Published: 05:00, 06 December 2021
| Updated: 11:09, 24 December 2021
Three mothers who lost children to suicide in the run-up to last Christmas have told their tragic stories in a bid to encourage others to seek help.
By sharing their experiences, they hope to break the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide, encourage people to have difficult, but potentially life-saving conversations, and urge people not to suffer in silence...
'It could happen to anybody'
Lucas Webb, a "creative and talented" schoolboy from Barham, near Canterbury, took his own life shortly before Christmas last year.
Aged 16, Lucas was a pupil at Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys and had his sights set on Oxbridge - a "caring, handsome and unbelievably witty" teenager who adored all things science.
But last December, he told his family he was going out for a bike ride and never came home.
"We had no idea he was depressed," says his mum, Alison. "No idea.
"It's something I never, ever thought we would have to contemplate. Lucas was a really optimistic person and he had a bright future."
Last September, Lucas had been excited for sixth form and the new-found freedoms that would go along with it.
But the pandemic depleted the social side of school that Lucas had so enjoyed and he was forced to self-isolate at home on two consecutive occasions, after classmates tested positive for Covid.
His parents have since discovered he began struggling with "immense pressure" to keep up with remote learning.
And as school work piled up, the "diligent" pupil began falling behind on deadlines.
"Suicide is almost always a very complicated situation - a cluster of events or situations that conspire together," says Alison.
"Having said that, had we not had lockdown and Covid, Lucas would still be here, and I'm absolutely certain of that."
Lucas's death saw his family's life turn "from perfection to devastation" in minutes, and a year on from the tragedy, they are moving from the home in which he grew up.
"It was just too painful to be here and to be surrounded by all of those reminders," says Alison.
She and Lucas's father are also divorcing after almost 23 years of marriage.
"My husband and I quickly realised that we just remind each other of something that we're never going to get back," she said.
"So it affects everything. It's been really, really hard."
Alison had never imagined Lucas would take his own life.
"People have to understand that it could happen to anybody," she said.
"And God, I never thought it would be us. I'd go as far as to say I was probably even a little bit smug."
Alison urges people to seek help "as soon as desperation or hopelessness creeps in".
"Don't just wait for the next stick to land on the pile to make the load heavier," she said.
She says people must also learn when to speak out if someone confides in them about their own struggles.
Messages found on Lucas's computer after his death show he had discussed taking his own life with many friends.
"They felt they couldn't say anything because they were telling his secret," explains Alison.
Lucas' family has raised more than £12,000 for charity YoungMinds, to help create school resources to show children when it is right to raise the alarm.
To donate, click here.
'Have difficult conversations'
Sukina Fagg describes "her daughter as a "kind, sassy, bossy, beautiful girl”.
Emilia Marsh - who worked at Canterbury Academy and was known as Millie - tragically took her own life at her family's home in Boughton-under-Blean, near Faversham, on November 3 last year, at the age of just 20.
"She was just the most amazing person," says her mum.
Sukina describes the year since Millie's death as "horrific".
"People say there are ripples from losing somebody," she said.
"When you lose someone to suicide, there's a tidal wave. It affects everybody. Millie's friends, sisters, me, her dad.
"I'm a completely different person to the one I was on November 2, 2020."
Sukina worries that people in the county are let down by "lacking" mental health services.
"In my opinion there needs to be a whole overview of mental health services in Kent," she said.
"Because it's absolutely lacking, particularly with young services.
"We're losing children, young adults, older adults, men, everybody, at colossal rates."
But Sukina stresses there are "amazing" organisations across the county that offer help.
Since Millie's death, Sukina has learned of and raised money for many charities she was not aware of when her daughter was struggling with anxiety and depression.
She attends a monthly bereavement group in Canterbury run by charity SOBS - Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide - which has groups across the UK.
She also encourages people to make use of organisations such as Samaritans.
"I've been taken to the depths of despair since losing Millie," she said. "I know that sometimes you don't want to talk to somebody you know.
"Sometimes you can't see a way out, but talking to a stranger who's trained can really help.
"Tell people how you're feeling. Don't keep it to yourself."
Sukina also urges parents to speak to their children about mental wellbeing.
"Don't shy away from having that conversation," she said.
"It can be really difficult as a parent to hear that your child is having thoughts about ending their life, but by having that conversation you could save it.
"If you've got a child you're worried about, reach out to charities like Papyrus and Young Minds and get support, ask them how you can help."
She adds: "My biggest message to anyone struggling is that you are enough.
"You make someone happy, even if you don't feel like you do. And they want you here."
'Don't feel ashamed'
Marie O'Leary lost her 22-year-old son, Aaron, on December 17 last year.
She says her son had battled mental illness but resisted seeking medical help, instead attempting to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.
"He did struggle," says Marie, from Hersden.
"But unfortunately he'd never go for the proper assessments. I don't know if he felt embarrassed or ashamed."
Since losing Aaron, Marie has struggled with her own mental health and hasn't felt able to go back to work.
"It feels like your heart's broken," she said.
"You've almost got to create a new life without that loved one in it, but you can't.
