After Michael Mansfield was left devastated when his daughter took her own life, he and his partner set up an organisation to raise awareness of suicide. Chris Bond talks to them.
Michael Mansfield QC is one of the best known lawyers in the country and over the years he’s been involved in some of the most high-profile cases in recent British history, including the Bloody Sunday inquiry and the inquest of Princess Diana. He has also represented the Stephen Lawrence family and, more recently, the grieving families of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster.
But for all his success nothing prepared him for the personal tragedy he endured when, in May 2015, his daughter, Anna, killed herself. “I was completely devastated and shocked. I just couldn’t grasp the magnitude of what happened,” he says.
Anna was just 44, worked in the media and was married with two young children when she died. The first Michael and his partner, Yvette Greenway, realised something was wrong came during a phone call a week before her death when she told her father she was being made redundant. “In those three weeks her life completely crumbled,” he says.
Michael was in the middle of the Hillsborough inquests when he was told the devastating news. “I was due to meet her just a day or so after she took her own life.”
Her death left him utterly bereft. “I just couldn’t cope and I didn’t go into the inquest that day or for several days,” he says. “I had the support of Yvette and I had the support of the Hillsborough families. I was fortunate to have that support but a lot of people don’t, they’re on their own.”
Despite the grief he wanted to talk about his daughter’s death and it was at her packed funeral that he realised no one was mentioning the ‘elephant in the room.’ “At Anna’s funeral I said the word ‘suicide’, which nobody expected I would. There were loads of people there who came up to me and said ‘we’re so pleased you said it because my father, my son, my sister...’ and then they found themselves standing next to someone saying ‘it’s the same with me.’
“Yvette and I thought that if it’s this taboo, which it obviously still is, we really must try and open the door a bit and relieve people’s self imprisonment that they’ve had for years.”
It was out of their own personal loss that they established SOS – Silence of Suicide – a social networking group aimed at raising awareness of suicide and tackling the stigma that surrounds it.
Since setting up the organisation two years ago they have held events around the country and on Thursday they are holding what they hope will be one of their biggest yet, at the University of Huddersfield.
When somebody dies even in the most tragic circumstances friends and relatives are usually able to talk about it. But suicide is different. People often don’t know what to say and quite often end up avoiding the subject.
Yvette feels there is still a sense of shame attached to both the word and the action. “People feel they can’t speak out, but the stigma exists because of the silence and the silence is perpetrated by the stigma. So we have to crack this and the only way to stop this train of thought and get rid of the shame and the silence is through talking,” she says.
“I do think we are talking about it more than ever and people are a lot easier with the word generally, but there’s also a large proportion of the population that is extremely uncomfortable with it and there are still a lot of people out there who are completely unsympathetic. They frown on people that have taken their own life and are very unsupportive to those who have been bereaved through suicide.”
It’s an attitude both Yvette and Michael would like to change. “Our point is that this can happen to anyone. No one is immune from waking up tomorrow and their mindset changing for whatever reason. We’re all susceptible, suicide doesn’t discriminate and people need to realise that and extend the hand of empathy rather than being judgemental.”
Yvette says they’ve had an overwhelming response from those taking part in the meetings. “I’ve lost count of the number of people that have come up to us afterwards and said they’ve spoken about suicide for the first time in 20 or 30 years.
“In one case a man said his father had taken his own life when he was just a small boy. So for 50 years he hadn’t been able to speak about it because he felt there was no one who would listen and because of that he felt he had to keep it all inside.”
Which is why she believes an organisation like SOS is so important. “You can see people become uptight when it comes to suicide. They don’t know what to say and that’s why we have to normalise the subject. It should be very easy to talk about it, it’s not just the silence about talking about it, it’s the silence surrounding the word.”
Michael says the network helps tackle this. “There isn’t any other organisation that does this. There are a lot that complement what we’re doing. For example, the Samaritans are very supportive but what they do is on a one-to-one basis, whereas the interesting thing with our venture is there are responses not from us, because we aren’t experts, but from other people who have been through similar situations. You listen to people who’ve thought about suicide and some who’ve attempted it, so you get both sides of the story.”
Suicide is a daunting subject and Michael believes part of the problem is the gamut of emotions it arouses in those whose lives have been affected by it. “I think people feel responsible in some way or another. They feel they should have done more, they should have known more and they see it as a failure of themselves, which is one reason why they don’t want to speak. Another is ‘why did this person do it to me?’ So you have these very mixed emotions which you don’t get with an illness.”
Coming to terms with all the unanswered questions is one of the hardest aspects of dealing with suicide. “Without Yvette and the network I would have found it really rather difficult so it has helped.
“I think about Anna more now than I did when she was alive. That’s a terrible thing to have to say but I’m afraid it’s true. One just thought ‘oh, she’s got a life to live and she’s living it, she’s got lovely children’ and so on. Now it’s different. I live with it on a daily basis.”
In Anna’s case she left behind a note indicating that as a working mother she felt she had failed her children. “I say to myself ‘at the end of the day she took a decision’, albeit under pressure and albeit when her mind was probably unbalanced,” says Michael. “Anna did this because she wanted to do it, it was deliberate and it takes quite a lot of courage to do such a thing. But at the end of the day I’ve come to terms with it by saying, ‘I probably couldn’t have stopped it.’”
Yet through SOS, the pair are not only honouring Anna’s memory, they are giving other people who have gone through a similar ordeal a voice and at the same time they’re helping to break down the barriers surrounding suicide.
As Yvette says: “We’re not going to move forward as a society and therefore we can’t begin to make serious inroads into tackling this ever-growing problem unless we start talking about it.”
The free SOS event takes place at the University of Huddersfield, on March 16 from 7pm. To reserve a place go to https://www.sossilenceofsuicide.org/event/sos-silence-of-suicide-networking-initiative-in-conjunction-with-university-of-huddersfield/
For more information about the SOS network go to www.sossilenceofsuicide.org