In the two years since his son Ben killed himself while he was in college, Chris Brown has campaigned tirelessly for mental health and suicide prevention charities. Here he describes the lessons to be learned from the tragic loss of his family. Call the Samaritans free on 116 123.
Chris Brown has a strong message for parents.
“The fact is, suicide is still the leading cause of death among young adults in this country,” he says.
“Speak to a parent and ask what is the most likely thing your child could die of, it’s not a disease, it’s not a crime, it’s not an accident – it’s suicide. But most parents don’t know that and need to be aware of it.”
The 53-year-old Berkshire IT consultant is painfully aware of the devastation that suicide can bring to a family.
In April 2020, his son Ben took his own life while he was studying at Loughborough University. He was only 22.
Described by Chris as “engaged, very popular and committed”, Ben, like most other students his age, enjoyed traveling abroad and all the social aspects that came with studying – he loved his university life.
“That’s how he was,” Chris said. “But he had another side.”
Chris said his son struggles with “conventional learning” like being in classrooms and taking exams – something common for people with autism.
“He was neurodiverse, which presented challenges in his life. It led to anxiety and stress and not being able to cope with some things that “normal” people would be able to cope with.”
Ben, from Gloucester, had studied Architectural Engineering and Design Management. He was also enlisted in the army as an officer cadet and was to go to Sandhurst after university. Though Ben was “brilliant” on all other coursework, he struggled with long written essays, Chris said.
He was just repeating his senior year, having failed to complete his dissertation the year before, and although he told his family he had the big picture, in reality he had done nothing.
Then the coronavirus pandemic put the whole country into lockdown and like so many others, Ben was confined to his student accommodation. Living in the attic of a converted home meant his only daylight came from a skylight in the ceiling.
“He would lie on his bed and look at clouds,” Chris said.
“But when you’re 22 and you’re so energetic and you live there alone and the government tells you there’s nothing you can do but exercise 30 minutes a day, it’s really tough.”
Ben took his own life the night before his dissertation was due.
Since his death, Ben’s family has tirelessly raised funds for mental health charities and campaigned to raise awareness about suicide. The family have raised more than £50,000 for Papyrus, a youth mental health charity which has been used mainly to educate people on suicide prevention.
Chris is also a co-founder of WASP, the Workplace Suicide Prevention Awareness Campaign, and advocates for changing the law to record workplace suicides.
Chris, who is separated from Ben’s mother Helen Hartery-Brown, said they were both in an online support group for parents who lost their children to suicide.
He said: “Every day there are new members in this group – that is the scale of the problem in this country. It’s a big deal and we’re just one of many, many parents waking up to it. That’s all we care about, all that’s keeping families from going through this.”
He describes the guilt he still feels. “You’re not raising your kid to kill themselves, so you feel like you failed as a parent because your kid did that, and it’s hard to live with that.”
Ben is just one of dozens of students who die by suicide each year.
In the three years to December 2020, 106 students in Scotland and 19 students in Northern Ireland died by suicide, separate figures show.
Loughborough University, where Ben studied, was one of the universities that said it had no record of the number of students who died by suicide.
Responding to a freedom of information request sent by NationalWorld, the university said the information was not kept: “Although we record student deaths, we cannot confirm the cause of death. We do not receive reports from coroners, nor do we ask students’ families about the cause of death.”
A Loughborough University spokesman said they are not actively seeking confirmation of the cause of death from the coroner or family, but are reviewing all student deaths.
“We have a dedicated mental health support team at the university that provides practical support and pastoral support to students with mental health problems.
“The university also has a dedicated wellbeing team that students can turn to at any time of the year.
“We work with local health services and run suicide prevention projects and engagements. Information on the services offered to students is communicated regularly and particularly at important times during the academic year.”
Chris said he doesn’t blame the university for his son’s death.
“What I can see from most universities is that they are very good at offering mental health support. At the end of the day, there will always be people who drop out of their own accord, and that was Ben,” said Chris.
“At the end of the day he was 22, he was an adult, we can’t always blame everyone else. He had many opportunities to pick up the phone. He was involved with suicide charities, he raised funds for them, so he knew exactly what to do when you were feeling down.
“He didn’t do anything about it. Blaming the university would be wrong, but there is a lesson to learn.”
Chris said he would like to see families being more involved when it comes to a student’s well-being.
“If a student repeats a year and has problems again, there has to be some kind of intervention that should definitely involve the parents – we weren’t involved,” he said.
Chris said he doesn’t know if getting the parents involved is always the right solution because some students would like to be more independent, “but if you’re saving young people’s lives, then maybe it’s the right answer”.
He said if a student fails to complete a significant amount of coursework, it should be reported to someone else.
“There have to be escalation levels when it’s clear that a student is clearly having problems. The university then has a responsibility to tag someone. They know the parents, or they should, so I think that’s the obvious place to start. I think there must be a shake.”
If you or someone you know is affected by this issue:
- papyrus offers support and advice for young people up to the age of 35. Contact Papyrus HopelineUK on 0800 068 4141, SMS 07860 039967 or email [email protected]
https://www.nationalworld.com/health/chris-browns-son-ben-took-own-life-battling-prevent-more-student-suicides-3716725 The grieving father struggles to prevent a student’s suicide