Picture this. You’re out for a walk when you came across a stranger showing worrying signs of mental distress — would you know what to say or do to help?
Many may choose to look the other way, fearing that well-meant but clumsy words might make matters worse.
But mental health experts agree that a kind word or deed can make all the difference. It could even save a life. Saying something — anything — that shows concern is better than doing nothing.
‘We know that a kind act can be the difference between life and death when a person is in despair,’ says Mark Rowland, chief executive of the charity Mental Health Foundation, which has made kindness the theme of this month’s mental health awareness week.
Saviour: Tommy and Gillian and her pet dog Joey. The pair met last year when Tommy was about to jump off a bridge over a railway line
‘Kindness can be a powerful reminder to others that they are not isolated, and that sense of belonging is also a vital protection against thoughts of suicide,’ he adds.
And as the lockdown continues, campaigners say this is more important than ever, with the leading mental health charity SANE recently warning that the pandemic could trigger a ‘mental health crisis’.
Tragically, there have been cases of suicide linked to lockdown. Last month, Michael Burton, 54, a former policeman from Chesterfield, and Ben Brown, a 22-year-old student from Gloucester, both took their own lives.
Michael’s family said he struggled with the isolation, while Ben’s mother said her son found so much time alone with his own thoughts ‘overwhelming’.
Experts stress that a number of complex factors such as anxiety, alcohol or substance abuse and other mental health issues can lie behind a person’s attempt to take their own life.
However, the added pressure of Covid-19 isolation could potentially make matters worse. ‘Loneliness can be a killer’ is how Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of SANE, puts it.
Mark Rowland adds: ‘Acts of kindness can brighten someone else’s day more than you might know. Being prepared to step in to talk to someone in distress is something we can all do, even without experience or training.’
Just what a difference a kind word can make is dramatically illustrated here, in the story of how a mother-of-three prevented a stranger from taking his own life on a railway track after coming across him as she walked her family dog.
He was someone’s child — I had to help
Gillian Assor, 50, who runs a nanny agency, lives in Borehamwood, Herts, with her husband David, 51, a financial advisor, and their children Benjamin, 23, Oliver, 21, and Isabel, 19. She says:
David and I were out walking Joey, our family puppy, in a nearby park when I heard someone sobbing as we approached a little gate that leads onto a footbridge over a railway line.
As we got to the gate, I saw a hunched figure on the bridge. It was a young man and he was pacing backwards and forwards and crying inconsolably. I had a really bad feeling about it.
The man was a similar age to my eldest son. I thought: ‘That’s someone’s child.’
I said to David: ‘God forbid we walk past now and hear the next day that there’s been a death.’ We decided David would hang back and I would approach with Joey.
I didn’t know what to expect — but I couldn’t stand by and do nothing. I took a few tentative steps forward and called out: ‘Excuse me — are you OK?’ The words were just the first that came to mind — I’d never been in a situation remotely like this before.
He replied: ‘No, I’m not!’ He was angry and emphatic. Even so, I was relieved he’d replied because it meant I had his attention.
I slowly walked closer until I was standing about 5ft away from him. He was sobbing, talking to himself and pacing around. He stopped and hunched over; he was so anguished.
Gillian Assor (right, with Tommy and her dog Joey), 50, who runs a nanny agency, lives in Borehamwood, Herts, with her husband David, 51, a financial advisor, and their children Benjamin, 23, Oliver, 21, and Isabel, 19
I edged a bit closer and suggested we sit down together, so we sat on the floor of the bridge with little Joey sandwiched in between us.
I asked him normal questions such as what’s your name? How old are you? Do you go to college?
I told him that my son had also gone to the same college. I was playing for time, trying to distract him and calm him down.
At first, all I got were one-word answers, but as time went by, he started stroking the dog and remarked on how cute he was. (Joey’s a cavapoochon — a cross between a cavalier King Charles spaniel, bichon frise and toy poodle.)
I was babbling, trying to prolong the conversation. I promised him that whatever he might want to tell me about why he was on the bridge, I would always keep to myself. He did mention one or two things but I have kept my word and never told anyone else. And I never will.
While we were talking, a train went rattling underneath. It sent shivers down my spine.
Tommy, as he had told me his name was, was still crying but his sobs had become less agitated and I suggested he call his parents.
While he was on the phone, I called out that they shouldn’t worry because he wasn’t alone and that I would wait until they arrived.
While we waited, I said: ‘Whatever’s pushed you to this point, it’s not worth your life. There’s a big world out there and you’re a great guy.’
When Tommy’s mother arrived, he crumpled into her arms. They just held each other and we went our separate ways. I had no idea how long I’d been there with Tommy. I later found out it was around 25 minutes, and all this time David was watching patiently from nearby. I knew he was there, watching to see that I was safe.
