Weekend Interview - Preventing Suicide Let’s Start A ConversationIn 2019 Steve Phillip’s life changed when he received devasting news about his son Jordan. Speaking to Group Editor Andrew Palmer, he talks about how Jordan inspired him to start a legacy in memory of his son.
(L-R) Steve and Jordan
Steve Phillip’s world was “shattered into a million pieces” when his son’s girlfriend, Charlotte, phoned with the tragic news that 34-year-old Jordan had taken his life.
The terrible ripple effect that bereavement from suicide leaves behind prompted Steve to set up The Jordan Legacy because it is “so important we find ways to encourage those who are struggling with their mental health to be able to find their voice and ask for help.”
Only hours before the heart-breaking news, father and son had been texting each other. Steve had directly asked Jordan if he wanted to chat, but the response was ‘no’, telling his dad he was tired and suggesting they catch up another time.
Knowing what I know now it is a sign someone is saying I'm struggling to get up, washed and dressed
It was the following day that the two-minute call came. Steve says he can’t remember much after the first terrible words had been spoken.
With suicide accounting for the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK, Steve decided to set up The Jordan Legacy in 2020 to raise awareness of suicide, which he considers is more important since Covid struck.
“We have had a situation over the last two years where, until very recently, we've not been able to get together with people resorting to using video platforms.
“Many companies, also, are still operating with remote workers, and it is much more difficult to spot the signs that someone is struggling, when you don’t see them face to face regularly.”
The Jordan Legacy’s mission
is to be at the forefront of the advancement of health and the saving of lives for the public benefit; specifically the advancement of mental health and preventing lives being lost to suicide.
Its actions are specifically aimed at benefitting the general public and those more directly impacted by mental health challenges and suicide, by providing relevant information, advice, awareness-raising, education, and support to help move the UK to a society where suicide prevention is more openly discussed and deaths by suicide are rare events.
It aims to continually promote the public benefits of advancing mental health and suicide prevention approaches; developing, collating and sharing ‘what works’ with the general public and those groups, organisations, institutions and individuals who are able to help save lives.
It will always encourage high ambition in preventing suicides and promote strategies and actions that can significantly reduce the numbers of deaths by suicide in the UK. It will also challenge those groups, organisations and bodies who appear to be setting low ambition targets.
The Jordan Legacy design and run events, conferences, workshops, awareness-raising campaigns, educational talks, etc for public benefit with the charitable purpose of advancing mental health and saving lives.
The Jordan Legacy will look to provide grants to individuals and organisations engaged in public benefit activities to advance mental health and save lives.
It will also understand that many of those who engage with us may be struggling with their mental health or suicidal thoughts. We will safeguard these individuals by providing direct support, where appropriate, with non-clinical coaching and social support, along with signposting and partnering with relevant professionals and clinical specialists.
The effect of lockdowns has impacted everyone, so it is important to understand what signs families, colleagues and friends should be looking for which, Steve says, are around changes in behaviour.
“These changes can be quite varied. You may notice someone drinking more excessively than they've done before, maybe they are engaged in gambling, or it could be that their appearance has changed. They may not be looking as well presented or well-kept,” Steve says.
He remembers Jordan in the final weeks of his life particularly a WhatsApp conversation they exchanged.
“At that time with my limited knowledge I didn’t pick up the signs. Jordan finished a WhatsApp conversation with the words ‘at least I've managed to get up and have a wash and shave today dad.’ I remember we had a bit of a light-hearted chuckle. Now, when I look back at that time, I want to slap myself on the forehead. Knowing what I know now it is a sign someone is saying I'm struggling to get up, washed and dressed. If I read or heard that again, it would prompt me to drive the 20 minutes from my house to his and say let's have a coffee and a chat and see how you’re really doing.”
Hearing it first-hand brings the message home. It is being alert to changes in behaviour, appearance and other issues, the message is clear if there are any warning signs be brave and ask a question.
Steve asks me: “How many times do we ask people how they are doing as an extension of hello? Are we really interested in the response? Probably not, because it is often an automatic response to say, ‘yes I’m fine’ and that is a signal to move on with the conversation.
“If we are genuinely asking it because we have a concern then we have to ask the question twice; the second time with a different intonation and remembering to follow up with -‘OK but how are you really doing?’”
It’s so important to emphasise the question, leave a gap and a silence. Steve points out, “for a person to think okay well look I'm kind of being put on the spot here a little bit and I am being asked for a reason, maybe this is my opportunity to say, actually you know what I'm having a shit day and yes things are not that good.”
The next point is a sobering one and something we should all seriously think about.
“What's important is learning a few basic skills. We can all go online and take a 5 minute or a 20-minute course to learn how to ask the right questions and they are quite simple. We don't need an ology as someone once said, it’s more of a case of knowing how to have a simple but important conversation and saying what’s going on for you now?”
I ask Steve if he can suggest an approach as it can be quite a difficult conversation.
“Ask someone to explain to you how they are feeling and how perhaps, an issue is impacting on them. Then shut up and listen to the answer. If the conversation develops your goal is not to fix the problem.”
As we developed this further Steve’s next point made me sit up straight and take note.
“I think this is really important and I acknowledge it is a big fear for people to ask such a direct question: ‘can I ask you are you thinking of taking your own life?’
“There's a real fear that if you ask that question, you plant a seed in their mind. However, all the evidence and research dispel that myth. We know by asking the question that you're more likely to save a life instead.”
“If you get to a concern but you think I am worried and even if it's mild worry ,asking that question is so important. Again, research shows that people who have been asked those questions say it was such a relief. Even if that person turns round and says, ‘no that's the last thing on my mind’ it is better to have asked than not.”
