FIRST PERSON: It Could Happen To You - A Brother’s Story
The last time I read those words, it was the slogan backing a campaign by the National Lottery. The phrase has also been used in the past to title Hollywood films and feature in song lyrics, but never before has this phrase taken on such a traumatic undertone until my youngest brother, Lanfranco aged just 26, took his own life on Friday 10th February 2012 and my life changed forever.
We’ve all read about these stories in the tabloids, watch actors play out the scenes in television dramas and hear how this happens to a friend of a friend. But never do you imagine it could ever happen to a member of your family. Someone who excelled in all things academic, brought up in a close knit family with strong morals, would light up a room with his smile, had hundreds of friends and not just the Facebook kind. Someone who campaigned selflessly for charities and was as fit as a fiddle, had a beautiful girlfriend, he had the entire world at his feet. What brings an individual like that to a desperate end?
When someone takes their own life, we usually expect there to be some signs. How did it get to this? Did no one see this happening? The truth of the matter with my brother's death is that the reasons will always remain a mystery. Depression is something that can remain hidden for years and one of the reasons three out of every four people who die by suicide are men is because they are very good at hiding their feelings and generally not so good at communicating their emotions. We have no idea how long Lanfranco felt like this, as he simply never shared his troubles with his family and friends. Society often demands that men should be strong, macho and masculine. Talking about feelings doesn't come naturally to us and it's exactly why it has become the single biggest killer of men under 45 in this country.
The educational system
Although we will never know the real answer behind my brother’s death, there are several factors that contributed to his depression. One area that I believe let him down is the educational system, by this I specifically mean the process of education that prepares you for your career.
Lanfranco loved music and was known to his friends as a musical genius. He was self-taught, played several instruments exceptionally well and belonged to two bands. He excelled in all of his studies and when it came to choosing a degree, one of the most important decisions of your life, he was let down. I remember my own personal experiences of career advice; it was a thirty minute meeting which left me uninspired and none the wiser. Did my brother know that when he graduated from university there would be over 300,000 other graduates in exactly the same position? Did he also know that on average there would only be 25 jobs in his related sector available in the UK? But music was his life and he followed his love academically by graduating with a degree in Audio Engineering. Lanfranco found it almost impossible to get a job in the music industry, but a year and hundreds of rejection letters later, he got lucky and got a job right in the heart of Soho, London. What he found when he got to this 'promised land' was that, due to the nature of the industry and the sheer amount of people who wanted to work in it, he was paid the minimum wage, and at the same time carrying the burden of a huge student debt behind him.
Lanfranco wanted what most people aim for in life. He wanted to marry the love of his life, to buy his own home, to have a family, simple things but hard to realise when you're being paid such a small amount. So he decided to do a PGCE and become a music teacher: he wanted to remain in the music field; he wanted to make a difference; he wanted job security and gain financial independence from his family. He saw teaching as his way out and as he told me in the last conversation I had with him, "His last option." However teaching isn't for everyone and Lanfranco found it hard to manage the stress involved with the course. He was a perfectionist and wasn't content with just following the course, he wanted to push his knowledge to the nth degree. In the end he pushed himself too far and felt he was a failure as a teacher. He couldn't have been more wrong.
His first teaching placement offered him a contract for a permanent job and his lecturers thought he was one of the brightest and most promising teachers on the course. Depression is a mental health issue and as with Lanfranco, it was his mental state that led him to believe he was a failure although all who met him felt he was amazing and an inspiration.
I believe that there are two specific areas within the educational system that need to change to better equip the younger generation; the transparent and informative selection of a degree course and the education of life long skills for business. I feel that UCAS and universities need to be more transparent about revealing their future job prospects when recruiting students for degrees. Thousands of students graduate every year within fields that are over subscribed and have little chance of being recruited within their industry. I'm an eternal optimist but I would struggle to choose a subject I loved if I knew my odds of success were 1 in 10,000! Education should not only prepare you for the technical knowledge of a given subject, but provide you with real life experiences of how to succeed in a workplace environment, how to market yourself and be successful in interviews, how to manage stress and depression and how to manage your finances effectively. Are exams and coursework the only ways to measure a student’s potential, since they carry little weight in a workplace environment?
The "power" of the Internet
Society is changing, driven by the pace of technology. The rise of Internet social networking is creating a generation that lacks the social and personal skills of yesterday. Why meet up with friends when Facebook tells you everything your friends have been up to over the last year. I believe this has led to more people being introverted and less inclined to physically communicate their problems. We have become a society that relies on the Internet for information. Your Internet history is now a modern diary, and this is where we started to find some answers surrounding Lanfranco's depression. Trawling through his internet history we found that a month before he took his life, he began searching for topics associated with stress, two weeks before he searched for the implications of leaving his PGCE course, a few days after that he searched for answers to get away from it all. At this point suicide was not on the horizon, he was looking for volunteering opportunities around the world, he was wondering if he could become a priest in a foreign chapel and he searched for a menial job that he could do in the interim while he figured out what to do next.
