I lost my 23-year-old son to suicide – we need a 999 for mental health

I spoke at my father’s funeral. I spoke at my mother’s funeral.

Those were difficult and painful speeches to make – but what got me through was that sitting in front of me was my family, including my son, Cal.

Cal would tell me after those speeches, ‘Dad, I am so proud of you for being able to do that.’

‘Mate, it was only possible because I could see you in front of me,’ would be my reply.

I never imagined the day would come where I’d be standing in front of friends and family, speaking at Cal’s service. That I’d be setting up a charity in the honour of my own child.

My son, Cal Stuart, died by suicide on the 7 January 2021 – he was just 23.

He had a smile that would soften the hardest of hearts. He cared deeply for those around him, often stopping and sitting down to have a conversation when he was walking past a homeless person. He’d ask how they were doing, whether they needed anything.

Growing up, Cal had no interest in the ‘in crowd’ – he was always more drawn to people who were lonely, or might be struggling in some way.

Those who were hurt, Cal would help heal; those who felt they did not ‘fit in’, Cal would elevate their self-worth.

He was a favourite in the workplace, with colleagues actively changing their shift patterns simply so they could work alongside him.

As a family, we were super close. We always talked about our family as ‘the four of us’ – Cal, his sister, Cyan, me and his mum.

Everything we dreamed of together, we’d make it work – whether that was setting up a beach bar in the south of France, or planning to attend music festivals together.

We never imagined we’d become three.

Cal suffered from depression and a heightened sense of anxiety, intensified by the pandemic and the impact on the hospitality sector in which Cal worked.

Then, in the 18 months prior to Cal’s passing, two male friends took their own lives.

Not only did this acutely impact Cal, it also made him statistically more likely to take his own life. A survey on people bereaved and affected by suicide published in 2022 showed that suicide had a major impact on over three-quarters of participants, with over a third reporting suicidal ideation and 8% attempting suicide as a direct result of suicide loss.

Signing the authorisation form to commit Cal to his cremation, at the tender age of only 23, was by far the most painful, heart-wrenching thing I have ever done in my life. It will haunt me forever, and I wish it upon no parent.

Our family had days where optimism, hope and a hold on the future totally abandoned us.

But thankfully, we were surrounded by so many who reached out to us in our pain. With words of profound comfort, they helped us stitch our hearts back together again.

It was this that enabled us to slowly open our eyes again to the future – a different future, with Cal beside us in spirit, rather than in person.

In the weeks following Cal’s death, his friendship group reached out to us, too. In those conversations, it became clear that they simply weren’t empowered or have the resources to deal with the suicide of three of their friends – especially as were only just coming out of the pandemic.

They retreated back into their spaces – alone and without support, not knowing how to care for their own wellbeing or that of their friends.

And we weren’t the only ones going through this. In 2021, Cal was one of an estimated 5,219 of people in England who took their own lives. Like Cal, these people likely had families, friends, colleagues, neighbours – people affected by their loss, but who had to live on without support.

We knew we had to do something in Cal’s name, to help people – especially young adults – who have been impacted by suicide. But it had to be more than a charity.

We wanted to inspire a movement, created and led by young people – a tribe of energised young activists who have been deeply affected by the mental health crisis. Ready to create the change that policymakers are simply failing to put in place for them.

That was how we came up with The Calzy Foundation, an organisation that would campaign for a distinct three-digit number for mental health emergencies, that would provide free mental health first response training to young adults and develop a peer-to-peer support framework for young adults bereaved by suicide.

It was also important that we involved his peer and friendship group, so The Calzy Foundation incorporated a Youth Board, right from the start, to ensure their voice was heard.

We are determined to destigmatise the word ‘suicide’, to prepare young people for the prospect of mental ill-health.

By encouraging people to talk openly about mental health and building a society where people feel more at ease to reach out and support their friends, family, colleagues and community is the only way we can address the shocking statistics on suicide.

At the moment, we are focusing on campaigning the government to establish a distinct three-digit mental health emergency line – the mental health equivalent of 999.

I want others to have a simple mental health emergency number that simply was not there for my son. A number that may have saved his life.

This number would be operational 24 hours a day, every day of the year and answered by fully trained mental health professionals. Callers would be assessed and referred through to the service they need, including the emergency services if necessary.

Need support for your mental health?

You can contact mental health charity Mind on 0300 123 3393 or text them on 86463.

Mind can also be reached by email at [email protected].

It would take the pressure off the police, and other emergency services and it would send a clear message that mental health emergencies are taken as seriously as other medical emergencies.

It is not intended to replace the wonderful services of providers such as Samaritans or Suicide and Co – it simply provides a more accessible, memorable 3-digit number for those in crisis to call.

Currently, there are many mental health helplines, which are run by different organisations – operating in local areas, and at different times. This means knowing who to turn to when facing a mental health emergency is often confusing or overwhelming.

With the confusion surrounding who to call, people with suicidal intentions and those in mental health crisis are calling 999, despite operators often having little or no mental health training.

Back in May, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley announced that the police would no longer attend any calls related to mental health incidents from September, unless a threat to life is feared.

Despite this only further confusing the issue of who people in crisis should call, the government hasn’t responded with a solution to this.

After launching a petition, we’ve received over 130,000 signatures, and are determined to press the government for implementation of this vital helpline that people who are in a heightened state of anxiety and suicide ideation will be able to remember.

We, as a family, are still heartbroken over the loss of Cal – we’re determined to stop other families going through a similar fate.

For anyone suffering trauma or crisis in their mental health, our objective is simple – for them to have the confidence to say, ‘Today is going to be OK – tomorrow now seems possible’.

You can sign The Calzy Foundation’s petition here

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