Is 'remote, awful and inhumane' mental health support in north Norfolk behind a spate of young men's deaths?
PUBLISHED: 13:39 31 October 2018 | UPDATED: 14:48 31 October 2018
After recent deaths in north Norfolk, bereaved parents, a GP and a campaigner tell JESSICA FRANK-KEYES how a lack of local services is failing suicidal young men.
Grieving parents and a retired GP say “remote, awful and inhumane” mental health support is leaving young men in north Norfolk at a heightened risk of taking their own lives.
In recent months two young men have taken their lives in Cromer, with campaigners saying the number could be higher - and the finger is being pointed at poor support during crises.
Dr Alasdair Lennox, a retired Cromer GP, said: “All of the services that were useful to young men have gone.”
Mearl and Tracey Brown, the parents of 19-year-old Nyall, who took his own life in May this year, said a lack of support was “definitely a factor” in his death.
And Shawn Brown, father of 22-year-old Adam, who took his own life in June, warned of “more deaths” if things did not improve.
They spoke ahead of a landmark event tonight in Diss - one of four set up across the UK by the National Suicide Prevention Alliance, where people including Mr and Mrs Brown and Dr Lennox will be asked to help shape a strategy to reduce suicide rates.
NSPA has selected Norfolk because of its relatively high rate of suicide among younger people.
On Monday, chancellor Philip Hammond responded to Britain’s growing mental health problems by announcing a £2bn increase in funding, with a commitment to comprehensive support being available in every A&E department.
Dr Lennox and the parents of Nyall and Adam said problems in north Norfolk included:
• Increasing centralisation of services.
• Issues with public transport, unsociable working hours, and anxiety leaving people unable to travel to appointments.
• A reliance on phone services.
• Long waiting lists.
• The closure of drop-in centres.
Dr Lennox, a GP in Cromer for 25 years, said that, other than being referred to the crisis resolution team by a doctor, which could take up to five days, or seeking private counselling, people needing urgent support were often left with only the option of calling a helpline; which he described as “inhumane”.
“You can’t do it all over the phone,” he said. “The Samaritans are brilliant, but at some point you need to speak to someone.”
He added: “We used to have counsellors in our surgery which we paid for as GPs. They were very useful but we’ve lost that expertise and it’s all being cut back and centralised.
“You’re losing accessibility. If you’re offered an appointment in North Walsham, how are you going to get there? All of the services that were useful to young men have gone.”
He added: “There seems to be a very sad cluster going on at the moment with all these people in north Norfolk. We need to get the message out that it’s not shameful to talk about feelings. People just bottle it up.
“Breast cancer might kill you in five years but suicide is going to kill you today.”
Terry Skyrme, from the Campaign to Save Mental Health Services in Norfolk and Suffolk, said he was aware of up to six suicides in Cromer over the past few months.
He said: “Relatives say they tried and tried to get them help and it was never offered.”
Until last year, some mental health services in north Norfolk were delivered by the charity Together for Mental Wellbeing, which had a base in the area.
Together, alongside the St Martin’s Housing Trust and MIND, is now part of the Norfolk Integrated Housing and Community Support Service (NIHCSS), which delivers county-wide mental health support.
Mr Skyrme, 71, said the service, with bases in Norwich, Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn, had made it harder for people in north Norfolk to access support.
Norfolk County Council said this new way of working had helped focus on rehabilitation, and that issues were always investigated when they were raised.
Former health minister and North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said: “I lost my eldest sister to suicide. I’m acutely aware of the horror for families.”
He added: “The county council and the NHS need to look at how they deliver care. I do think if services are remote from where people live then they will fail.”
In response to a 2018 report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych), NHS England said the responsibility for funding some mental health services had been transferred to local government from mental health trusts.
But a Norfolk County Council (NCC) spokesman said they received no ring-fenced funding for mental health.
‘We were sent home with a ticking time bomb’
Skatepark campaigner Nyall Brown, 19, from Cromer, died on May 22 this year at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH) after a previous attempt to take his own life.
His parents, Mearl and Tracey, said a lack of mental health support was a factor in his death.
The former Grove waiter and Cromer Academy student was described by his mother as “a deeply sensitive, cheeky chappy, [with] his heart on his sleeve, who held his family and friends close”.
But Mrs Brown, 39, described the months leading up to her son’s death as a very difficult time.
She said: “Nyall tried to take his life at the end of January. In December he tried to self harm but I took him to the doctors.”
Nyall was directed towards the children, families and young people’s service drop in centre, a 40-minute drive away in Norwich.
Mrs Brown said: “It was a huge argument to get him there that morning. I must have battled with him for an hour and a half.
“He was told he could have a telephone call for an assessment. In between that and his first face-to-face he attempted suicide.”
After being discharged from hospital, Nyall was placed on a waiting list for the Wellbeing service, which provides a range of support, aimed at people before they reach crisis point.
Mrs Brown said: “We just felt he was passed from pillar to post and nobody knew what to do with him.
“He waited two weeks to see the low mood and anxiety person, when he had gone quite beyond that point. It wasn’t just a little bit of sadness. He was in a bad place.”
Mr Brown, 45, added: “There’s nothing in this area. We were sent home with a ticking time bomb.”
Mrs Brown said: “With appointments the anxiety level builds up. You can’t guarantee you’re going to be having a talkative day, but the next day you might be able to.
“A drop-in centre in Cromer would have been fundamental.”
Debbie White, director of operations at NSFT said: “In north Norfolk, staff from our adult services support more than 500 people aged 26 to 75 with severe or enduring mental health issues, all of whom have been visited by our staff in their own home.
“Wellbeing Norfolk and Waveney has local bases in north Norfolk and uses community facilities, such as village halls in the district. Staff also signpost service users to other resources, such as the men’s sheds in North Walsham and Sheringham.”
