not only as the symbol of a life lost but also as a beacon of hope, and of lessons learned and those still to be learned.
CALM, the charity behind Project84, invited me to go to London to help create Simon’s mannequin and to be part of an amazing initiative using my brother’s story to try and help other men that may be struggling in the same way he was. When you lose somebody, not just to suicide but to anything, you often think that you will never get to create new memories with them – in creating and crafting a mannequin out of sticky tape, I had the opportunity to have a new memory that Simon was, in some senses, a part of. And if one person saw the figures on top of the ITV studios or read Simon’s story on the Project84 website and reached out to their friends or their family, or to CALM, then that’s another person that can create real memories with their loved ones.
And CALM are here to keep these men around – they are aiming to reduce male suicide, they run a telephone line for people to ring when they are struggling and a webchat service that offers the same. They offer help and support to the families left behind and bereaved by suicide. And they campaign for a change in our culture; one where we redefine masculinity and make a society where men feel more able to be open and honest about their innermost thoughts and feelings. If Simon knew about CALM and knew there were people out there who would listen to him, and perhaps if Simon felt comfortable and able to speak about whatever was going on in his life, then he would still be here – still watching Preston lose, still hitting golf balls in bunkers, still listening to Green Day, still drinking Fosters. Making new memories that aren’t just confined to rolls of sticky tape. Maybe even ones that result in Sunday-morning missed calls.
Words by Jonny Sharples
FOR HELP AND ADVICE ON MENTAL HEALTH:
- ‘Am I depressed?’ – Help and advice on mental health and what to do next
- YOUNG MINDS – The voice for young people’s health and wellbeing
- CALM – The Campaign Against Living Miserably for young men
- Time To Change – Let’s end mental health discrimination
- The Samaritans – Confidential support 24 hours a day
Project 84 aims to raise awareness of the causes of male suicide as well as calling for more ministerial responsibility.
“Suicide claims the lives of more than 6,000 British men and women every year and is the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK,” reads CALM’s petition. “Every single suicide directly affects 135 people – people like me, people like you. Beyond this unimaginable emotional cost, every single suicide costs an estimated £1.67 million – a cost to families, friends and wider society.
“Yet no minister in the UK government is officially responsible for suicide prevention and bereavement support. No minister is mandated to represent the thousands of people every year who feel like suicide is their only option, or the hundreds of thousands of bereaved families whose lives will never be the same again. “
They added: “It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s time to take a stand.”