It felt really strange walking away. I was shocked and struggling to believe what had just happened.
I held my own children especially tight that night.
In the weeks that followed, I found it hard to settle. I couldn’t take in what had happened. I thought about it all the time and kept re-running events in my head, praying he was OK and getting the help he needed.
Then one morning four months later, my husband said Tommy had been trying to track me down via a community Facebook page.
He had written: ‘I realise that I am looking for a needle in a haystack but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.
‘Four months ago, May 28th, I attempted taking my own life. It made sense at the time because I just wanted to be free from the pain, but I was prevented from doing so by a total stranger walking her dog.
‘This lady saved my life. This post is my attempt to find her and show my appreciation.’
I was on cloud nine to know that he was OK and surprised but delighted to learn he wanted to see me again.
We met a few days later in the local pub. I was very nervous but the moment I walked in he came over and flung his arms around me. He clung to me for about two minutes, saying over and over again: ‘You saved my life, you saved my life.’
We sat and chatted for more than an hour. Tommy said he wanted to meet the dog and we arranged to walk Joey together that Sunday.
Since then, an incredible friendship has developed between us. We meet up and talk and text all the time. I wanted him to know that I would be there whenever he needed me.
On December 16, seven months after that fateful day on the bridge, we arranged a day to go back to help Tommy overcome his bad memories and replace them with something positive.
It was a very special afternoon; we sat on a blanket in the exact spot we’d sat before. It was emotional and uplifting — closure of one chapter where life had looked so bleak for Tommy and the beginning of a new, exciting and happier time. It’s a moment I will always cherish.
Tommy had to wait a long time for treatment but I’ve seen him getting better and happier. He’s doing so well now and has discovered a whole new community of friends.
I’m in the background if he needs me. We still catch up every few weeks and meet up, too.
My advice to anyone else who comes across someone in distress as I did is to say something — anything. It’s better than doing nothing.
Remember that’s someone’s mum, child or husband in that situation.
I had lost the motivation to live
Tommy Beddard, 25, who works in IT, lives in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire. He says:
If it hadn’t been for Gillian, I would not be alive today. There’s no doubt about that.
That Monday in May 2018, I was in such a bleak place that I wanted to end my own life. Things had built up in my mind to the point at which I wanted nothing more to do with life.
Although part of me was worried about taking the final step because I knew I would hurt those I loved, another, powerful part of me felt compelled to see it through.
I felt agony, self-loathing and I wanted to disappear. I’d lost the motivation to live.
Tommy Beddard (pictured holding Gillian’s dog Joey), 25, who works in IT, lives in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire
I was on the bridge when I heard a woman asking if I was OK. I screamed back that I wasn’t.
Then I sat down, curled up and started crying. She came up and began to talk. It distracted me from my misery.
She had a little dog with her, Joey, which helped massively. He seemed to sense something was wrong and tried to kiss my cheek.
She talked to me as though I was a friend she hadn’t seen for a while. It was weird as I didn’t know her, but comforting all the same. After a while, she suggested I called someone and she waited until my parents arrived. When they did, they just held me and hugged me; the woman then left.
I took the day off work the next day and told my boss what had happened.
My company was very supportive and I went to see my GP who put me on antidepressants and referred me for counselling. There was a waiting list, so I had to wait for nearly four months before I was finally assigned to a counsellor, for an hour a week.
I started treatment just before Christmas and finished in May last year — and it’s really helped me to gain a perspective on why I reacted as I did and how to deal with those kinds of feelings in the future.
Meanwhile, I was desperate to meet the person who had saved my life, though it took me a few months to work up the confidence to track her down. When she walked into the pub, I recognised her at once and rushed over and gave her a massive hug. I was overjoyed to finally meet her.
We had a good chat about everything that had happened since — the good and the bad — and got to know a bit about each other.
I felt that because she wasn’t related or connected to anyone else in my life, and she’d also seen me at my absolute worst, I could talk to her even if I felt like rubbish.
I found the idea of going back to the bridge scary when Gillian suggested it. But, over time, I decided it was the right thing to do to replace the bad memories. The bridge leads to a beautiful park which I’ve now visited a few times.
As the one-year anniversary of my attempted suicide approached, it brought up some difficult feelings again. It still haunts me to this very day but I feel I can get on with my life again now.
I now know that however bad things may seem, it’s not worth your life. You never know how much people care — and there are more people out there who care than you realise.
I’d say to any passer-by who finds someone in distress, just go over and make sure they are OK. Do not underestimate just how much of an impact a simple conversation can have on someone’s life.
- If you are worried about your own mental health or the mental health of someone you know, find help and advice at mind.org.uk or mentalhealth.org.uk — or call the Samaritans free 24-hour helpline on 116 123.