The bold new fight to eradicate suicide
Steve Mallen thinks the signs first started to show when his son stopped playing the piano. Edward, then 18, was a gifted musician and had long since passed his grade-eight exams. Playing had been a passion for most of his life. But as adulthood beckoned, the boy had never been busier. He had won a place to read geography at the University of Cambridge and was revising hard for his A levels. At his school, Edward was head boy, and popular among pupils and teachers. His younger brother and sister idolised him.
“We didn’t attach any particular significance to it,” said Steve of what he saw as merely a musical pause. “I think we just thought, ‘Well, the poor lad’s been at the piano for years and years. He’s so busy … ’ But these are the small things – the ripples in the fabric of normal life – that you don’t necessarily notice, but which, as I know now, can be very significant.”
Three months after Edward stopped playing, and just two weeks after he handed in an English essay that his teacher would later describe as among the best he had read, police knocked at the door of the family home in Meldreth, a village 10 miles south of Cambridge. Steve was at home, alone. “You become painfully aware that something appalling has happened,” he recalled. “You go through the description, they offer commiserations and a booklet, and then they leave. And that’s it. Suddenly you are staring into the most appalling abyss you can ever imagine.”
The next time Steve heard his son play the piano, the music filled Holy Trinity parish church, a mile from the station where Edward caught the train to school every morning, and where he died by suicide on 9 February 2015. Steve said 500 people came to the funeral. Friends had organised a soundsystem to play a performance by Edward that had been filmed on a mobile phone. “My son played the music at his own funeral,” he told me as he remembered that day over a mug of tea in a cafe in central London. “You couldn’t dream this stuff.”
I first talked to Steve in November, 21 months to the day since Edward’s death. He was 52. His hair was white; his blazer navy. He wore a white shirt and a remembrance poppy. He talked in perfect paragraphs and had a businesslike manner, but it was clear that the abyss was still falling away before him. He said it always would.
But life had also become a mission, and in the two years since his son’s death by suicide, Steve, a commercial property consultant, had turned into a tireless campaigner, a convenor of minds. He had earned the prime minister’s ear, and given evidence to health select committees. The study at his home was filled with files and research papers.
“As a father, I had one thing to do and I failed,” he said, his voice faltering for the first time. “My son was dying in front of me and I couldn’t see it, despite my education, despite my devotion as a father … So, you see, this is coming from an incredible sense of guilt. I suppose what I’m trying to do is save my boy in retrospect. I stood next to his coffin in the church. It was packed with people – a shattered community – and I made him a public promise. I said that I would investigate what had happened to him, and that I would seek reform for him, and on behalf of his generation. Quite simply, I’m just a guy honouring a promise to his son. And that’s probably the most powerful motivation that you could imagine, because I’m not about to let him down twice.”
Read more at The Guardian.