Picture this. You are walking when you come across a stranger who shows disturbing signs of mental health problems – would you know what to say or do to help?
Many may choose to look the other way, fearing that well-meaning but clumsy words can make matters worse.
But mental health experts agree that a kind word or deed can make all the difference. It can even save a life. Saying something – something – that shows concern is better than doing nothing.
“We know that a kind act can be the difference between life and death when a person is in despair,” said Mark Rowland, director of the mental health charity, who made kindness the theme of this month’s awareness week.
Savior: Tommy and Gillian and her dog Joey. The pair met last year when Tommy was about to jump off a bridge over a railroad
“Kindness can forcefully remind others that they are not isolated, and that feeling of togetherness is also an essential protection against suicidal thoughts,” he adds.
And as the blockage continues, campaigners say this is more important than ever, with leading mental health charity, SANE, recently warning that the pandemic could trigger a “ mental health crisis. ”
Tragically, cases of suicide have been linked to lockdown. Last month, Michael Burton, 54, a former Chesterfield police officer, and Ben Brown, a 22-year-old student from Gloucester, both committed suicide.
Michael’s family said he struggled with the isolation, while Ben’s mother said her son spent so much time alone with his own thoughts “overwhelming.”
Experts emphasize that a number of complex factors, such as anxiety, alcohol or substance abuse, and other mental health problems may lie behind a person’s attempt to commit suicide.
However, the added pressure of Covid-19 insulation can make things worse. “Loneliness can be a killer,” said Marjorie Wallace, SANE CEO.
Mark Rowland adds, “Kind deeds can brighten someone else’s day more than you may know. Being willing to intervene to talk to someone in need is something we can do, even without experience or training. ‘
What a difference a friendly word can make is dramatically illustrated here, in the story of how a mother of three prevented a stranger from killing herself on a railroad track after running into him while walking her family dog.
He was someone’s child – I had to help
Gillian Assor, 50, who runs a nanny agency, lives in Borehamwood, Herts, with her husband David, 51, a financial adviser, and their children Benjamin, 23, Oliver, 21, and Isabel, 19. She says:
David and I were walking with our family puppy Joey in a nearby park when I heard someone sob as we approached a gate that opens onto a walkway over a railroad.
When we got to the gate, I saw a bent figure on the bridge. It was a young man and he walked back and forth and cried inconsolably. I had a very bad feeling about it.
The man was the same age as my oldest son. I thought, “That’s someone’s child.”
I said to David, “God forbid we walk by now and hear that there was a death the next day.” We decided that David would stick around and I would approach Joey.
I didn’t know what to expect – but I couldn’t wait and do nothing. I took a few cautious steps forward and yelled, “Excuse me – are you okay?” The words were just the first to come to mind – I had never been in a remote situation like this before.
He replied, “No, I am not!” He was angry and emphatic. Still, I was relieved that he replied because it meant I had his attention.
I slowly approached until I was about a foot and a half away from him. He sobbed, talked to himself, and walked around. He stopped and leaned forward; he was so tormented.
Gillian Assor (right, with Tommy and her dog Joey), 50, who runs a childcare agency, lives in Borehamwood, Herts, with husband David, 51, a financial advisor, and their children Benjamin, 23, Oliver, 21, and Isabel , 19
I came a little closer and suggested we sit down together, so we sat on the floor of the bridge with little Joey wedged between us.
I asked him normal questions, such as what’s your name? How old are you? Are you going to study?
I told him that my son had also gone to the same college. I played time, tried to distract him and calm him down.
At first I only got one-word answers, but as time went on, he started petting the dog and noticing how cute he was. (Joey is a cavapoochon – a cross between an arrogant King Charles spaniel, bichon frize, and toy poodle.)
I babbled and tried to extend the conversation. I promised him that whatever he wanted to tell me about why he was on the bridge, I would always keep it to myself. He mentioned one or two things, but I kept my word and didn’t tell anyone else. And I never will.
While we were talking, a train rattled underneath. It shivered over my back.
Tommy, as he told me, was still called, but his sobs were less agitated and I suggested he call his parents.
While he was on the phone I told them not to worry because he was not alone and that I would wait for them to arrive.
As we waited, I said, “Whatever took you this far is not worth your life. There is a big world and you are a great guy. ‘
When Tommy’s mother arrived, he collapsed into her arms. They just held each other and we went our separate ways. I had no idea how long I had been there with Tommy. Later I found out it was about 25 minutes, and all the while David watched patiently up close. I knew he was there to see if I was safe.
It felt very strange to walk away. I was shocked and struggled to believe what had just happened.
