More than 250 school age children in the UK take their own lives every year.
Pat Sowa’s 17-year-old son Dom was one of them and now she is on a mission to make sure his death was not in vain.
“I want to change the way people think about suicide,” says the 54-year-old from Harrogate.
“There’ seems to be a perception that if someone is suicidal then there is nothing that can be done – that just isn’t the case. If I knew what I knew now Dom may well be alive today.”
Now Pat and best friend Kerry Fisher have written a book, Take My Hand, which charts how they supported each other through their experiences with their two boys – one with physical health problems the other with mental health problems.
“Kerry and I met at university and have been best friends ever since,” explains Pat. “We married best friends too which was pretty amazing and over the years, like most friendships, we saw less of each other but would always pick up where we left off.”
But little did they know they would need every ounce of that 30-year friendship to survive.
In 2017, both their worlds came crashing down within weeks of each other.
Kerry’s son Cam was diagnosed with a rare cancer and Pat’s son Dom, after one failed suicide attempt, took his own life.
“When Kerry told me about Cam the first thing I did was drop everything and go down to Surrey to be with her – she didn’t need to say anything. That is the thing about friendships like ours, you know what the other is thinking.”
But as Cam was starting chemotherapy for cancer, Dom attempted to take his own life.
Through the following months the two friends, separated by miles but united by wanting to help each other through such difficult times, helped each other survive.
They are telling their story in full for the first time in their book Take My Hand, a memoir that recalls the conversations and messages they sent to each other as they navigated this turbulent time from different ends of the country.
“We joked at the time that there was a book in what we were going through, never really thinking it would really happen,” recalls Pat.
“But then I realised that I needed to do something to pay tribute to Dom, to try to make something positive come out of some thing so terrible.
“I was also struck throughout our journey about the different ways that Cam’s cancer was treated compared to Dom’s mental health problems.”
But she stresses it is not a depressing book, far from it: “We got such strength and hope from each other and our friendship became so important that we wanted to share that with other people.”
Dom’s problems started when he was bullied at school and on social media, after coming out as gay when hew as 14.
“He was a very sensitive and musical boy who loved nature – he was a real delight to be around, but he had a very difficult time between the ages of 14 and 16. I am not saying it was the only thing but it definitely exacerbated things.”
When Dom changed schools for sixth-form Pat says he seemed happier and she and Dom’s dad Jan thought the worst was behind them.
“He had his best year ever at school,” recalls Pat.
“He was talking about going to university and filling in his UCAS form – I know he wanted to be alive.”
But the years of bullying had taken their toll, leaving Dom anxious and depressed. And during his second year of sixth-form Dom took his life, leaving his mother and father and older brother Greg devastated.
Pat gave up her job as a primary school headteacher in Harrogate and set up Starfish, an organisation that works with schools to improve their mental health training. In the last 18 months she has spoken to 3,000 teachers.
It was also after Dom’s death that she learnt about charities such as Papyrus, of which she is an ambassador.
“I know we did our best but had I known about Papyrus and the ways we could have helped Dom then he could have been here today. After he first tried to take his life we were just sent home and told to put all the medicines away. It was like it was inevitable, but suicide is not inevitable – it can be prevented,” says Pat. “Papyrus are so good at explaining suicidal crises.”
While mental health awareness has improved over recent years, Pat says there is still a long way to go, even among health professionals.
“Dom had an illness that was like cancer 100 years ago – people just didn’t know what to do,” she says. “Cancer wasn’t talked about and people thought it was a death sentence but look at how far we have come in our understanding and treatment of it.
“I want the same thing to happen to mental health and suicide. If you went in with the mind-set that suicide is treatable we would find different way to help people.
“We need to be better at talking about it and for people with suicidal thoughts to know it is okay to talk about it, or even just to chose three people you would talk to about it. Just doing that reduces the likelihood you will go through with it.”
Despite everything she has been through, Pat remains an incredibly positive person.
She refuses to be bitter and to enter a blame game, she feels that would dishonour Dom’s memory. Instead she looks to help young people who may be facing a similar situation to her beloved youngest son.
Take My Hand: Two best friends, two sons fighting for their lives, one true story about motherhood, grief and hope by Kerry Fisher and Pat Sowa costs £8.99 and is published by Thread Books. It is available from Amazon.co.uk in ebook, paperback and audio formats.
Papyrus is committed to reducing the number of young people who die by suicide. It runs a Hopelink helpline 0800 068 4141 (Weekdays 9am-10pm; weekends and Bank Holidays 2pm-10pm)
For more information visit papyrus-uk.org
Samaritan runs a 24 hours helpline on 116 123 which is available every day