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Former TV journalist Mike McCarthy tells us the story of his son’s suicide in 2021. Mike reflects on his thoughts and feelings, the impact of the grief, and his motivation to keep campaigning for mental health.

I was a journalist by profession, eventually working for the BBC, and for Sky News as a reporter and presenter. In very general terms, up until relatively recently, I've had a very happy life. I've been married for 14 years, had three wonderful kids, l live in the beautiful city of Sheffield, and I’ve travelled the world covering all kinds of events, from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to politics in Washington DC and riots in Athens. It's one of the great things about journalism - meeting people, and it's been a privilege; not just the prime ministers, politicians, and actors, but a lot of remarkable “ordinary people” too, some of whom I've stayed in touch with.

Ross was the second of my three children. He was a really happy boy - an impish, very loving kid. We had a great family, and we all got along exceptionally well. I never expected that anything could really ruin that. But then, in February last year, my life and the lives of my family suddenly changed forever. It's been hard - the hardest time of my life and nothing comes close.

On 20 February 2021, we were woken up in the middle of the night by a call from Ross's fiancée, Charlotte, who told us she'd found Ross in the middle of the night and that things weren't looking good. She said she'd call us back and then, a few minutes later, we got another call to say that Ross had died. My world fell apart, and life became extremely hard. In the first few days, it was virtually impossible to concentrate on doing all the basic things that we take for granted in life. I was consumed with the blackest kind of grief I think is imaginable.

That night I drove to his house, but by the time we got there his body had gone, along with the long farewell letter he’d written to his family. That had been taken away by the police and it took us a long time to get it back. I just have very sketchy memories of the day. I remember looking out of the window; it was a cold, grey, wet February morning, and a pair of Ross's white trainers were on the lawn outside. Charlotte told me he'd used them a few days earlier as feet for the snowman he’d been making with his little son, Charlie, who was four at the time. Charlie wanted it to have feet, so Ross brought out his trainers to use. And I suppose it just got to me because, looking back, and I didn't realise at the time, it said something about the relationship between Ross and his son, which was precious and priceless, and about the fragility of life. We take for granted that our kids are going to be there for the rest of our lives, and that wasn't to be.

Ross pushed himself for Charlie, for all his family really. And despite the fact he'd suffered with severe depression for more than 10 years, he had an incredible relationship with Charlie; they were so unbelievably close. He'd become quite adept at hiding his depression, I think because he was a very loving, very caring, and very selfless person. He didn't want to inflict any of his pain on the people around him, and so he tried, in a sense I guess, to suppress it as much as possible for the sake of wellness.

The last time we saw him was on Christmas Day 2020, but we couldn't stay with him because of the Covid restrictions. We spent the day celebrating the fact Ross had made terrific progress. He'd found his own counsellor - someone he really related to and believed in - and Ross thought he could use the counsellor’s words practically. And I think, despite his long history of severe depression and having tried once before to take his life, as a parent, you want to believe that your kids are going to be okay. If your child tells you that they're going to be alright, something tells you to believe what they're saying and that they're going to be okay. The last message that Ross sent us on the Friday night before he died was, “Mum, oh, I'll be okay. In the morning, I'll just go for a run and that'll sort everything out.” Maybe with hindsight, there was a degree of, maybe, foolishness in the sense that we believed him, but we so wanted to believe him. And he’d had episodes and got over them. Because he'd got through them so many times, I really didn't believe he was so close to the end - we just didn't see it. Maybe I should have done, but I just didn't.

In the early days, there were things that had to be done. We had to prepare for his funeral and talk to everyone - so that kept us busy and, to a certain degree, occupied. I believe that we cry for a reason and that it's therapeutic. We all cried a lot, and the whole immediate family stayed together for quite a few weeks. Bit by bit, something Ross had said to me played over and over in my mind, “Please fight for mental health, the support is just not there.” And if ever anybody needed any motivation for campaigning for better mental health provision, I don't think you're going to get stronger motivation than the dying wishes of your son.

I tried to occupy myself by educating myself about mental health, talking to as many people as I could: other bereaved mums and dads, brothers and sisters, people who'd survived suicide attempts, psychologists, therapists, counsellors, nurses, doctors, and charities. I was quite hungry for knowledge, and I guess, distraction. Obviously, there are images that just remain and never go away. I said that the last time I saw Ross was on Christmas day in 2020, but we went to the hospital mortuary to see him, and moments like that kept dragging me right back. You know it’s something you’ll never fully get over; and I think that's part of the acceptance I've come to realise now, that my life won't be the same ever again. There will always be this lingering sadness, but we also have hope. I think that there is help out there. There’s hope for people. I think anybody who finds themselves in the same dark place as Ross can reach out to talk. There are things that we can do about it. There are reasons to stay. There are far more people out there who love you than you probably ever imagine. That's a message I've been really keen to get across ever since, and because of that, I got involved with a number of charities, which has been keeping me even busier than when I was in full-time occupation.