“If the response is: ‘I have considered suicide’, then there are two questions well, one really: ‘Have you got a plan as to how and when you intend to do that?’ Depending on the response will determine whether any immediate crisis help is needed but it's important to have the knowledge to say, OK, where am I going to signpost this person to, which could be a GP, A&E, Samaritans or any other services that you might know.
“Hopefully, Andrew, I'm saying, if we take a little bit of knowledge on board and become slightly better educated, knowing how to have that conversation should you ever need to, could end up saving a life.”
Steve and Jordan
Indeed, it’s immensely powerful and important to hear that advice. I will remember it is an important question to ask. Bearing in mind It is potentially difficult to ask, doing so could save a life, then we should not be afraid to ask it.
Steve is also involved with a new initiative, BatonOfHopeUK, which will run between 25 June and 8 July 2023. As part of a longer term legacy initiative, there will be a two-week period where a physical baton will travel around all Four Nations of the UK. The primary purpose is to raise awareness and opening up conversations around what can be done practically to help prevent suicide.
Briefly that is what the baton is designed to do and according to Steve the initiative is to generate involvement and participation from communities, workplaces and local government and national government to encourage events to take place and activities all around the country.
“We are clear that we didn’t want the initiative just to be a shooting star within a two-week period of intense activity and then to ask what did that mean?
“So, we will looking at the long term legacies in year two and three and will be generating several, what we care calling, Charters for Action with recommendations. There will be charters for different sectors, such as education, workplaces, healthcare, digital community etc. In the case of a Charter for the general public, one action would be flagging how someone could very easily go online and take a suicide prevention training course I mentioned earlier to learn the skills that would allow us to have a chat with a mate, loved one or a colleague at work and know exactly how to have that conversation and signpost them to the right help.”
The Charters will all be slightly different. The health sector will be encouraging the case for NHS trusts to really take on board the Zero Suicide Framework that has been partially absorbed, initially by Mersey Care NHS Trust some years ago, and looked at by one or two others but never, for several reasons, fully taken on board .
A big part of what the BatonOfHopeUK is trying to achieve is looking at all the issues around suicide, which include the stigma associated with it, the ripple effect caused by any suicide; it impacts on average another 135 people from first responders right through to the loved ones.
It is also important to talk about the language around suicide. The term ‘commit', is still used on occasions, a reference to the days when it was a criminal offence to end your own life that changed in 1961.
According to Steve, the BatonOfHopeUK will highlight
the work that is being done by many people in the third sector, government and the NHS and identifying the gaps and what needs to change.
“I think fundamentally one of the biggest, probably most important elements of what we're doing, is the recognition that there are lots of great people doing great things out there and lots of great organisations but it's all very fragmented. The level of service and crisis support varies enormously from one Healthcare Trust to another and from one hospital to another.
“We've got issues with GPs for example. We’re advised to contact GPs if struggling and most have received no training whatsoever in suicide prevention and that applies to most NHS frontline staff as well, who are working at the crisis end of the situation.”
Steve recently met Sajid Javid when he was Secretary of State for Health along with Philip Piri, who lost his son Tom two years ago to suicide. Tom had just undergone a suicide risk assessment with the NHS crisis team and was deemed to be at minimal risk. He took his life the next day.
We don't need an ology as someone once said, it’s more of a case of knowing how to have a simple but important conversation and saying what’s going on for you now?
“The statistics show that we lose 17 people every day to suicide. Of these five are in touch with mental health services and four of those five are assessed as ‘low' or ‘no risk’ and will go on to take their own lives.
“So, there is clearly a system issue with risk assessments that’s why we need to look at this whole issue of training for frontline mental health professionals as clearly they are not being trained in suicide prevention making it a big issue.”
The Three Dads who lost their daughters to suicide, Andy Airey, Mike Palmer, and Tim Owen met with Steve and fellow bereaved father, Mike McCarthy at an event hosted by the suicide prevention charity Papyrus recently and they are keen to join forces with the BatonOfHopeUK initiative in 2023, inviting Mike and Steve to join them on their next planned walk in September 2022.
There's a real fear that if you ask that question, you plant a seed in their mind. However, all the evidence and research dispel that myth
.Chatting with Steve has been inspiring. He campaigns relentlessly everyday talking about Jordan. It must be hard mentioning his name and seeing his picture every day let alone retelling the story.
“Those moments can be quite difficult reliving that daily, it is never easy, but I think the best way I found of answering the question, ‘how I do what I do?’, is that I've been able since day one, to recognise The Jordan legacy as a project.
“When I get to work and open my laptop every morning or deliver talks, for 95 to 99% of the time I'm very much in work mode, delivering the messages that we need to and responding to enquiries etc -t’s a professional job, which I take seriously, which requires focus on my part.. It's the quieter times where I'm on my own, perhaps reflecting, retelling a particular story, or telling someone what kind of person Jordan was, they are the times that are more challenging and difficult. They are the moments when there's often a wobble..
“My message to other families who have lost a loved one to suicide?;It's about finding a purpose out of what you've been through. If you can find a purpose that you can commit to that gives you some kind of meaning out of all this bloody awful situation, then that will help you and until you find your purpose, you're going to sit with this grief and torment for longer than you deserve too really.”
To find more about #BatonOfHopeUK click here.
It is designed to be the biggest suicide awareness and prevention initiative the UK has ever seen, opening up necessary conversations and prompting appropriate actions. Our specially designed baton will tour UK towns and cities for two weeks in Summer 2023, raising the profile of this issue like never before. Together we can reduce the stigma, and get better at asking questions, listening, and directing people to the right help. Together we can save lives