Have you had the experience, of knowing something is real and around; but only when you have a personal connection with it, do you see it almost everywhere?
This is my experience of suicide. I work with clients who have suicidal thoughts and I actively facilitate their ability to see good in their life; but I'm happy to say I have never had a client commit suicide.
In 2014 one of my closest friend's brother took his own life; the devastation was immeasurable - grief, helpless and anger. Everywhere.
Perhaps I'll share my experience of this in another post, when my friend is in the place for me to do so; but today I want to share with you, the experience of Leah Dobson. I met Leah through our mutual friend, with who she experiences a similar pain.
I approached Leah to do this interview around World Suicide Prevention Day, but due to our work commitments, we have only just been able to make it happen.
Warning - the purpose of this interview is to spread the words of bullying, suicide, mental health, drug and alcohol misuse and to to spread light where it hasn't shone for a while; but in doing so, you may experience strong emotional reactions to some or all of the content, so please take care of yourself.
Alex: Hi Leah, I'm so glad we eventually got around to doing this, thank you for your time. I know we've already spoken about you letting me know if you need some time out, or if things get too difficult - that still stands. To start, could you tell me a little bit about why you started Joshua's Light Foundation and what you hope to achieve from doing it?
Leah: Absolutely, for years now, I have been interested in looking after the needs of those with mental ill health or psychological distress and I originally tried to become a dual-trained nurse so that I could optimise the care I delivered to patients on all spectrum's. After qualifying as a Registered Adult Nurse in 2006, I continued reading around my interest in metal health and substance misuse; knowing that there was a great link between physical and mental ill health. Whilst I was training and into my junior years of being qualified, Joshua, my younger brother, was facing many issues at school with bullying.
Joshua was different to many he went to school with; highly intelligent with an "old head" on his shoulders, but was born a tall and well built child, so had the coordination of someone much younger. We knew Joshua was "different" but he didn't affect anyone; he was just a loving, caring and a beautiful child who would help absolutely anyone he could. Going into secondary school, the bullying Joshua was facing had increased somewhat; taking on new levels of mean and harmful tactics. The amount of times Joshua had "fallen over" at school, or "fallen down the stairs", started "feeling ill" or had forgotten something meaning he couldn't complete a class, was increasing. You have a gut feeling that things aren't quite right, but Joshua would never tell - "everything is fine".
As years went by and the severity became worse, Joshua fell ill to his mental health. Looking for any comfort and escapism led him to partaking in drug and alcohol abuse. Despite doing well with his recovery in the latter months, his life was ended abruptly on the 31st May 2015, at the tender young age of 18. We are not sure if Joshua meant to take his own life, or if it was a tragic mistake, but we do know this - his soul will live on through the charity and we hope that we can somehow help at least one person to know that they are not alone and help IS out there.
Alex: Thanks Leah, it seems as though the foundation has a few aims, would I be right in saying that it is to raise awareness of and support those effected by bullying, mental ill health, drug and alcohol abuse and suicide (though I hear this isn't a certain part of Joshua's story)?
Leah: Yes, we have a few aims. When we step back and look at the bigger picture, it is impossible to become just an "anti-bullying charity", or "substance misuse support group" as all of these factors are often interlinked. We want to raise awareness of what mental health and mental ill-health is, whilst exploring all the contributing factors within. For instance, exploring that bullying can cause those individuals to suffer mental ill-health, of which many will reach out and look for coping mechanisms that are detrimental, such as self-harming and substance misuse.
However, we want people to realise that your mind has the ability to change and be "neuroplastic", meaning that with professional help and guidance in therapies such as yours, the mindset can alter and inner peace can be restored. Being in the job I am, I see many patients in self-destruct and therefore sometimes creating psychological issues secondary to their lifestyle choices - it is about promoting good health and well-being overall, and enabling people to understand the effects of their choices. That's what we hope to do.
Alex: That sounds fantastic and whilst often, a loss of a loved one can ignite a passion, I understand that you have had a passion for well-being and mental health long before you sadly lost your brother. One of my closest friends, a friend of yours too I know, lost her brother to suicide and I think she would be OK with me saying, that she believes "you can never understand what it's like, unless it has happened to you". Does your own loss, your experience of being a sister of a loved brother who suffered for a long time and your grief, play a part in the work you do within the foundation? You clearly have the training but you also have the personal experience - that sounds like a huge strength of the foundation.