Plea for those affected by suicide to attend event
Nyall Brown’s parents are hoping to improve how the families of those who take their own lives are treated at one of only four events being held country-wide.
Mearl Brown said he felt using their experience, rather that figures and statistics, meant “when you talk to people you hear stories which are passionate and it sticks in people’s minds, it’s a lot more powerful”.
The event, at Diss Business Park on October 31, wants to attract those who have had suicidal thoughts, attempted suicide, carers, or those bereaved by suicide in a bid to help improve suicide prevention.
Mr Brown said one example was the amount of paperwork received after his son’s death, and how it referred to him simply as a “service user” and later as NB.
He said: “A simple thing like that when you’re going through the emotion and shock, and the paperwork, it’s a bombardment.”
To take part, email by email@example.com
‘There are going to be more deaths’ - warns father who lost son to suicide
The recent deaths by suicide of several young men from north Norfolk have left close-knit communities shocked and families and friends grieving.
And now the family of 22-year-old Adam Brown, who took his own life in June, have spoken about how their son was “failed” by a lack of mental health support.
Mr Brown, who worked in the fishing industry alongside his father, was found hanged in the stairwell of the building he lived in on Cromer High Street.
An inquest at Norfolk Coroner’s Court on October 9 found Mr Brown took his own life while under the influence of alcohol.
Assistant coroner, Johanna Thompson gave a narrative conclusion and said Mr Brown took his own life while under the influence of alcohol, but his intent in doing so remained unclear.
But Adam’s father, Shawn Brown, said: “If something isn’t done soon about mental health in north Norfolk there are going to be more deaths.”
Mr Brown said he knew of four other young men who had taken their own lives in the same month as his son.
He said: “There were five deaths in the month Adam did what he did - two 33-year-olds, a 19-year-old, my boy, 22, and a 30-year-old.
“My youngest son, he’s just had two attempts at suicide.
“Both times he ended up on the ventilator at the NNUH.
“He had two appointments and they just discharged him - there’s nothing more they can do.
“If something isn’t done soon about mental health in north Norfolk there are going to be more deaths.”
Both Norfolk County Council (NCC) and the mental health trust, Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust (NSFT), said they were working hard to provide support and tackle the stigma surrounding the issues of suicide and mental health.
Mr Brown, 46, a fisherman from Northrepps, said Adam first started having behavioural problems aged 10.
“He was later diagnosed with ADHD, borderline bipolar disorder, mood disorder, and split personality disorder,” he said.
“He had various support but they just seemed to fail him every time.
“The nearest appointment was in North Walsham or Norwich.
“There was nothing available in Cromer at all.
“He found that difficult. He had a problem with public transport and being around people. If there was something a little bit more accessible to him he would have attended more.”
Mr Brown described services in Cromer as “absolutely dire”.
He added: “A lot of Adam’s friends are in a very similar position to what he was in. There’s no help out there for them - more medication isn’t the solution.”
When he died, Adam was on a curfew for breaching a court order.
Mr Brown told the inquest: “By confining someone with a history of suicide [attempts] to a place from 7pm to 7am, you may as well give them a gun with the bullets.”
He added if his son had not been tagged, he would have gone to a family member for help rather than take his own life.
Adam’s mother, 47-year-old Emma Brown, described her son as “a lovely, lovely lad”.
She added: “He had a heart of gold. He would try to fix everybody else’s problems because he couldn’t fix his own.
“He was crying out for help, [but] Adam had problems with travelling and he found it difficult to get to Norwich.”
And Adam’s partner Annie Davies, who gave birth to her and Adam’s 12-week-old daughter Eliza Brown, in August, said: “I think they could have done a lot more.
“He struggled with anxiety and didn’t really like travelling at all.
“He was asking for help and he needed help.”
A High Court ruling in August lowered the burden of proof for coroners to record a conclusion of suicide, from the criminal standard of beyond reasonable doubt to the civil standard of on the balance of probabilities, meaning more conclusions of suicide are likely to be recorded.
Suicide in north Norfolk
Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show the suicide rate for north Norfolk in 2014-16 was 10.5 deaths in every 100,000.
This figure is higher than the national rate of 9.9 deaths by suicide in 100,000.
However, the highest suicide rate in Norfolk was Norwich, which had a rate of 15.8 deaths by suicide in every 100,000.
Norfolk County Council (NCC) is part of the Norfolk Suicide Prevention Strategy, which aims to reduce suicides over the next five years to as close to zero as possible.
An NCC spokesperson said: “NCC has recently been awarded a further £374,000 to increase services and resources across to targeted and priority groups who research suggests are vulnerable to suicide.”
They added: “The council and the five CCGs have worked together with the mental health trust, service users and carers to transform services for adults with mental health needs.”
‘A world where suicide does not exist’
Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust (NSFT), said its was working hard to tackle the issue of suicide.
Operations director Debbie White said: “The Trust has joined the Zero Suicide Alliance (ZSA), which is a coalition of NHS organisations, emergency services, councils, charities, employers and community groups who all support the ambition of creating a world where suicide does not exist.
“We also work with Norfolk and Suffolk Public Health Suicide Prevention Boards, which are multi-agency groups aiming to reduce the number of suicides.
“All our teams see service users and patients in their homes or other local locations, such as GP practices, schools or colleges.
“NSFT’s men’s wellbeing project launched in 2016 to encourage men to talk about problems and seek support.”
Wellbeing Norfolk and Waveney (and Wellbeing Suffolk), can be accessed via 0300 123 1503 or www.wellbeingnands.co.uk
The free Samaritans helpline can be accessed by calling 116 123 from anywhere in the UK.