“The mention of my child’s name may bring tears to my eyes – but it never fails to bring music to my ears. If you really are my friend, please don’t keep me from hearing the beautiful music. It soothes my broken heart and fills my soul with love.” (When The Bough Breaks: Forever After The Death Of A Son Or Daughter”, Judith R. Bernstein, 1997, p 196)
I failed to recognise the seriousness of the warning signs in my son, Adam, in time. This weekend will be the first anniversary of when my ever-so-gentle and sensitive boy – the absolute joy of my eyes – took his own life just a few days short of his 21st birthday. This article has been written in the sincerest hope that others – particularly those suffering from mental illness and their families – may perhaps be able to benefit from reading about Adam and my many mistakes.
The continuing controversy surrounding suicide in parts of society and particularly religious communities is not helpful and can only worsen the sense of hopelessness that many suffering from mental illness feel, not to mention causing additional pain to the families of the bereaved who are already grieving deeply. Researchers say that the vast majority of cases of suicide involve some type of severe mental illness such as depression and/or anxiety. We need to try and view depression/anxiety in a similar way to how we view cancer and provide the necessary support, focus and resources in order to help treat it.
Flashback: It is 2008 and Adam – aged eight – and I have just returned home after visiting a local animal farm. “Oh God, have mercy!” I say, as was my habit. “Why do you keep saying ‘Oh God, have mercy?’” asks Adam. He seems worried that I might perhaps be in some kind of trouble. I reassure him that I am just fine, but I don’t tell him the full truth: that there is a terrible amount of pain out there in this world that many people all around us are enduring in all sorts of different forms. Knowing all too well my own many weaknesses and inability to withstand pain, I beg in advance, repeatedly, for Adam and I to be spared the worst and to be given a less painful test.
“Be sure We shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits (of your toil), but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere; those who say, when afflicted with calamity: ‘To God We belong, and to Him is our return.’” (Qur’an 2:155 – 156)
“…For the most part, we are reluctant to talk about suicide and frightened to ask someone whether they are suicidal or not. This has to change. It is crucial that we promote the conversation around suicide, so that more people will feel less alone and get the help and support that they require.” (“When It Is Darkest: Why People Die By Suicide And What We Can Do To Prevent It”, Rory O’Connor, 2021, p11)
Adam had first been referred to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) by his GP in early 2017 after he stopped attending school. Adam could not bring himself to engage with CAMHS – I would later read that many of those with mental health issues are reluctant to discuss their feelings because they are worried about what others might think of them – and after a perfunctory three attempts to talk to Adam CAMHS decided to discharge Adam’s case. No tentative diagnosis was made or advice given about how Adam’s case should be treated going forward and any danger signs to look out for. CAMHS did not mention the possibility of future relapses. To this day I am upset with CAMHS. Looking back now, it is apparent to me that CAMHS were more interested in reducing their case load rather than really trying to help Adam or even provide the most basic information about mental health for educational purposes. Later, after Adam passed away, I would read books about depression and anxiety which detailed many signs to look out for – signs that I recall seeing in Adam; signs that CAMHS had told me nothing about. After Adam’s passing, I would meet other parents at Suicide Bereavement Support meetings and would hear countless more stories of uncaring and unprofessional behaviour on the part of CAMHS – a body that is meant to specifically provide support and help to families dealing with mental health issues.
Flashback: It is August 2020 during the second Covid lockdown and Adam and I have utilised the Covid “bubble” rules to visit my Dad at home. My Dad is performing the afternoon ‘Asr prayer and Adam and I are following him in prayer behind him. Three generations of us. I remember being so pleased to be praying alongside Adam. He had via the internet taught himself Arabic (and Latin) to a high standard. Very soon, Adam would be starting university. I remember several times offering to buy him a new Macbook Pro laptop so he could take it with him to university. He kept refusing and insisted on me getting him a cheap second-hand Windows laptop instead that he said would be more than sufficient for him. I could not have asked for a sweeter and more self-effacing son. Whenever he called me “Dad” my heart would swell in size.