"I actually feel like I have a limb missing. I have completely changed. I've got a lot quieter."
Marie says the stigma surrounding mental illness must be broken.
"Mental health is being so overlooked," she said.
"This is a bad time of year for so many people. Don't be afraid to say how you feel, because it doesn't mean you're weak. Just please reach out.
"Talk to anybody, whether it's family, friends or professional people.
"And if people are struggling, please don't do drink or drugs because it makes everything so much worse."
'There is hope'
"There is a light at the end of the tunnel," implores a dad-of-three who himself attempted suicide seven years ago.
In 2014, John Nicholson was working a high-pressure job in the City of London when he made an attempt on his life.
"There were life pressures, work pressures, commuting pressures, " recalls John, 54, from Herne Bay.
"I had my wife and children, and they had no idea how ill I was.
"I woke up on the morning of September 7, 2014, very much wanting to end everything."
But thankfully a door slamming in an upstairs room of his home jolted him, and he abandoned his attempt.
"I just lay on the floor crying my eyes out," he said.
John returned to work as if nothing had happened.
But a few days later he collapsed with chest pains caused by stress, and was signed off work for three months.
John made the brave step of reaching out to his loved ones and friends, and began talking about his mental health struggles.
He left his job and trained as a driving instructor and today runs The Community Driving School - a community interest company helping give disadvantaged people invaluable access to driving lessons - which he says has given him "a purpose".
John says it is vital for people to discuss mental wellbeing, to help break the stigma surrounding it.
He advises: "Always ask good friends how they're feeling twice.
"And actually listen to the response, and listen to what they're not saying."
To those struggling as he was seven years ago, he says: "It's vitally important that you see that while you're in that dark place, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
"You might not see it yet, but there is one there.
"I now know that no matter how bad things can seem and things are in your life, you can overcome it. It is possible.
"Although the path you're treading may seem a long one, it may seem a lonely and a dark one, you're not alone. Reach out to people.
"You might not see those people next to you, but they're there."
'Please reach out'
The sister of a 16-year-old who took her own life in 2020 urges people to seek help.
Spires Academy schoolgirl Lucy Fagg - described by her family as “the sweetest, most kind-hearted girl in the world” - tragically died at Sturry train station last year.
Her sister Sophie, 20, says: "It is so incredibly heartbreaking that so many families are still being broken through suicide, and I’m afraid that if serious changes aren’t made very soon then that number will continue to grow."
To those who find themselves in a desperate situation, she says: "Our emotions are not fixed, they are ever changing.
"What we are feeling now will be different to what we felt yesterday and will be different to what we feel tomorrow.
"There is a way out, and I promise you are so loved. Please seek help.
"Someone will be there to listen, we are all rooting for you to succeed."
A challenging Christmas period ahead
Charity Samaritans is expecting to receive more than 250,000 calls for help over the Christmas period.
In a bid to ensure volunteers can respond to every call, it last week launched its Be A Samaritans Christmas Star fundraising campaign.
CEO Julie Bentley said: “While many look forward to the Christmas period, at Samaritans we know this time of year can actually be a huge challenge for some people.
"Our amazing volunteers will, as they do every hour of every day, be giving their time this Christmas to anyone who needs support.
"I think that is a pretty special gift to give.
"I’m so proud of the work Samaritans does, and I know what a huge difference the service makes to people’s lives.
"So, for anyone who is struggling this Christmas time, Samaritans is here for them, for free, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”
To donate to the appeal, click here.
'Work to improve services is underway'
Kent and Medway CCG is taking steps to tackle long waiting times for mental health services.
Chief nurse Paula Wilkins said: “There has been an increase in demand for children and young people’s mental health services across the country during the pandemic and unfortunately some children and young people have had to wait to get the help they need."
Responding to concerns over "lacking" NHS mental health services in the county, she says the CCG has been "working hard to increase the amount of support for children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing".
"For example, we are addressing waiting times, for some services, by increasing the number of people to help a child or young person when they are experiencing a crisis, we’re making more online services available and we’re increasing face-to-face support in schools and colleges," she said.
“We have already delivered a booklet to every home in Kent and Medway to provide information about where to go to get support for mental wellbeing during the pandemic."
She adds that every case of suicide involving a child or young person is reviewed by the CCG, "to try and prevent further such tragedies".
“As the circumstances behind every individual life lost to suicide are different and varied it is vital that there is a co-ordinated response from the NHS, local authorities and the voluntary and community sector," she said.
“Although the numbers of suicides among children and young people remain very low, we are continuing to consider the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on children and young people’s mental well-being and how we can provide the support needed.”
Help is at hand
There are many charities both nationally and locally, dedicated to helping support people's mental wellbeing, including...
For confidential support on an emotional issue, call Samaritans on 116 123 at any time or click here.
Kent County Council's Release the Pressure service
If you want to talk to someone confidentially, click here.
Text line (24/7) 85258 or click here.
Papyrus UK Suicide Prevention
For help, click here.
For help, click here.
Kent and Medway CCG's Mental Wellbeing Information Hub
For help, click here.