Feature: ‘My brother’s suicide left my family broken’

Helen and her daughter Ella at the 10k
Helen and her daughter Ella at the 10k

For Helen Watson, the day her brother Kevin died is burned into her memory.

“He hadn’t shown up for work that morning, and his car was on the driveway but he wasn’t at home, which we thought was strange,” she recalls, casting her mind back to June 26 1984.

Helen and her daughter Ella at the 10k

Helen and her daughter Ella at the 10k

“We decided to phone the police, and actually it was them who suggested we go and walk through the woods across from the house. I ride horses so I took one of the horses out and we started combing the woods.

“I remember feeling like we were in some strange soap opera; this wasn’t something that happened to normal families like ours.

“We were out there for a couple of hours before we discovered him.”

Kevin had hanged himself, and it has always haunted his family, who had no idea the 22-year-old was in any sort of turmoil.

Suicide is the biggest killer in UK males under 45. That’s more than road traffic accidents, or cancer.

“We had no indication anything was wrong,” says the mum-of-three, shaking her head.

“I was one of the last people to see him alive, and there was nothing in that conversation that suggested what he was planning.

“Kevin was one of those young guys who seemed to have everything going for him; he was good looking, intelligent, doing well in business, a dedicated sportsman with lots of friends and a lovely girlfriend. He’d just been chosen to represent the Olympic sailing team in Holland, and had been training in Wales that week.

“No-one really knows why he did it, and that’s what always gets me about suicide; it’s so final. Everything is over in a split second, and then there are no second chances, it’s all just wiped out. It’s horrible.”

Helen and her daughter Ella at the 10k

Helen and her daughter Ella at the 10k

An eight page letter police found on his body gave some insight into his state of mind, highlighting some business worries he had, and suggesting he had become overwhelmed by a number of things.

Helen, who was just 20 at the time, describes the ‘strange’ aftermath of Kevin’s death, with her nephew’s first birthday a few days later, and her own wedding just weeks later on September 1.

“My wedding was hideous,” Helen says simply.

“The whole family was suffering, and my now ex-husband had been the one to find Kevin’s body just two months earlier, and he was still struggling with that.

Byline Nik Farah

Byline Nik Farah

“My mum was distracted while ironing my wedding dress and burned a hole through it, but I just didn’t care. We cancelled the evening reception and just went through the motions on the day. I even set off without my flowers thinking, ‘Let’s just get this done.’

“That whole period was surreal. I remember thinking that even food didn’t taste like food anymore. It was like an out of body experience, I just couldn’t comprehend what was happening. Of course this was in the days before we understood the benefit of things like counselling, we all just got on with it.”

Helen reveals the effects of Kevin’s suicide impacted the family for many years.

“My family was never the same,” says the 52 year old, who is director of Ferndale Garden Centre, in Coal Aston.

“Dad couldn’t even talk about Kevin, he found it too painful. He was a proud man and I think he saw what had happened to Kevin as his own failing, though of course it wasn’t. Years later, doctors even said Kevin’s death could well have triggered dad’s frontal lobal dementia.

“Mum aged ten years overnight. Over the years, she’s learned to live with it, and I’m very proud of her. It’s only once I became a mum myself I think I began to understand the full extent of their anguish..”

Over 30 years on from Kevin’s death, and having never previously spoken publicly about her brother, or the effects of his death, Helen decided it was time to speak out.

“I was watching my daughter Ella run last year’s London 10k and I met a girl who was weeping at the finishing line, so I went to comfort her,” says Helen.

“It turned out she was running for an amazing charity called CALM, in memory of her brother, who had died by suicide. It was like a lightbulb moment.

“I asked myself why I’d never attempted to raise any kinds of funds or awareness, and decided now was the time.

“I’d never even heard of CALM before that day and, since getting in touch with them, my eyes have really been opened. They’re wonderful people, truly caring and supportive, and the work they do is so imporant.”

CALM - Campaign Against Living Miserably - is dedicated to preventing male suicide and, according to their statistics, suicide is the biggest killer in males under 45 in the UK.

“That’s more than road traffic accidents, or cancer - truly shocking,” Helen says.

“Since I started talking about Kevin, so many people have opened up to me. One lady I’ve known for years told me she had two cousins who’d taken their own lives. Another lady sponsored me because her cousin had taken his own life.

“It’s something people don’t seem to talk about. Suicide is a threat and danger to young males, but for only £3 CALM can take their phone call and a £7 counselling session is nothing to save a life like Kevin’s.”

There were 6,117 suicides in the UK in 2015, of which 75 per cent were male. According to research carried out by CALM, only 55 per cent of males who are depressed say they would talk to someone about their feelings, compared with 67 per cent of women. The research found that men were much more likely to be feel embarrassed by their feelings, and less likely to turn to their friends. Of men under the age of 45 in the UK, 42 per cent were revealed to have contemplated taking their own life with failing at work or school, money problems, losing someone, and appearance being among the top triggers. The research also found that men are more likely to exhibit risk-taking behaviour — such as getting drunk, taking drugs, gambling excessively and driving too fast — and this is even more likely in those who have felt depressed.

Earlier this month, Helen defied medical advice to run the British London 10k in memory of Kevin, raising an incredible £2,600 for CALM.

“After running the Yorkshire half marathon in Sheffield for my friend Jaqui, who has myeloma cancer, my doctor told me he wouldn’t advise me running with my compacted lower spine, as pounding on pavements gives me issues with my feet and back. The discs in my back have worn away, which makes this kind of long distance running quite painful, but I was determined that, even if I was walking, I was doing it.

“Then, a week before the run, I fell and fractured my wrist in three places, so all in all it was a tough day, and a really emotional one too, but I never considered pulling out. I asked my family not to watch the run, as I knew it would be an emotional one for everyone, but I did do the run with my daughter, Ella, who never got to meet her uncle, but has heard so many stories from me over the years, I think she feels like she knows him.

“At the end of the day, there are so many people out there who need support, and if the money I raise can help even one person, or my speaking out maybe encourages one person to pick up the phone, who otherwise wouldn’t have, then it’s all been worth it.”

Visit Helen’s Just Giving Page to donate.

If you, or someone you know, is having a difficult time and would like to speak to someone, CALM’s helpline and webchat is open daily, from 5pm to midnight. Visit The Calm Zone for details.