I’ve always found climbing to be a great way to escape. If it’s been a hectic day in the Peak Mountaineering office it always helps to head to the crags for a few hours. At difficult times in my life it is always climbing that I’ve turned too. When you are focussed on those tricky moves or that fiddly gear placement there is no head space for other things. Of course, what also helps is that you tend to be out in beautiful places and enjoying the benefits of the natural environment. For these reasons, it seemed to me that a good climbing session would help my friend during a particularly difficult time in his life…….
I hadn’t seen Dan (not his real name!) for some time, but was well aware that he was fighting some very dark personal demons. We had previously climbed together lots over many years and it was simply jobs and family that had, in the last decade, drawn us apart. Friends had kept me up to date with where he was at and so I called him up and suggested we meet for a cragging day. I was surprised when he agreed. Delighted, but surprised.
We met up in our favourite Peak District cafe and it was just like old times. Dan had always been one of those friends who, despite not seeing him often enough, we always meshed immediately and it felt like only yesterday since we had last been together. It was a lovely clear spring Peak District day and conversation flowed freely. He seemed just like he was the last time I saw him and it wasn’t at all obvious he was in a difficult place. I inwardly congratulated myself on thinking of such a great option and naively imagined just bringing him back to the rocks he loved had solved his problems.
I led a straight forward climb and belayed him up. He led another. It was just like old times and I was wondering if my friends had been talking about someone else when they had described the suicidal thoughts, the tears, the overuse of alcohol and the early hours phone calls they were regularly receiving.
At some point we stopped for a break and Dan excused himself to go to the toilet. I thought nothing of it and ate my sandwich in the sun. It was all very pleasant and it was actually a little while before I clocked that he was still gone. I pulled on some shoes and went to see where he was, although I’d kind of guessed already. He was sat on a boulder overlooking the valley with his head in his hands with tears flowing freely. I sat by his side and wondered what, if anything, I could do or say.
I realised, in that single moment, that I really knew nothing at all about how he was feeling. It was a valuable lesson and yet a totally demoralising feeling – I wanted so much to help my friend and yet had to appreciate I wasn’t really able to be more than a supportive shoulder. Once he was able to communicate again I weakly urged him to seek professional help. He nodded resignedly.
We did climb more that day and I went home feeling the day had been productive but I also, as he climbed out of my car at his house, realised that I hadn’t down much at all to help him in the long term. I didn’t sleep much that night as I wondered how to deal with the situation. I have never been more relieved than the following morning when he sent a text with a simple smiley emoji and the time 10am. I knew he had booked a doctor’s appointment.
He has had his ups and downs since then but, with plenty of support from both friends and professionals, he has led a fulfilled and very productive life. The professional support was key and I am hopeful I played a small part in getting him there. I see him often and those darker days are addressed regularly. He has also identified his return to climbing as a big aid on his journey. Above all, Dan has learnt to be very open about the challenges and this has been key to his progress too.
The prompt for this blog post was the tragic news last week that Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington had taken his own life. I was devastated that this had happened to an extremely talented 41 year old with a successful career, huge following, a loving partner and a young family. Devastated, and yet I immediately saw the striking parallels with Dan. Linkin Park have been a part of my life for years and, like it has for many, their music has been very influential in my own emotional ups and downs. Chester’s death closely followed the death of his talented musician friend Chris Cornell and I know of several other young people that have taken their own lives. Infact, if you look at the stats, nothing about what happened to Chester and Chris is really that unusual – if you are a man aged between 20 and 49 you are more likely to die from suicide than cancer, road accident or heart disease.
These things are happening and I don’t understand why – but I do want to better understand. Chester had a troubled past and yet, watching him in recent interviews, no outwardly visible signs of his inner turmoil were apparent (to my untrained eye at least). He was cheerful, charming, charismatic and forward looking.
Chester did have some history and yet many people who take their own lives have never sought help or treatment. 75% of people have never been diagnosed with any kind of mental health problem and only 5% of those with a history of depression go on to take their own lives. The problem is also getting worse with the UK suicide rate rising by 3.8% since 2014.
It is a massive problem and yet it seems that, as a society, we are still not properly addressing it. Maybe some of the reason for this is historical? Before the 1961 Suicide Act taking your own life was illegal and it still seems to carry a sense, in some eyes, of being a cowardly escape. We’ve all heard the term ‘taking the easy way out’ in relation to those who take their own lives. It is surely never, by any descriptor, an easy option.
I remember the same traits I saw in Chester’s history in my friend Dan, but during that time many would have been totally unaware that Dan was dealing with any problems at all. If we were chatting to others in the pub or he met people at the crag he would always exude cheerfulness and positivity. He has always been so outwardly confident and charismatic and that period in his life was no different – I often wondered if I’d totally misread the situation.
I’ll be climbing with Dan again next week and the thing I’ve learned most is to be upfront about things. If he raises the matter of Chester’s death I won’t shy away from discussing it just as we talked at length about Chris Cornell. He knows about it and it is on his mind and so, if he needs to, the advice I’ve had is that it shouldn’t be ignored or brushed under the carpet.
There may be some positive news from the Government today too. The proposed plan is to fund thousands more mental health worker jobs in the coming years and this can only be a good thing. A good thing, but we also really do need to address the way we all view suicide and mental health issues.
Posted by Paul