Personal goals: fathers breaking the silence around male suicide

Two men whose sons killed themselves are talking to young footballers about the importance of sharing their problems

Partnerships

19 July 2019

There is one statistic about male suicide, which makes for particularly stark reading: according the Office of National Statistics, it is the biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK. In other words, if you are a young British bloke, you are more likely to end your own life than die from illness, accident or disaster.

Ryan Smith and Nick Easey know this harsh truth all too well. Last year their sons, Lewis Smith, 23, and Max Easey, 21, ended their own lives. Neither father saw it coming.

Today, Ryan and Nick are meeting for the first time to share their experiences. They have travelled to Chigwell in Essex, home to football club Colebrook Royals, and in a few hours they will be recounting their stories to a group of teenage boys. They are anxious, but their mission is too important to worry about nerves. Both are desperate to encourage young men to talk about their feelings and lessen the possibility that other fathers will have to endure a similar tragedy.

Nick Easey and Ryan Smith talking to young players in changing rooms of Colebook Royals FC.jpg
Ryan and Nick talk to the young players at Colebrook Royals FC

Nick’s pain is still raw. His son Max was a keen rugby star when he took his own life in February 2018.

“Max was a larger than life character, in every sense of the word,” explains Nick. “His demeanour, his physical size, his personality. He was the lad that his peer group emulated – everyone wanted to be Max. He had the look. He had girlfriends from an early age and his friends looked up to him.

“At the time, I didn’t know that he was depressed, and his friends were all just absolutely gobsmacked. No one had any inkling that Max would consider doing that. No chance.”

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Nick Easey

Ryan’s son Lewis was a motorbike enthusiast who had lost a friend to suicide some years before.

He says: “When I last saw Lewis, he gave me a hug. I said, ‘I love you, mate’. He said, ‘I love you dad, see you later’. He walked out the house and that was it. That was the last time I saw him.

“Could I have prevented it? I don’t know. I suspect I could have if I had known how he was feeling deep down.”

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Ryan Smith

The pair have been brought together by AXA, who this year have partnered with Young Minds, one of the many charities fighting for young people’s mental health. All parties are here to spread the message to this group of teenage lads and beyond that speaking about your mental health is a strength, not a weakness.

It turns out to be a valuable day for everyone in the Colebrook Royals clubhouse. Not one of the boys - all aged between 14 and 15 – puts a hand in the air when asked whether they have conversations about mental health. But they listen intently to Nick and Ryan’s stories, and their advice on opening up.

Ryan urges: “Just grab somebody. Grab your best mate, grab your coach, your teacher, whatever. If you feel you need to speak to somebody, don’t just leave it.”

And Nick is keen to counter the toxic masculinity, often found in the football dressing room.

He pleads: “How many of you have sat down and really opened up your heart to one of your peers? You have got to break down that alpha male macho barrier. All you’ve got to do is talk.”

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The fathers talk about the importance of sharing problems

Among the grim statistics, there is one shining light: the suicide rate among men is beginning to decrease. Last year the Office for National Statistics revealed it was at its lowest level in the UK since 1981. But every death is still one too many, just as every grieving father (or mother or sister or brother) is one too many.

As the day comes to a close, Ryan and Nick are both experiencing something they haven’t felt in months – hope.

Ryan says: “It’s been an amazing experience, the whole thing – meeting Nick and sharing our experiences. We’re just two people who suffered tragic loss coming together to try to prevent it happening again.”

“I’ve done something today that perhaps might help one of these young men, or one of their friends, in the future,” adds Nick. “This is Max’s legacy.”

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Both men said they felt hope after talking to the teenagers

Written by Ally Farrell, Friday 17 July 2019, for The Sunday Times