I thought my brother was a stroppy teen – I’ll never forget my mum’s scream when he took his life
WE were a normal family.
Me and my brothers spent near enough all of our time together, either as friends or foes where we grew up in Frittenden, Kent with our parents Chris and Michelle.Ben West was two years older than his brother Sam who died in 2018[/caption] It was Ben who found Sam in his room and he tried to revive him, but to no avail. Ben later learned Sam had been diagnosed with depression[/caption] In 2019 Ben won the Sun’s Who Cares Wins Health Awards for mental health hero of the year. He is pictured above with Kate Silverton and Matt Hancock[/caption]
I was two years older than Sam and four years older than my other brother Tom.
Sam was an incredibly talented artist. Not only was he very funny, he also had an infectious chuckle.
That’s what I noticed most significantly when he started to get older – the laughing stopped.
From the age of 15, he started becoming much quieter, especially over dinner.
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He’d be there, in the room, but also not there at all.
I genuinely didn’t think anything was actually wrong; I just thought he was in a permanent teenage strop with us.
One night after dinner, in September 2017, Mum told me Sam had been diagnosed with clinical depression.
I remember thinking, ‘What on earth is depression? How can you be diagnosed with being sad?’
If Mum had said cancer, I would have understood the seriousness of it.
I’ve always had a big sense of empathy. That’s why, looking back, it’s incredibly confusing and hard to acknowledge how casual I was about Sam’s situation.
Did I not understand or did I not want to understand it?
Then, on January 21, 2018, I’d done school work in the afternoon – my A-levels were looming – and then, in the evening, after my dad had left to catch a train to London for work, my mum, Tom, Sam and I sat down for a meal.
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Around 9pm, I was laying on my bed when I heard my mum come upstairs, and then head up one more flight of stairs to Sam’s room in the attic.
There was a short pause and then a scream shattered the silence.
I ran out of my room and when I opened the door to Sam’s room, I was faced with one of the most horrific things anyone could see: Sam had taken his own life.
I stood there for a few seconds, waiting for my brain to catch up to my eyes.
Then autopilot switched on and I started CPR, which I’d learned at school in first aid courses.
Mum called an ambulance and when I heard the faint sounds of sirens, the relief made me almost delirious, that I actually laughed down the phone to the emergency call handler.
After the paramedics took over, I went downstairs to check on Tom, then aged 13.
He looked shocked and confused and asked what was happening.
The emotions that hit me hardest were undoubtedly guilt and shameBen West
I just said there had been an accident before taking him downstairs.
I sat him on the sofa and switched on the TV. I wanted to protect him from seeing or knowing too much.
Then I went outside and was violently sick in a nearby flower bed.
My memories of the rest of the night are patchy. I remember phoning my dad and saying: ‘Something’s happened. You need to get off the train’, before handing the phone over to a police officer.
A police officer sat with me while mum went with the police to the hospital. At about 3am, he said I should go to bed to get some rest.
When I stumbled out of bed the next morning, I found my mum, dad and our GP in the living room. They told me that Sam hadn’t made it.
There’s a phrase people often use to describe the aftermath of trauma: ‘It was like a bomb had gone off’.
YOU'RE NOT ALONE
EVERY 90 minutes in the UK a life is lost to suicide
It doesn’t discriminate, touching the lives of people in every corner of society – from the homeless and unemployed to builders and doctors, reality stars and footballers.
It’s the biggest killer of people under the age of 35, more deadly than cancer and car crashes.
And men are three times more likely to take their own life than women.
Yet it’s rarely spoken of, a taboo that threatens to continue its deadly rampage unless we all stop and take notice, now.
That is why The Sun launched the You’re Not Alone campaign.
The aim is that by sharing practical advice, raising awareness and breaking down the barriers people face when talking about their mental health, we can all do our bit to help save lives.
Let’s all vow to ask for help when we need it, and listen out for others… You’re Not Alone.
If you, or anyone you know, needs help dealing with mental health problems, the following organisations provide support:
And there really is no better comparison. Time had stopped and everything was in pieces.
In the weeks that followed, laughter was my mask but I remember my mask slipping and having to quickly pull it back on a few days later, when we went out for breakfast at a nearby cafe.
I went to get cutlery for everyone and returned to the table with five sets. I quickly realised and then took one set back.
But because I didn’t want to upset anyone else by being upset myself, I didn’t say anything and buried the feelings.
But they couldn’t and wouldn’t stay buried all the time, and over the next few weeks and months that feeling would hit me whenever I was alone.
The emotions that hit me hardest were undoubtedly guilt and shame.
As the days went by, and as I thought about it more and more, I became convinced that Sam’s death was my fault.
During dinner that night, he and I had an argument. He stormed off upstairs and, as he was leaving, I said something under my breath that would haunt me for years.
I really struggle to find a way to say this – it’s something I’ve tried to keep buried and, previous to writing this book, I’ve never told anyone – but the last thing I ever said to Sam was, ‘F**k off ’.
When I remembered that, it seemed to me that everything that had happened that night was my fault and I felt like I was drowning.
I couldn’t believe what I’d done. I was genuinely petrified I’d go to prison.
It’s taken me years to get to this point, to stop torturing myself, but I know now that what happened wasn’t my fault. I realise that suicide isn’t a choice, it’s a symptom.
In reality, Sam probably didn’t even hear me. And, even if he had, it wouldn’t have made any difference because that’s not how depression and suicide work.
TIME TO TALK
Depression is an illness that can bubble away for years, and an off-the-cuff statement isn’t going to cause someone’s death.
People’s generosity after Sam’s death was really moving – so much so that we simply ran out of space for the food and flowers.
We started thinking there must be a better way for people to show they care. My dad had the idea of starting a fundraiser to help people in Sam’s position.
And in August that year, I organised a Project Walk To Talk event, aimed at encouraging more open conversations about mental health.
In total, 450 people took part in the ten-day walk, starting at our school gates and finishing in London’s Parliament Square.
The event raised £15,000 for the Sam West Foundation, the charity we set up in my brother’s name.
The more conversations I had with people, the more I started realising the scale of what we were dealing with and how much needed to change.
After conversations with Sam’s teachers, I was shocked by the number of them who told me they lacked the expertise to know how or when to step in because they hadn’t been trained.
Currently, the Government runs an initiative which aims to achieve one ‘mental health first aid trained’ teacher per school.
One person per school wasn’t close to being ok.
So I decided to start a petition to make basic, mental health first aid a compulsory part of teaching in schools.
I was genuinely surprised when I won. I was seated next to Prime Minister Boris Johnson who told me my petition was vital.
The following day, I got an email asking me to formally hand it to him in person at 10 Downing Street.
As I stood on the steps, I felt like I could finally say I’d made Sam proud and felt a bit of the guilt and shame fall away.
More than 312,000 people have now signed our Save Our Students petition. Yet, we have not seen any change.
And since the Covid-19 pandemic, mental health support is going to be more important than ever.
Since Sam’s death, around 20,000 other families in England and Wales have gone through the same thing we experienced.
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I won’t lie to you: that fact sometimes makes me want to jack it all in, grab a beer and go live in a cave, but actually, while that number grows, so does my passion and my determination to fight.
Whenever someone stands up, speaks out or seeks help, we get a bit closer to every person getting the support they need and deserve. We can do this.Ben has now released his first book, with the hope the advice can help others who are struggling with their mental health[/caption]
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