Leah: Absolutely. I'm not actually sure that I have started to grieve properly at all yet, but I am acutely aware that the whole experience will haunt me for the rest of my life and has altered my personality and mental health. Joshua being the "baby" brother made me feel as though I should have done more, anticipated it, etc. Now - for me, it is seeing those who suffer in silence around me, they remind me of Joshua and I see chances available to help or save their lost soul. It is this that drives the charity forward. Although as a family, we feel that we possibly failed on many levels, we hope to prevent another family feeling the heartache we do each day.
Alex: As you say this, there are already familiar thought process that I have heard from our mutual friend; failure, protection, responsibility and the unrealistic 'I should have known'...
Do you find that families seek your support as much as the person in the depth of their struggle? Who and/or what was there for you and your family? Did you access support and was it valuable and would you recommend it?
Leah: Yes, both our friend and I mimic these feelings, as you say. I have spoken to many individuals over the years as a nurse, and recently in the charity who state these very same things. I believe this would be a running theme in many a person's thought process who has been in a similar situation.
Families have disclosed the feelings of utter hopelessness and pure guilt to me - they feel they could have prevented the deaths of their loved ones. Although I can completely understand and empathise with them, my professional side does take over and enables a more logical approach. I often would try to balance their feelings with realism - could you have watched them each and every day in order to prevent this from happening?
We have had parents, family members and friends contact us at the charity. Some don't actually know what they want to say, but it is a way of reaching out and gaining support when they need it most.
Our experience was slightly different though, we didn't access any support groups and were led by professional help, but only in the last two years. At the peak of the bullying and start of self-destruction, we were ill-supported by professional help and felt as though we were making a mountain out of a molehill. We knew Joshua was mentally ill and so we tried to take the proactive route; knowing what mum and I know and have experienced in our lives and careers, we didn't want to see Joshua go down a particular route. However, we were sent away the first few times and really, didn't know of any charities or support groups at that time. We battled through as a family and suffered with Joshua. Now, this help is readily available and advertised much more freely than it was even a few years ago.
Alex: As we speak Leah, what feels important for you; what do you want people to hear?
Leah: How we feel that Joshua and the family were judge and how this impacted the support we got and the progress he made.
On reflection of the services we visited in the beginning, it was quite apparent that Joshua was judged from some of the professionals he had seen. We also felt that as a family, we were judged by Joshua's actions.
Alex: Whilst I think the judgement of the services is really important, are you able to share how you felt he was judged, without bashing the service? What was Joshua accessing the services for and how do you think they failed him?
Leah: From the onset, the GP who had dealt with Joshua was fantastic in every way. Such a kind and lovely person with a huge amount of empathy which empowered Joshua to see some local Mental Health Services, and because of the GP's encouragement, he gained a little bit more confidence and so agreed to go.
When we met the service provider's nurse for assessment, Joshua was taken for assessment whilst we waited. As professionals, we understand that you can only work with what you are given from patients, but in such careers, there must be an element of compassion, understanding and ability to remain non-judgemental.
Within the assessment, we were made to believe that Joshua did not want to engage. I come across this every day in my work, but this is were you use your interpersonal skills and enhanced communication to engage someone who is suffering. The importance of this is proven by looking at the engagement Joshua had with the GP, compared to that of the other service providers. Once we were taken in for the assessment evaluation, it was stated, that because Joshua was smoking and had taken some light drugs (very rare at this point), they were therefore limited as a service with very little to do for him.
I clearly remember both the facial expressions and the tone of voice with this particular individual assessor; we felt utter judgement as though we had done little to prevent this. Both mum and I tried to explain that Joshua was partaking in these particular acts as forms of coping strategies, and we asked for further assessments.
Joshua was assigned a couple of Drama Therapy sessions which looking at the lack of engagement, I argue was a poor choice of therapy. After these sessions, very little was provided and "no further input was required". Suffice to say that we had no direction and no advice; we tried to help Joshua, yet were acutely aware of the deterioration in his mental health and unhealthy outlook to life.
Alex: I'm having quite a strong reaction to this Leah, I feel anger and sadness when I think about the desperation around for you all and how exposed Joshua may have felt during the process.
Do you know why there was little to do because of the alcohol and drugs at this time; what did this mean with regards to him accessing support?
I 100% agree with you when you speak about communication - it's part of our role isn't it, to be able to adapt in order to engage with patients and clients. When we consider the nature of our work, be it medical or therapeutic - for many it is a very scary world; vulnerabilities are heightened, as is the unknown.
Leah: Absolutely, these reflect the feeling experienced at the time. We had no direction as to where we could gain support for Joshua's alcohol and drug use at this point. The reaction we faced was basically "he shouldn't be doing this" and "drugs can make his mental health worse". Well yes, we understood this very well but how did we get support elsewhere at this stage? Who could we speak to? The replies were very limited and so, we muddled through, knowing that the drugs were enabling this "escapism" he so desperately wanted, rather than sitting in reality where he felt at his most vulnerable.