When Adam decided in the autumn of 2019 – over two and a half years after he had first become unwell – that he wanted to return to education I was so happy for him. This was real progress, I thought. It was true that Adam still seemed much quieter and subdued than before he had become unwell but that was to be expected, right? He would surely continue to gradually improve and I just needed to give him some space. What I did not know at the time was that severe depression very rarely resolves itself without being treated with a combination of medication and therapy. Even though individuals may look like they are getting better, without treatment most will eventually suffer a relapse. Treatment may not be enough to save them, but without treatment, their chances of overcoming their depression are much lower.
“…Only one in ten patients who have recovered from depression will not have a relapse.” (“Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy Of Depression, Lewis Wolpert, 2006, p xiv)
In a 2018 BBC Horizon documentary about male suicide – which I regrettably only watched after Adam passed away – a father laments that he wishes he had studied more about mental health: “If I knew ten percent of what I know now, it is highly likely that my son would be alive.”
Flashback: It is February 2021 and Adam and I are out hiking in Barton-le-Clay. I show Adam a new app called “Picture This” that I have downloaded to my phone. It allows you to point your phone’s camera to a tree or plant and it will identify it and also provide facts about it and also any notable mentions in popular culture. I point my phone to a tree to demonstrate how it works and sure enough the app provides the name of the tree and also lists a poem in which the tree is mentioned. Adam is a big fan of poetry so I begin reading the poem to him from my phone. Adam interjects almost at once and begins to complete the rest of the poem from memory. I had never previously heard of the poem or the poet and so I just stand there in complete awe of Adam. He really is an exceptional boy and I am so grateful that he is my son.
In the months since Adam’s passing I have been making notes about what I think I have learned to date. Looking for help and answers has been a difficult and often frustrating process as Adam was never officially diagnosed with a mental health disorder. And it was only after Adam passed away that I found out that seventeen months before his death, Adam had reached out to an online pharmacy and had been prescribed tablets to help with the symptoms of anxiety. That would have been the first time that Adam himself had actually reached out to others for help since he first became unwell, but even then it was to an online pharmacy rather than talking to a medical professional first-hand. Many of those who suffer from depression – Professor Wolpert, who was a Professor of Biology at the University of London, said the figure is about fifty percent of them – cannot bring themselves to seek medical help for their condition. This makes it even more important that family members and close friends learn to recognise the symptoms associated with depression and provide help and assistance.
“Anxiety: You know that feeling when you’re rocking on the back legs of your chair and suddenly for a split second you think you’re about to fall; that feeling in your chest? Imagine that split second feeling being frozen in time and lodged in your chest for hours/days, and imagine with it that sense of dread sticking around too, but sometimes you don’t even know why.” (From the MIND website)
Flashback: It is May 2021, just two months before Adam took his own life. I knock on Adam’s bedroom door and peer in. Adam is sitting in a chair and reading a book quietly. He has been in his room for a couple of hours now. Adam has been more withdrawn ever since he first became unwell several years ago. I know that Adam has struggled with mental health issues in the past but I do not sense any imminent danger and am unable to summon up the courage to directly ask him if he wants to talk about how he is feeling. Instead, I ask him, “Would you like a coffee and a chocolate bar?”
The observations that follow below are obviously personal to my experience with Adam, though I hope that they may also be of help to others. They are not just addressed to parents, but to anyone supporting a loved one who may be suicidal or is having mental health problems. The points listed below constitute knowledge that I wish I was aware of a few years ago. The list is by no means meant to be exhaustive – I would encourage you if you are interested to also please refer to the links at the end of this article.
Educate and familiarise yourself about mental illness and suicide. There are many useful videos on YouTube and I have provided some links that I found personally useful at the end of this article. Just a few hours of study now could save you and your loved ones an enormous amount of pain later. One book that I also found informative was Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy of Depression by Lewis Wolpert. Professor Wolpert’s book is a first-hand account of his depressive episodes and how he tried to deal with them.
