It’s mid-December and around 40 people are gathered in a no-frills conference centre tucked behind Westminster Abbey.
A Christmas tree twinkles in the corner as a microphone is passed around the room. Everybody has a story to tell – hesitantly at first, then more animatedly as more get involved. The subject matter? Suicide.
Michael Mansfield QC presides over all this with a thoughtful expression, nodding every now and then but mostly keeping quiet. Since founding the Silence of Suicide networking initiative 18 months ago with partner Yvette Greenway, the high-profile barrister has barely stopped talking about one of society’s last great taboo subjects. It’s someone else’s turn.
Michael’s daughter Anna took her own life in May 2015. There are few experiences more devastating than the loss of a child, not least when the circumstances surrounding the death were what Michael labels “the elephant” in a room full of mourners at Anna’s funeral.
“I never really realised the stigma surrounding suicide until that day at the funeral,” he says.
“I’m not afraid to talk about it and when I got up and acknowledged it, people came up to me afterwards and said, ‘thank goodness you said something, we were afraid to mention it’.”
Michael and Yvette founded Silence of Suicide (SOS) as a series of free public networking events aiming to bring people affected by suicide together to encourage an open discourse and break down the taboos around mental health and suicide.
Following the success of the inaugural SOS event in Leamington Spa soon after Anna’s death, the pair have travelled all over the country to facilitate the forums, often with the support of high-profile speakers like footballer Clarke Carlisle, who has been open about his own attempts to take his life.
Sometimes 20 people will turn up, other times it’s more like 200. But every event functions as a “safe space”, giving people permission to talk about this prolific killer – there are more than 6,000 suicides in the UK every year.
“Yvette came up with the name ‘Silence of Suicide’ because of the silence before and after,” Michael says. “People don’t want you to know they’ve made the decision to end their life so they’ll lull you into a false sense of security, pretend everything is fine. “Then after they’ve gone through with it, the people left behind feel like they can’t talk about it.”
Michael has been open about the shock he felt upon learning of Anna’s suicide, which he describes as coming “out of the blue”, not long after she was diagnosed with depression. In the weeks before her death the mother-of-two had been given notice of a redundancy at work, a factor Michael believes contributed to her decision.
“I think she just wanted to resolve it all,” he says. “Stress is what drives people to make these decisions, stress of redundancy, of not being enough, and people get to a stage where they feel they need to end their lives.”
Stress levels in the Square Mile have been in the spotlight following the Brexit vote, with some mental health experts attributing the uncertainty surrounding Britain’s decision to leave the European Union to “a mental health crisis” in the financial sector.
Research from the Bank Workers Charity revealed that 65% of employees worked up to 30 hours more per week than contracted; 42% had trouble relaxing, and 60% admitted to poor quality of sleep.
In May the former Lord Mayor of the City of London, Jeffrey Mountevans, launched ‘This is Me’, a City-wide mental health campaign that encourages workers who have experienced a mental health problem to share their story with colleagues via a video message or chat room.
Michael believes the campaign shows “an effort in the right direction”, but remains convinced that face-to-face contact, rather than more screen time would be more effective.
“We ran a session at [law firm] Linklaters as part of their Mental Health Week and we suggested they just set aside a room with a few couches and tea and coffee where people are going to be able to talk and not feel like they are going to get reported to their boss as a weak link,” he says.
These ‘safe spaces’ are a vision he and Yvette have for the national rollout of SOS – a place in each town and village where people can go to share their experiences and help others to open up. For this, they need funding, and additional volunteers to help run the centres.
“We’re hoping that through these networking opportunities people can make connections and eventually take control and start holding their own events,” Yvette explains.
Everybody in the room seems to agree that more needs to be done at government level to shift the approach towards mental health from one of “disaster recovery” to being more proactive and preventative. To this end Michael and Yvette met with Prime Minister Theresa May late last year to discuss how the government can better provide services to support people affected by suicide. She invited them back to advise on the government’s next Suicide Prevention Strategy, which is currently in development.
Both believe the government is taking mental health “seriously”. “It is clear that the Prime Minister understands that suicide needs to be higher on the agenda,” Yvette says. “We’re taking what we’ve learned, and our experience and the experiences of others, and feeding them into what we hope will be a strategy that makes a real difference.”
At the conclusion of the meeting, people hang around chatting, exchanging business cards, refilling their teacups. Nobody seems to want to leave. Yvette, who flits between groups, comforting some, laughing with others, isn’t surprised.
“Talking is incredibly therapeutic – it certainly has been for us, for Michael,” she says. “We can all manage our situations to a degree, but if you can just get people together, get them sharing their experiences, give people permission to talk about it, they’ll find a respite.”
For further information about Silence of Suicide visit www.sossilenceofsuicide.org