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22nd Jun 2022

The Last Photo: Exhibition highlights how devastatingly little we know about spotting someone who is suicidal

Brought to you by CALM

Most men want to help friends who are struggling but don’t know how

People tend to think “they know what suicidal looks like”, says CALM’s Simon Gunning, yet, every week in the UK, on average, 125 people take their own lives with each death estimated to directly affect 135 people.

The CEO of (Campaign Against Living Miserably) says people tend to think there will be clear signs that someone is contemplating suicide, they’ll be reclusive, cry a lot, or may be silent, and if “they don’t see these traits in someone they’re worried about, they hesitate to intervene”.

“In reality, suicidal behaviour takes many forms. People struggling can put on a mask concealing their inner turmoil before taking their own lives,” Gunning explains.

Recent research by CALM backs this up, with 61 per cent of people saying they would struggle to tell if someone they knew was suicidal and over half – 51 per cent – said they don’t feel confident helping someone at risk.

Men especially found it hard to read the signs, with 41 percent saying they find it difficult to recognise when their friend is having a tough time (this compared to 26 per cent of women). Around 75 per cent of all suicides are by males, a trend that has remained since the mid-1990s.

While 86 per cent of men surveyed said they would want to help a mate going through a tough time, 35 per cent said they  wouldn’t know how to help them. And when it came to checking in, nearly a third of respondents, 32 per cent, said “no one has ever” checked on their mental wellbeing. 

An outdoor gallery erected on London’s Southbank aims to change all this, by not only raising awareness, but also by smashing the stigma around suicide and the illusion that it’s obvious when someone might be contemplating it.

‘The Last Photo’ shows the faces of 50 smiling people in the days before they died and illustrates just how easy it can be to miss the signs. The poignant photos are 6.5 foot high and are as arresting as the stories that go along with them. They tell of the “shock, sadness and heartbreak their friends and families experienced”.

Here are three stories ‘The Last Photo’ exhibition tells.

Jess, 20-years-old

Jess’s mum, Bev: What’s rather nice for me about this particular picture of Jess is I wasn’t there when it was taken. He was with his friend, Jessica. They were really good friends. 

What I love about it is that it was taken using a live camera. It means that I saw him move slightly and I just thought that was really, really lovely. That photograph for me shows his mischievous, naughty side. It is a beautiful, genuine smile. It was taken a few months before he took his own life.

I can remember it really clearly even now. I wasn’t working so I’d gone to a cafe for the day. I was feeling really happy and content and having a leisurely day. I arrived home to find two police officers standing outside my door. It sounds silly to say I wasn’t expecting it to happen, but I wasn’t. And that’s the thing I find tricky, because I knew him so well but I had no inkling at all.

I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. No-one should have to receive that news. There are no words. I fell to the floor and screamed. Screamed. It was animal-like. Really, really primal.

I certainly had no idea on that day. He’d only been at university a couple of weeks. I’d seen him the Thursday before. We’d met at the student canteen and he seemed happy. The night before he died he was at a pub quiz.

If I had the chance to say something to him, I would say I love you, I love you so much, I love you. Have you any idea how much I love you?

Lanfranco, 26-years-old

Lanfranco’s brother, Giancarlo: That photo kind of captures the character of Lanfranco. When that photo was taken we had no idea about his mental health issues, he hid them very, very well. He was a really hard working individual who a few years ago, was 18 stone, really overweight, let himself go a little bit. 

And then he just wanted to get fit. He was quite an intense person. When he committed to something, he went all out for it. Doing the triathlon, like in that photo, shows that when he put his mind to something, he could really achieve great things. But then on the flip side, when he wanted to take his own life, he also did it very efficiently. 

After he graduated, I think he found it hard to get a job. And I think that’s when he turned to staying up late, playing computer games, eating, drinking, smoking weed probably. But then he met his girlfriend and he started seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. 

I’ll never forget it. Me and my wife were about to have steak and chips and my brother phoned. Initially, I hung up, the food has just come out, typical timing. Then he rang again and I knew something wasn’t right. So I picked up and he told me what had happened. And when we got there, it was just shock. My parents were on a cruise and we didn’t want to tell them over the phone, so we held onto that news until Sunday morning. I’ll never forget the scream of my mum, you can’t describe that, you never really hear some one communicate like that, but the scream kind of got you in your heart. You know that it’s that kind of moment where she’s inconsolable, she’s lost her baby.

If I could, the one thing I would say to LanFranco would be just to open up. Life is so precious and why throw it away? We would’ve had such a great time together. He was so young. There were opportunities there, if only he would’ve just opened up and spoken about it and seen that perspective that we all have our times but it will pass, it’s not forever. 

Will Corin, 46

Will’s son, Harry: It’s 15 years ago this month that my dad passed away. This one is taken in St Ives, the holiday destination where everybody is meant to be happy. This photo was taken around six months before he passed away. He was still a firefighter. He was exploring trips to go and cycle a stretch of the Tour de France, even the day before he passed away.

My dad was pretty much the statistic. He was in his forties, he was an electrician in rural Cornwall, he even served in the Falklands War in his late teens. Everyone knew him in our local town.

I didn’t really know how to react when I found out, everyone’s eyes were on me. I wanted to go to school but they wouldn’t let me, so I went outside and played football all day. I just couldn’t be in that house. I pretty much blocked it out from the minute it happened, and that became our family coping mechanism. 

I hand on heart didn’t say dad or suicide for about a decade after. I told everyone that my dad was alive, at university, my early employment, people I was dating. I didn’t want to get out of bed, didn’t want to speak to anyone, didn’t want to do anything I loved in life. That’s when I went to a GP and poured out 12 years of pain, unanswered questions, thoughts and feelings.

I quit my job, moved to London. Three weeks later, a CALM project happened 500 metres down the road from my workplace. I then started to research into suicide and I started telling people the truth. Five years on, I’m actually doing this as my career.

Lots of people would say that it’s a cowardly act, that you’re leaving people behind to pick up the pieces. That angers me so much. If the pain has become so much in someone’s mind that they feel the only viable option is to take their own life, and people say it’s cowardly?

I just wish he could’ve talked to someone at that time. Even if it was the 12-year-old boy he was still taking to football games even the week before, I still would’ve been able to talk.

It can be hard to know what to say to somebody you think might be struggling. But simply starting a conversation could save someone’s life. CALM has resources on its website which can help you help others.

‘The Last Photo’ exhibition will be open to the public from Wednesday, June 22 to Sunday, June 26. The address is Riverside Central, London Southbank (Lambeth Council), SE1 9PP.

If you or someone you know is struggling head to for practical tips and advice.You can also talk to Samaritans 24/7 if you need to talk. Call 116 123 for free or visit the Samaritans website.

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