Learn to look out for the warning signs. Is your child having trouble either getting enough sleep or sleeping too much? Are they not taking pleasure in activities they previously enjoyed? Have they withdrawn from their friends? Are they sometimes showing signs of irritation at the smallest things? Are they giving prized personal possessions away? These were all signs I recall seeing in Adam. Adam’s sleeping patterns were erratic and he would occasionally show signs of irritation for what seemed like very trivial reasons. At Alton Towers, whereas on previous occasions Adam would be thoroughly enjoying himself, he now seemed to be just going through the motions and did not appear to derive pleasure from the rides. A year before he passed away, Adam said he no longer wanted to use his desktop PC and wanted to give it away. I had bought him that PC a few years earlier as a present for doing so well in his GCSEs. I would later learn that giving one’s personal possessions away, when combined with symptoms of depression or anxiety, is often a sign that a person has suicidal intentions.
Obtain medical advice and assistance. The quality of service that Adam received from CAMHS may have been deeply flawed, but that should not deter you from seeking urgent assistance from your GP and mental health services. Insist that your loved ones are provided with the best possible care. Obtaining a diagnosis should help provide some clarity and understanding about what is going on and how to deal with a difficult and potentially tragic situation.
Don’t be afraid to raise the issue of suicide. If your child appears to be sad and withdrawn for a prolonged period of time then ask them directly whether they would like to talk about their feelings. After Adam appeared to be getting better and returned to education, I would often ask him “How are you? How are things going?” He would invariably respond with “Good.” I did not probe deeper and ask him about why he had previously been so withdrawn – and why he was much quieter now – as I was afraid that if I did that I would only make matters worse as it might remind Adam of those darker times. That was a mistake and I cannot now make it better. I began to view Adam’s more reserved personality as the new normal instead of treating it as a symptom of an ongoing illness that required medical attention and assistance.
Please don’t choose suicide as a way out of your pain. If you are the one who is enduring what seems like unbearable and unending mental pain, please do not choose suicide. Suicide may at this moment in time look to be a way out of your pain and you may think that it will mean that you will be less of a burden to others, but be sure that you are not a burden at all to your loved ones. Absolutely not at all. They would do anything for you. You are valued and loved very much even though you may not believe it right now. That negative voice in your head is not your friend. It is lying to you. Be sure that effective help is available and near at hand. That negative voice is wrong when it says that nothing can be done to help you to make the pain go away. You are suffering from an illness and it can be successfully addressed with the correct medication and therapy. Please talk to your family and loved ones about how you are feeling. They will help you to get the medical treatment you need. Be sure of this. Please don’t give up. I promise you that they will help you.
Flashback: It is January 2022 and I am sitting – suitably wrapped up and cradling a hot water bottle – beside Adam’s grave at the Gardens of Peace cemetery in Chigwell. Six months have now passed since we buried my beautiful boy and I have calculated that I have witnessed over two hundred burials here in that time – the number being higher than usual no doubt due to Covid. I wonder if any of those two hundred deaths were also by suicide. Our scientific advances mean that mental illnesses are now increasingly treatable and that therefore suicides – which research suggests almost always involves some form of mental illness – are preventable too. I wonder how many needless deaths could be prevented if we only talked more with each other and watched out for each other a bit better. Quite a few of the regular visitors to the graves nearby have now become familiar to me. I have decided to designate us as – with apologies to Tolkien – “The Fellowship of the Sorrowful”.
The Qur’an informs us that when we are resurrected, the first words that believers will say is “All praise is due to God Who has removed grief from us…” (Qur’an 35:34-35). “…removed grief from us” – how well the Qur’an understands our longing to be in that pain-free state. Grief is an inevitable part of all of our lives. In a very real sense it binds us all together and reminds us of our common humanity regardless of our religious or ethnic backgrounds. Whether it is serious illness, broken relationships, the death of our parents, siblings or children, we are all either members of the walking wounded or soon to join their ranks.