The majority of comments and people have been hugely supportive, and quite heart-warming. I always thought, as a journalist, when I covered stories where people were involved in grief and trauma, what do I say to these people? Should I really say anything in relation to their loss? Will it mean anything to them? And I discovered that it really does make a difference. The support of friends, family, neighbours, and even strangers, has been very important. So, I’d say to people, if you have any thoughts about approaching someone to offer your sympathy and support, don't hesitate. I think it's better to talk to people and hear from them than to think that they’re suppressing their words because they're not quite sure how to frame them or how to approach you. I'd much rather somebody came up and talked about their memories of loss, good and bad, than cross the street.

The only thing that I'm really trying to change is the phrase ‘commit suicide’. Before 1961, when suicide was considered an illegal act and a crime, you couldn't be buried in consecrated ground. More than 60 years later, the language hasn’t changed. You wouldn't say somebody's committed cancer, or they've committed brain tumour, so why in this day and age should we say that someone's committed suicide? Ross wasn't perfect, but he didn't commit a crime. And in one way, it shows me how much more there is to do. We need to tackle that language and approach it. It's a common phrase, we've all used it, but I think times are changing. If I can suggest this politely, maybe it's time to drop that phrase.

Three quarters of the people who take their own lives are men, and it’s the biggest killer of young adults in this country under the age of 35 – both men and women. And yet, where's the public discussion? Where's the political debate? Where's the media coverage? Where are the classroom lessons? And this is what I mean when I say that there's still a long, long way to go. It’s a generalisation, but men on the whole are not very good when it comes to talking about feelings and emotions. To me, the expression ‘man up’ says it all. ‘Man up’ basically means take it on the chin, suppress it, and don't talk about it. The phrase, ‘strong, silent type’ associate the words strong and silent, together with masculinity, which really is toxic. If men can't talk about the more nurturing aspects of our characters and masculinity, then we've got a big problem.

Over the last year, I discovered the excellent charity Talk Club. And, as a result, I’ve setup branches for men in my home city of Sheffield with Talk Club. Talk Club encourages men to open up rather than bottle up, and it's also simple. The first question is always ‘how are you out of 10 and why?’. They may be feeling nine or 10, but we don’t just dwell on the negatives, we look at what we can do as men to make it easier for ourselves to talk about and share what's going on in our heads.

It was also encouraging to be invited Downing Street to a meeting about men's mental health. Just the fact that influential people were meeting in Downing Street to talk about men's mental health gave me encouragement. I've spoken to various people now, including the Health Minister Julian Keegan, who's responsible for suicide prevention. I think society is changing, and it's changing for the better. Some big positive changes are coming, I'm convinced of that. When Ross said, the support is just not there, I think that may sound extreme. But what he meant was that after 10 years struggling in the moment when he was suicidal and in crisis, the support wasn't there. There are all kinds of support out there, and I encourage anybody who has any doubt of that to do a few searches online, but there is a long way to go and much to do. Until we get parity between the amount of attention, research and spending on mental health as we do on physical health, then there'll still be work for me and for all the other campaigners out there doing a fantastic job.

What advice would you give to dads to help them look out for their children’s mental health?

First of all, I would just say listen. And that's something else that applies to Talk Club as well. We call it Talk Club, but basically, it's talking and listening club. I think with hindsight, as a dad, I felt I needed to fix Ross. I felt I needed to do whatever was in my power to fix him. And I guess that, perhaps, if we were able to turn the clock back, I just would have listened to him a bit more, rather than trying to fix him. Allow people to be vulnerable, allow them to express their vulnerability. And again, this goes back to the sort of masculinity issue, as boys and as men, I think we're taught that vulnerability is weakness, you know, big boys don't cry, and all that kind of thing.

What advice would you give to dads in a similar situation to you?

I can only speak for myself, and everybody deals with grief, in a different way. I think speaking to other bereaved dads has helped me enormously. I've come across some of the amazing people out there who've been through similar experiences. We have this phrase that we say to each other very often, ‘I wish I'd never met you, but I'm so glad that I did’ and that's how I feel. I feel that this wasn't the life that was set out for me - it certainly wasn't the life I was expecting. But it is my life, that's the reality of it. And I've met so many wonderful people that have enriched my life in many ways. I’d turn the clock back in the blink of an eye if I could, but I can't, and I accept with immense gratitude the help that I've received from so many people.

I think one of one of the best pieces of advice I've been given over the past 15 months is ‘be kind to yourself’. It may sound like a cliche, but I think it's very valuable advice. You do have to be kind to yourself, and recognise the fact that whatever you're going through, it's okay. If you feel the way you do, then just let it be. I think many people, and not just men, think that if they cry in public they need to immediately apologise for it. We don't have to apologise for that. Humans cry, and they cry for a reason. Don't beat yourself up about being vulnerable and don't feel ashamed about it. Vulnerability is not weakness. If I have nothing else to give, I hope people can perhaps dwell for a while on that. Vulnerability makes us human after all, and we shouldn't be afraid to show it.

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