I had no clue my bright and funny brother would take his own life, says Dr Alex GeorgeJanuary 17, 2021
I WAS at a restaurant when I found out. My dad called me and immediately I could tell something was wrong, something bad had happened.
I asked him who had passed away.
What came next was the most indescribable physical pain I’ve ever felt.
He told me my youngest brother Llyr had died, and he’d taken his own life at the age of 19. In that moment my world fell apart, it came down around me. It shattered.
So, to be told today — Blue Monday — is the most depressing day of the year . . . that is hard to believe. There have been so many in the past year.
What it does give us is a good opportunity to talk about the way we view and treat young people’s mental health.
I’ve advocated the cause for two years now and earlier this month, I wrote directly to Boris Johnson.
I asked the Prime Minister to prioritise and change mental health education and provision for young people across the UK.
Last week, No10 reached out to me and opened the door to begin discussions, which I hope will pave the way for new legislation and permanent change to the way mental health is approached in schools for ever.
Losing Llyr last July has only served to strengthen my resolve.
He was bright, talented, funny, empathetic, good-looking and just weeks away from starting medical school.
Dr Alex’s demands
- Support services and counsellor access at schools
- Student and teacher referral counselling for every primary and secondary school-aged child in the country
- Increase in resources and funding for mental health education and provision
- Regional mental health leads funded by local government, not from education budgets
- Curriculum reform to include weekly mental health lessons alongside other subjects
- University reform to teach trainee teachers how to deliver mental health education
- Regional support services for teachers to access mental health help themselves
- Development of peer-to-peer mental health support for secondary school children
STIGMA AND SHAME
We had plenty in common. He was a mini-me — obsessed with science, desperate to make a difference in the NHS and we shared a passion for cars and motorcycles.
He would have been a credit to my profession and to society. He was one of the good guys.
But still in his teens, with no diagnosed prior history of a mental health condition, he took his own life, leaving our family shattered and irrevocably changed.
On paper, Llyr didn’t look like someone who might have a mental health condition but that’s the rub — there’s no “type” when it comes to mental health and suicide.
It doesn’t follow the trajectory of conditions like pneumonia or broken bones. Each and every person who experiences poor mental health is unique. Not once did Llyr tell me how he was feeling. I’m a doctor, we were very close, he knew I was a mental health advocate and hugely passionate about it.
We spoke and messaged constantly and still he kept how he was feeling to himself. That tells you everything about the sense of stigma and shame we still have attached to mental health issues in this country.
His is not an isolated case. I see so many people in A&E who have fortunately failed at a suicide attempt or who have come in because they’ve self-harmed. When I ask, as a medic, “Who have you spoken to about how you feel?” almost all of them tell me I’m the first and only person they’ve talked to about it.
Like so many others, despite being from a loving, close family, Llyr thought we and the world would be better off without him in it. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.
As he was so desperate to be a doctor, we are looking into starting a scholarship in his name so other medics get to fulfil the dream he had. And while I’ve been a loud mental health advocate for a few years now, the past six months and my own personal experiences have made me even more determined to change the way children and young people access mental health support.
Two years ago, I met with then-PM Theresa May on World Mental Health Day to discuss how we could get better provision in schools. Since then, I have spent thousands of hours talking to mental health patients, advocates, charities, experts, psychologists, teachers and, most recently, the Government about what we can do differently so as few families as possible have to live with what mine do.
Statistics show one in six young people are dealing with a mental health condition. That has increased from one in nine over recent years. The suicide rate in young people has increased and every 90 minutes, a life is lost to suicide. If you read this paper cover to cover, in that time someone will have taken their own life. We have a duty of care as a society and we have to act now.
POWERLESS TO HELP
I speak to teachers and heads constantly who tell me first-hand they want to help their kids but they don’t have the resources, support or time. They can see what is happening and how kids are suffering but feel powerless to help.
The Government’s budget for mental health provision in schools increased by four per cent last year and they have vowed to have mental health leads in a quarter of schools by 2023. Yet while changes are happening, they are not happening fast enough to keep pace with demand.
Global research has found giving schoolkids access to mental health support increases attendance and improves grades. If we start taking care of children and young people now, I might start seeing fewer suicide attempts on my shifts. It is that simple.
Anna Freud’s National Centre for Children and Families has created a curriculum to teach mental health in schools. They’ve spent time and money researching it, trialling it and have even worked on how it can be integrated into the current curriculum. This isn’t a problem that doesn’t have a cure.
We have everything we need to change mental health in this country. We just have to want it badly enough.
The provision doesn’t stop with children, though. I’ve spoken to countless teachers across generations who have all told me they aren’t taught at university about young people’s mental health. We show our teachers how to do everything else and we need the change to happen at universities so the next generation of teachers are going into the classroom as equipped to teach mental health as they are to teach maths, English and science. There is a generation of children who are going to be affected by what has happened in the past 12 months. While the pandemic and school closures have seen mental health issues exacerbated in classrooms, it’s something I’m seeing on every shift too.
New research out last week suggests half of all ICU staff on Covid wards are suffering mental health conditions, ranging from anxiety to PTSD. One in eight staff are struggling with alcohol abuse.
There is a palpable difference on shifts, with everyone’s stress levels high. We need to ease the pressure on the NHS as staff at all levels — from porters to nurses to consultants — are struggling to cope.
I’ve seen unspeakable things during this pandemic that won’t ever leave me. No medic anywhere in the country wants to leave vulnerable elderly people in an ambulance for two hours while they find a bed but that’s a reality a lot of us face every shift because of the pressures we are under. The clapping in the summer that was reinstated recently is lovely. It is great to know we have the support of the country in what we are facing, day after day, and that sense of community both in the NHS and the wider country helps.
But we also need people to wash their hands, keep their distance from others and wear a face mask. It really is life or death.
Despite what the NHS is facing at the moment, I’ve never wanted to be anything other than a doctor. It’s the best job in the world as far as I’m concerned and I worked hard to get here. But proper access to mental health provision for children and young people is a cause I won’t stop pursuing until real changes are made.
The frustrating part is that it’s so fixable. We know what works for mental health, we just need better access and education for everyone. If that means I have to go into politics to get it done from the ground up, I’ll do it. I will keep making a noise about this until things change.
If it had been taught when I was at school, things would be different for so many families — including ours maybe.
I miss being brothers with Llyr and while I’ve always been a mental health advocate, losing him galvanised the passion I have for it.
Getting that phone call from my dad to tell me was the most indescribable physical pain I’ve ever felt. There’s nothing like it, so any way I can stop other families going through what we did is worth it.
Llyr is always in my head, it’s like a little black box — always there. Every now and then you open the box, then you close it.
That pain will be there for the rest of my life but at some point I hope I’ll learn to live alongside it.
Whatever you’re feeling on Blue Monday, make sure you take some time to check in on loved ones. I most definitely will be.
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