When her 22-year-old son Steven began having difficulty with his thoughts – worrying where he was going with his life – like any mum, Pam Hemingway was supportive. She listened to his fears and was there for him, thinking that in time he would be fine. Then one weekend in March 2009, everything changed.
Pam (58) from Gateshead explains: “Steven and I were sitting in the garden on the Saturday before Mother’s Day. Suddenly he said, ‘Happy Mother’s Day,’ and gave me a hug. I laughed, saying, ‘That’s not until tomorrow,’ to which he replied, ‘I just thought I’d say it today’. Steven seemed fine, and very much himself. There was no indication that anything was wrong.”
The next day Steven wasn’t at home, but Pam wasn’t concerned. Later when his friends called round she chatted with them, and kept saying he would turn up soon. “Steven was 22 and an adult who came and went as he pleased,” she says.
“I wasn’t worried. But then one of his friends asked if he could go in my garage. I was surprised and asked why? He was quite insistent, having noticed that Steven’s shoes were in the porch. I agreed, although I still thought the request was odd. But then we opened the garage and saw Steven. We knew he was dead, and realised immediately what had happened.”
The subject of suicide, particularly in men, has been in the news recently, following the death of actor Robin Williams.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says in 2015 in Europe suicide will be linked to more deaths than HIV/Aids, heart disease and road injuries. It is also the most common cause of death in men under 35, and in the UK men are more than three times more likely to die from suicide than women, according to the Samaritans.
‘There is still a way to go to get rid of the stigma attached to suicide’
During the months following Steven’s death, Pam got through each day by keeping busy and trying to get on with her life. She made regular visits to the crematorium, but felt so low she was often unsure how she got there. Meanwhile she was also supporting her younger son Stuart, and Steven’s friends – all of whom were devastated.
“For the first year I was simply coping with my grief and the loss of my son,” says Pam. “At that point I didn’t question how Steven had died, I wasn’t interested. All I knew was that he’d gone. Accepting that was a big enough thing to deal with, without looking at how it had happened. But later I felt that I needed to look into his death in more detail. I didn’t want to, it still seemed irrelevant, but I eventually began searching online for information about suicide.”
The search led Pam to discover PAPYRUS, a national charity dedicated to the prevention of young suicide.
“They were very supportive,” says Pam. “They were the first people I really talked to. Previously I would often walk away if someone raised the subject of what happened to Steven. But the charity helped build my understanding and awareness of suicide and strengthened my ability to speak openly about it.
“When I discovered that suicide is the main cause of death in young people under 35, and that every year in the UK between 600 and 800 youngsters aged 15-24 take their own lives, I was shocked. Those statistics hit me hard, and made me want to do something to help others in my position. Generally I’m the sort of person who finds it harder to do nothing than to be getting on with something, so I knew this was the way forward.”
‘Every year in the UK between 600 and 800 youngsters aged 15 to 24 take their own lives’
Pam – who works as an executive recruiter and career coach – realised immediately that it was vital to raise awareness of the issue, increase education, and also reduce the stigma attached to losing someone to suicide. She started meeting with various people including doctors, carers and teachers, explaining the importance of being sensitive to the trauma experienced by those who lose a family member or friend to suicide. Now a trustee of PAPYRUS, Pam gives talks in colleges, fundraises, and has set up a group of volunteers in the north east who share her vision.
“I think we’re helping people to understand more about suicide through education and by increasing awareness of it,” says Pam.
“However, we still have a way to go when it comes to getting rid of the stigma. Years ago no one would mention the word ‘cancer’, but now it is spoken about freely, and I want suicide to be the same.
“Young people are much more willing to talk about it, but we are not yet there with the older generations – many of whom have suicide incidents in their families, but feel unable to discuss the topic. That has to change.
“I’m not ashamed of how Steven died. Why should I be? I remain proud of my son, and I think he would be proud of what I’m doing now. In the last few years I’ve learned a lot about suicide and recognising the signs, but I cannot change what happened to Steven.
“Suicide is something that everyone needs to be aware of, learn more about and discuss openly and freely. That is my hope for the future.”
- For more about PAPYRUS call HOPELineUK on 0800 068 4141.
- PAPYRUS HOPEWalk 2014 takes place across the UK in October to combat stigma around suicide. For details visit www.papyrus-uk.org
- World Suicide Prevention Day is on September 10.