I held my own children very tight that night.
In the weeks that followed, I found it difficult to arrange. I couldn’t understand what had happened. I thought about it all the time and kept repeating events in my head, praying that he was okay and getting the help he needed.
One morning, four months later, my husband said that Tommy was trying to track me down through a community Facebook page.
He had written, “I realize I’m looking for a needle in a haystack, but I dare take that risk.
“Four months ago, May 28, I tried to take my life. It made sense then because I just wanted to be free from the pain, but I was prevented by a complete stranger walking her dog.
“This lady saved my life. This post is my attempt to find her and show my appreciation. ‘
I was on cloud nine to know he was fine and surprised but delighted to hear that he wanted to see me again.
A few days later we met at the local pub. I was very nervous, but the moment I entered, he came over and put his arms around me. He clung to me for about two minutes and said over and over, “You saved my life, you saved my life.”
We sat and talked for over an hour. Tommy said he wanted to meet the dog and we agreed to go for a walk with Joey that Sunday.
Since then, an incredible friendship has developed between us. We meet and talk and text all the time. I wanted him to know I would be there when he needed me.
On December 16, seven months after that fateful day on the bridge, we arranged a day to go back to help Tommy overcome his bad memories and replace them with something positive.
It was a very special afternoon; we sat on a blanket exactly where we were before. It was emotional and uplifting – ending a chapter where life looked so bleak for Tommy and the start of a new, exciting and happier time. It is a moment that I will always cherish.
Tommy had to wait a long time for treatment, but I have seen him getting better and happier. He is doing so well now and has discovered a whole new community of friends.
I’m in the background when he needs me. We still catch up every few weeks and also meet.
My advice to someone else who runs into someone in need like I did is to say something – whatever. Better than doing nothing.
Remember, that’s someone’s mother, child, or spouse in that situation.
I had lost the motivation to live
Tommy Beddard, 25, works in IT and lives in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire. He says:
If it wasn’t for Gillian, I wouldn’t be alive today. There is no doubt about that.
That Monday in May 2018, I was in such a gloomy place that I wanted to end my own life. Things were built up in my head in such a way that I no longer wanted anything to do with life.
While part of me was concerned about taking the last step because I knew I would hurt those I loved, another powerful part of me felt compelled to carry it on.
I felt pain, self-hatred and I wanted to disappear. I had lost the motivation to live.
Tommy Beddard (photo with Gillian’s dog Joey), 25, IT worker, lives in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire
I was on the bridge when I heard a woman ask if I was okay. I yelled back that I was not.
Then I sat down, curled up and started crying. She came up and started to speak. It distracted me from my misery.
She had a small dog with her, Joey, who helped immensely. He seemed to sense something was wrong and tried to kiss my cheek.
She talked to me like I was a friend she hadn’t seen in a while. It was strange because I didn’t know her, but comforting nonetheless. After a while she suggested I call someone and waited for my parents to arrive. When they did that, they just held me and hugged me; the woman then left.
The next day I took the day off and told my boss what had happened.
My company was very supportive and I went to my doctor who gave me antidepressants and referred me for counseling. There was a waiting list, so I had to wait almost four months before I was finally assigned to a confidential counselor, one hour a week.
I started treatment just before Christmas and ended in May last year – and it really helped me get a sense of why I reacted the way I did and how to deal with those kinds of feelings in the future.
Meanwhile, I was desperate for the person who saved my life, although it took me a few months to build up the confidence to track her down. When she walked into the pub, I immediately recognized her and ran over to me and gave her a big hug. I was overjoyed to finally meet her.
We had a good conversation about everything that had happened since – the good and the bad – and got to know each other a bit.
I felt that since she was not related or connected to anyone else in my life, and she had seen me at my worst, I could talk to her even if I felt like nonsense.
I thought the idea of going back to the bridge was scary when Gillian suggested it. But over time, I decided it was the right way to replace the bad memories. The bridge leads to a beautiful park that I have visited a few times now.
As the one-year anniversary of my suicide attempt approached, I began to have troubling feelings again. It continues to haunt me to this day, but I feel that I can now continue with my life.
I now know that no matter how bad things seem, it’s not worth your life. You never know how many people care about you – and there are more people who care about it than you think.
I would say to any passer-by who finds someone in need, just go there and make sure everything is fine. Don’t underestimate how much influence a simple conversation can have on someone’s life.
- If you are concerned about your own mental health or the mental health of someone you know, seek help and advice at mind.org.uk or mentalhealth.org.uk – or call the Samaritans’ free 24-hour helpline 116 123.