I have tried to keep this post quite general as the issue of suicide transcends cultures and religions, but I would like to say a few more words about Islam at this point as I doubt I would still be here today if it was not for the promise of the Qur’an that we will be reunited with our loved ones in the Hereafter.
“And those who believe and whose offspring follow them in Faith, to them shall We join their offspring, and We shall not decrease the reward of their deeds in anything. Every person is a pledge for that which he has earned.” (Qur’an 52:21)
The pagan Arabs at the time of the Prophet Muhammad did not believe in an afterlife. It was one of the Prophet Muhammad’s most notable achievements that he succeeded in spreading a worldview that taught – in common with the other Abrahamic religions of Judaism and Christianity – that everyone would be held accountable by God in the afterlife for their actions and our painful separation from our dear ones here on earth would only be temporary. Just eight days after Adam was buried, I was reading the Qur’an besides Adam’s grave when I came to the following verse:
“God did indeed choose Adam…” (Qur’an 3:33)
This verse – which I had come across many times previously over the years – suddenly took on a very special and personal meaning for me and I am immensely grateful for the comfort it provided me and continues to provide me every day when I feel the deepest longing to be with my Adam.
I want to thank my family and friends for their many kindnesses over the past year, whether it be in sharing your memories of Adam with me; taking me out on road trips and outings to various places around the UK; going to the cinema; playing chess and scrabble together or just listening to me talk about Adam while walking in our gorgeous parks – it has all helped. You know who you are and I love you all.
I really hope that some of you who are reading this are encouraged to spend even a little time learning to spot some of the symptoms of mental illness. You may well be able to do what I was not able to do and save someone’s life.
Adam had a very poetic soul. In the short time he was here, he walked quietly and gently on this earth. He loved his books and was enchanted by poetry. So, it seems right and fitting to end here with a poem. It is called “On My First Son” and is by the playwright and poet, Ben Jonson (1572 – 1637) and is about the death of his seven year old son, also called Ben(jamin).
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy.
Seven years thou’wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scap’d world’s and flesh’s rage,
And, if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, “Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.”
For whose sake, henceforth, all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.
“What is with you vanishes – what is with God will endure…” (Qur’an 16:96)
“Your wealth and your children are only a trial; and with God is a mighty reward.” (Qur’an 64:15)
- If you are feeling suicidal or are having intensely negative thoughts and for any reason are unable to talk to your family or friends then please call the Samaritans hotline for free on 116 123. Please do not suffer in silence. Help is available – be sure of this.
- The Zero Suicide Alliance has a helpful 20 minute online course about suicide and how to deal with a situation in which someone you know appears to be depressed or may be having suicidal thoughts. It also contains testimony from a lady who lost her son to suicide. She says: “If I had known then what I know now, I might have been able to help my son stay alive. And what I would give to have that opportunity back, but unfortunately, I can’t.” https://www.zerosuicidealliance.com/suicide-awareness-training
- Google Talks – Losing a Child To Suicide (54 mins long). This is a lecture – from a mother who lost her daughter to suicide – which addresses some common misconceptions about suicide. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWG7SbrsFWM
- CBS News item (9 mins long) about a teenager, Alexandra Valoras, and how her parents were completely unaware of her suicidal thoughts until it was too late. They later found Alexandra’s journal which revealed just how her mind had been tormenting her. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKzhMR_hkC8
- MIND. An organisation providing information and support relating to mental health. https://www.mind.org.uk
- Dr Rania Awaad’s writings. Awaad is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and writes about mental health issues especially in relation to tackling the stigma surrounding this issue in Muslim communities. https://muslimmatters.org/author/raniaawaad/
- BBC Horizon “Stopping Male Suicide” documentary (59 mins long) from 2018. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bgv82g