It was only five days before he took his own life that he first asked Google, "How many pills does it take to overdose? What is the best way to commit suicide?" Lanfranco's Internet history revealed a clear series of questions that eventually led to him taking his own life, but Google just sat back and watched the events unfold.
How, in our modern society, can one of the most powerful, omnipotent companies in the world just sit back and watch? A good analogy for this would be to imagine yourself working in the office, you've got your day to day job to do but you look out of your window and you see someone walk on to the tracks waiting for the next train. Would you just sit back and watch them take their own life?
Google have tried to address their Corporate Social Responsibilities by providing Google Grants to charities to pay for Google AdWords. I however feel that more can be done. How often have we been browsing the net to find subliminal ads advertising the exact item we were looking for a few days ago? If only subliminal ads appeared to those in desperate need, offering them help and support rather than car insurance?
How general are GPs?
The day after Lanfranco died, my middle brother, Gianpiero, found the traumatic situation so difficult that he experienced a panic attack and we had to call an ambulance to help calm him down. He was murmuring things like: "It should have been me, I should have been the one to go." This was one of the toughest moments of my life, my youngest brother was gone forever and now my only remaining brother wanted to leave this life too. The next day we went to see an emergency doctor to help with my brother’s grief. It was here that I experienced first hand how undertrained some doctors are in this field.
The doctor could see that my brother was clearly in distress and she asked the question "Are you considering suicide?" to which he replied "Yes." At that point, however, she became clearly uncomfortable and began almost telling my brother off for having these thoughts. There was no empathy, there was no compassion, and there was no understanding. She was obviously underequipped to deal with the situation. Witnessing this first hand gave me a real insight into why Lanfranco still went on to take his life, even after seeing our local doctor the day before he died.
Lanfranco mentioned he was depressed in his final days to his course tutor and his girlfriend. They persuaded him to see a GP and see if they could help him. GPs are called General Practitioners for a reason; they have vast general medical knowledge but no specific area of expertise. Most people would be surprised to hear that they do not undertake any specialist training in how to deal with patients with depression or suicidal ideation during their seven-year course, or any training in counselling.
The GP predictably prescribed him with anti-depressants. Lanfranco never even opened the box. Doctors and the whole medical profession need to be made more aware of the seriousness of this problem, that when a young man tells them that they might be suffering from depression, that it needs to be taken incredibly seriously and not just given a box of pills and sent on their way. Lanfranco never mentioned the word ‘suicide’ to the GP. The fact remains that men generally do not like going to see the doctors, for both physical and mental conditions. They feel uncomfortable asking for help, similar to most men not wanting to ask for directions, no matter how lost they are. So if a young man opens up to you and mentions the word depression, alarm bells should be going off in your head because this situation is serious. But depression is not something that can be cured by a simple pill. It's a complex issue that requires support from mental health professionals but is totally curable.
After Lanfranco passed away there was one question that kept repeating in all of our heads: "what could we have done?" This is now slowly changing into "what can we do?" Our family has decided to support CALM as their main objectives are in line with ours, to prevent men from taking their own lives and to increase the awareness of this nationwide problem. Suicide is the single biggest killer of men aged between 20 and 45 in the UK, with almost 5,000 men taking their lives every year. How can society just sit back and watch this happen? On average six people a week are stabbed to death on the streets of Britain; that’s less than one a day. Compare that to the thirteen men a day killing themselves across Britain and you realise the scale of this epidemic.
From listening to the media, the amount of coverage suicide gets is totally disproportionate. Why is this? Suicide is a topic that does not sit comfortably with the public; it doesn't help sell papers and is generally not a compelling story unless it involves celebrity. This needs to change. Depression is not an incurable disease; it doesn't require billions of pounds in research to beat. It needs society to accept depression as a very real illness that affects many people every year and acknowledge that suicide is a serious problem amongst men.
It needs us to talk about our problems and encourage men to express their feelings without being judged, or being deemed ‘less of a man’ for asking for help. Human nature instinctively guides us to help those in need. Human emotions allow us to love each other and provide affection. The "me, me, me!" culture of today needs to end and we could all try and do more for others. Together we can end the stigma surrounding suicide and men asking for help, and together we can stop this silent killer from taking any more young lives.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can call the CALM helpline on 0800 585858 or use our webchat service, open 5pm-midnight every day.