Alex: I'm trying to imagine being you....the conflict that I can imagine; wanting your brother to have his escapism, to be able to cope in the only way he has developed so far, but knowing it's unhealthy and accepting that he needs more than the love of his sister and Mum - more than being told 'it's not good for you'.
I'm not speaking for the services, or society as a whole, but often, the view is that it is choice... I get this, it starts off as choice, and sometimes it's useful to frame it that way. However, when desperation and self harm are in the mix, it certainly doesn't feel that way for the individual - and it's the individual that should be worked with...
Knowing what you know now, drawn from your own experience and what is out there and readily available today; what advice would you give to families scared for a loved one today? And is there a message you'd like to get across to the people suffering directly?
Leah: It was really hard for us. I remember saying to the nurse in question, that surely prevention is better than cure, in which the response was less than adequate and the question of "how do you want us to prevent this?"
Working where I was at that time, I expressed that we looked after individuals on a daily basis who have self harmed either deliberately, or that they have chosen a life of self-destruct which has landed them in a critically ill state. Both mum and I couldn't comprehend the little understanding from the other side of the room; we were perplexed, to say the least.
Joshua had already expressed that he didn't see the point in living and that he wouldn't be here passed the age of 18 years old. The family obviously struggled to hear this, and we were very open with him about his views and outlook on life. We tried hard, although in hindsight, we wish every day that we had sought more advice and found charities for further support, as well as sending him to a retreat earlier.
What was bizarre to us, is that Joshua did receive great care from the age of 18, both from Mental Health Services and the Drug and Alcohol Service. Had these service have been readily available at that time to those younger than 18, or even recommend to us, the story may have been different and we may have been able to prevent his death. By no means are we saying the services are to blame for Joshua's death. Joshua had capacity and did "choose his path" as some would say, but we would have really appreciated empathy, understanding and help!
Having capacity to make your own choices is such a hard situation, when you know that the choices made are detrimental yet you are limited to how you can deal with them. We understand and appreciate that the services can be limited to deal with such issues, given the red-tape and policies involved.
We would say, that if you are concerned about a loved one, a friend, or even yourself... you MUST seek advice as early as possible. We know that some research has suggested that if an individual has developed a particular mindset and such coping strategies before the age of 21, it can become harder to change their outlook. However, we want to tell everyone that this is not applicable to everybody because...
By no means are we saying this is an easy process, because it isn't. I think you do need to want to improve in order to be more successful, but if you fall; charities, support groups and professionals can always help you get back on your feet again. There will be individual cases that are so severe, they will require heavy input from Mental Health Services, but many can be helped much before this stage.
The key is education and prevention - this is what many professionals such as yourself, and charities are aiming for. Talking, expressing, communicating, in whatever format, can relieve pressure in how you are feeling and can be so incredibly helpful.
Alex: Thank you Leah. They are true words, and heart felt I can tell. I can back up your claim that hope is not lost if you're older than 21; wow, my oldest client was in their 70's!
Before we finish, where can people get in touch or be part of your work now or in the future?
Leah: We are securing sites for support groups for anyone, at any age, who is struggling with their mental and well-being; and even those who have been bereaved by such topics as mental health, drug and alcohol. These support groups will be an outlet to many and a true safe and non-judgemental place where we hope they feel comfortable.
As well as the support groups, we are incredibly positive that we can make a difference through our educational workshops and talks. We have delivered workshops to around 150 16-18 year olds already and have many more events to come. The feedback was fantastic to hear and we have been blessed in knowing that many have been helped by our work already.
As with physical health, prevention is better that cure! We aim to help as many as we can, to understand the process they could face, or what they have dealt with or witnessed; and how to help themselves and others.
Resilience is something we hope to build amongst the young whilst we can; empowering them to get help, because quite simply... It's okay to not be okay.
Alex: Absolutely - where can we sign post people to? I have the Facebook page noted, where else and how else can people get in touch?
Leah: We have our website: www.joshuaslightfoundation.org.uk with self-help links that we will update regularly.
We have our e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, our Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/joshuaslightfoundation and lastly our mobile number 07957 373701.
Alex: Leah, thank you ever so much for taking the time to share your story and I think it's safe to say, on behalf over everyone who is struggling - thank you for all your efforts.
Leah and I will hopefully be doing some more work together in the future so perhaps we'll see you again soon. If you don't want to wait for that to happen, and you want to reach out now - Leah is 100% sincere when she says Joshua's Light Foundation is available for you.