Why I'm Chalking About Mental Health


Since I have been involved in suicide prevention, I hear a lot of dreadful stories about suicide. You never get used to them. Each one heartbreakingly awful. Each one leaving total devastation for the friends and family left behind.

This summer however, I was shocked at the number of friends who approached me to tell me about the loss of someone they knew or loved. Each story was of a male, each male was aged between 16 and 25. One particularly awful story was of a 16 year old boy who took his life one week before his GCSE results. My own son took his GCSE’s this year and I know that in our house, results day was a happy milestone, a day to be celebrated. The stark contrast to what that poor boy’s family was going through made me shudder.

I just had an overwhelming sense that I needed to do more to prevent these tragic tales.

It was one evening in August when I was having a quick flick through Facebook. The post of an old friend caught my eye. Unbeknownst to me, my friend’s 25th year old nephew, Elliot, had tragically taken his own life last year.

Like many families bereaved by suicide, Elliot’s parents, through their pain and grief, were trying to make a difference so that others would not endure the suffering and loss that they had. They wanted to challenge the stigma and encourage a conversation around suicide. To that end, they organised a community event near their home in Cairns, Australia, encouraging people to decorate a local cycle path with beautiful messages in chalk aimed at killing the stigma around suicide. So simple, yet so powerful.

I cast my mind back to the time when I was lying in a hospital bed broken physically and mentally, by my own suicide attempt. I cannot emphasize enough the impact of the messages of support, understanding and love that I received during that time. I had thought that I was totally alone, that no one on earth could possibly understand what I was going through. The messages made me realise that many, many people understood exactly what I had been going through and those that didn’t realised I wasn’t mad or bad, just ill, in need of help and understanding, not condemnation. Those messages gave me hope.

What if we brought the idea here? What if, by chalking messages of understanding and support for those who are suffering, we could encourage someone who was struggling to ask for help and take that first step on their own journey to recovery. What if, just through our messages, we could nudge someone away from that trajectory towards suicide. Maybe we could actually save a life. Surely it has to be worth a punt for a few boxes of chalk? If nothing else, it will engage people in a wider conversation about mental health and help stop the stigma.

The recently released 2018 UK suicide statistics show an overall 11.8% increase on the previous year. In the under 25 age range, this increase leaps to 23.7%. It doesn’t have to be this way. We all need to play our part in reversing this trend.

On Thursday 10th October, to mark World Mental Health Day, I encourage you all to go out and “chalk about mental health”. This can be as part of an organised event in your community, school, university or business or just chalk your own message on your garden path. Take photos of your event and post them on social media telling us all about them. Be sure to include the hashtag #Let’sChalkAboutMentalHealth2019.

Any of you based in my part of the world in Exeter, come and join us in Princesshay where we will be chalking all day on 10th October. If you can’t make it join one of the many schools, businesses and community groups who are running their own events. Feel free to get in touch if you would like any more information.

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