‘Passionate about mental health. And suicide’ by Ben Scanlan (Sport, 2004-2009)

‘Passionate about mental health. And suicide’

by Ben Scanlan (Sport, 2004-2009)

I sat about 12 inches from Prince William, across from Kate, and they were listening, intently, to what I was saying. This, surely, is one of those moments that make life worth living, that make everything worthwhile. Many parts of me wish I'd never gotten to meet them. Never heard of a place called Maytree, as to be honest, going there isn't on any teenager’s bucket list. A lot of you will be confused. Welcome, in part, to my world, as I sit here and write, I am incredibly passionate about mental health. And Suicide. Male suicide in particular.


Ben (top left) at Maytree with HRH Prince William and Kate, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge


I can't not be. My father killed himself when I was 17, and I made a half decent fist of running away and just factoiding it for over a decade. There were many slips - lots of which were in Durham - but generally I held it together and pretended I didn’t care. Then I really cared, tried to kill myself and ended up in The Priory for a couple of months. Then I shovelled pills down my neck again, and went back for another 3 weeks. I care about suicide as I don't feel I can ever escape it. The spectre of my father’s death has made it permissible, and that is a bond that I'm not sure I can break. I have tried to be 'normal', whatever that actually means. I've tried to live a corporate life, I've tried to be one of the lads, I've tried to pretend to everybody and I that I'm fine. As that's what normal is, isn't it? Being fine. Except I'm not fine. I'm racked with guilt about friendships that have withered, not least from Cuth’s Bar, where once it felt like everybody knew my name. I'm racked with guilt that I can't bring myself to reach out, as I'm filled with fear. Fear of being judged, fear of being shit company, fear of not being fun enough and not being Scans. Scans was an act. I'm petrified of being rejected. And the best way to ensure that rejection doesn't enter my world? To minimise the interactions with people whose rejection I can't tolerate.

I learnt a lesson about a month ago. I'm studying again (five years at Durham, one year at UCL, now in the second of four at Regent's) and in a small group exercise I was sat next to one of the two people I've made any sort of connection with. I'd been trying to find them over lunch to help print some work, and I'd text them "where??????". Except my friend is a Mac person, and opened their laptop, and it hadn't sync'd up. So up flashed my message. Under the name "Ben Annoying". There was a time, not that long ago, that I would have gone to the pub, on my own, and gotten drunk to try and forget the pain. There was a time - and to be honest, I'm as surprised as anybody it didn't happen - when I'd have reached for the stockpile of pills I have habitually kept in case. Now I didn't. I was upset. I felt betrayed. I sat with those feelings and wondered about the term annoying. I'm atrocious at keeping in contact with people - Ben Frustrating or Ben Absent or Ben AWOL. I can be horrifically dismissive of people - Ben Narcissistic or Ben Flippant. I can be forceful to the point of bullying - Ben Angry or Ben Overbearing. I'm not sure I can be described as annoying. Not really. So I've come some distance, the whole not being suicidal thing. That's one reason I'm passionate about suicide.  

The other reason is the fact it's not just my father and me who are seduced (totally in his case, partially in mine) by the thought of ending life with one’s own hand. Thirteen people will kill themselves in the UK today. Over six thousand people will kill themselves in the UK this year; that's over half the undergraduate population of Durham. Three quarters of those deaths will be men. You may be thinking that, actually, it's quite a small number. It is if you compare it to the number of tube journeys annually, or the population as a whole. On the other hand, it's more than the number of people who will die due to guns. Or drugs. Or cars in one shape or other. All three of those. Combined. A colleague of mine is a passionate campaigner about domestic violence, and an advocate that any domestic violence should be treated harshly due to the amount of deaths suffered as an escalation of domestic violence. This sort of campaigning has gained momentum, and I think that's an amazing thing, as it is a problem. Two women a week will die at the hands of a partner or an ex-lover. That is horrendous. But suicide is a far more common problem, yet nobody really talks about it. Well, nobody did talk about it. Last year I was really privileged to be involved with a BBC3 documentary about suicide hosted by a guy called Stephen Mandeson, who lost his father to suicide also. There were two other high profile documentaries about suicide, and a ‘Panorama’ last year. People are beginning to talk about suicide. It is difficult. Talking about suicide prompts so many existential questions, at least for me, that are quite scary. What is life about? Am I living a good life? What comes next? If nothing is next, then what's the point? What is the point? Seriously, what is the point? Talking about suicide in relation to somebody we know can be even more harrowing.

We base disbelief on the external reality that somebody portrays via social media, the way they are, the way others perceive them. That external perception, I believe, is so very distant to the internal world which lots of us inhabit and it's that disjoint that's the problem. Feeling depressed, feeling sad, feeling unhappy - they are all natural states that one needs to experience in order to live fully. It's just that modern society has it that we have to look a million dollars, with a perfect smile, a perfect job that we love and earn six figures while still finding time to play sports, run marathons, maintain a social circle fit for a French monarch, be in a relationship that is amazing and fun. And we must be positive and happy all the fucking time as otherwise the world will implode and somebody will defriend you on Facebook. Modern life is issuous. I lost another friend, I think in part due to Facebook. I was meant to go to an engagement party, the day after a completely separate birthday. On the day of the engagement, I was so racked up with anxiety and the suicidal urges were so strong that I didn't feel safe enough to travel by either tube or train, as they're now my preferred choice. So I bailed. But I also heard that the happy couple weren't happy as they knew I'd been fine the night before. At the birthday party I'd smiled and looked great for a family photograph, and then not five minutes later had to beat a hasty retreat home after walking onto a roof top bar and just being consumed by this urge to leap off - quickly leap off - as that was the only sensible thing to do.  

Yet the photo said I was happy, so therefore I must be just not putting in the effort in. It's hard to put more effort into others when just about every ounce of effort is going in to not killing yourself. And that's another issue around mental health and suicide - everybody experiences it differently. With a broken leg, you hear a crack, experience pain and dizziness, and then six-eight weeks later you are fixed but need some physio. Depression.... Well. Everybody is different. I can only really speak from my own experience, and of those I've encountered. I have days, weeks, when I don't feel depressed. Not at all. And then something will come along, kick me in the bollocks and drag me back. Meeting the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge did that. I was elated and ecstatic beforehand. Afterwards I tried to play it how I think it should be played, but who on earth am I to get to meet them and offer up some words about issues surrounding suicide? I felt like such a fraud, so guilty that it was me and not other ex-guests of Maytree, not other Cuth's alumni, not other friends who would no longer call me a friend and who are probably far better, more deserving citizens. Yet on the pictures, I look happy, right? I was happy in that moment. The guilt came later.

Suicide can be combatted: talk about it. Treat suicide in the same way Harry Potter treats the name Voldemort... Don't give it power by refusing to acknowledge it. Speak it. Empower others to speak it; to own up to their darkest demons.

- Ben Scanlan

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