Two mothers who lost children at the same school to suicide have spoken about their efforts to help other teenagers with mental health issues.
Rose White and Sarah Finke founded a charity, Safaplace, using more than £15,000 donated in memory of their 16-year-old children, Harry Lisle and Rachel Finke.
Harry died in October 2016 and Rachel in January 2017. They were in the same academic year at Stoke Newington School and knew each other but had different friends. The deaths have not been linked.
Rachel was politically active and a Labour Party member and her memorial service was attended by Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott.
Ms White, 55, a primary school teacher, said: “It’s so awful losing a child, especially to suicide. You ask yourself: why has this happened, and how can you make some sense of it?
“The community was absolutely astonishing in their response to us. I think we felt we wanted to give something back.
“While trying to come to terms with our children’s death, it was heartbreaking to see these young people trying to make sense of not one person from their year dying, but two. We wanted to make sure the school had the capacity to support that.”
Safaplace is backed by DJ and record producer Gilles Peterson, who had children at the school, and fellow DJs and musicians including Goldie and James Lavelle.
It has paid for mental health experts to give talks to pupils and to train teachers to spot signs of distress. A “reflective garden” has been built in the playground.
The aim is to expand Safaplace beyond Stoke Newington School, which the mothers praised for being “supportive and respectful” following the tragedies.
Ms Finke, 53, a union administrator, said: “There is clearly a building crisis in teenage mental health. It’s horrifying. One in four girls self-harm. Suicide is the main cause of death for young men.”
The mothers believe teenage mental illness is being exacerbated by “exam pressure, social media and fear about the future”.
Harry, who was 6ft 3in, suffered anxiety about his uncontrolled blushing. He bought Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication not prescribed on the NHS, on the internet.
He ended up in A&E a day before his death after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Ms White said she was not told by medics that Xanax increased suicidal tendencies. Harry was found dead in his bedroom the next morning.
Rachel became ill aged 14 and had been admitted to a unit at Newham hospital for several months. She later became depressed by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.
“The exam pressure for her was the biggest trigger,” Ms Finke said. “She made a suicide attempt because she got ‘A’s. She didn’t get ‘A*’s. Lots of her friends were also upset [about their grades] but they were not mentally ill.”
She said she was often placed in the “untenable” position of having to decide whether Rachel was well enough to be left alone or able to return to school, despite having been excluded from clinical discussions about her daughter’s health.
“Rachel went to school unsupervised three to four days after a suicide attempt,” Ms Finke said. “I don’t remember her saying I want to go back to school.”
Inquests decided that each child took their own life. Hackney council is examining whether there are lessons to be learned.
Ms Finke said: “I know other parents of seriously mentally ill children. People are at their wits’ end. they don’t know what to do or where to go. There’s a huge gap. These parents want to help their kids and they don’t know how to.
“Maybe it’s OK for a 30-year-old to decide their life can end, but it’s not OK for a 16-year-old. They don’t have enough life experience. I don’t think any child should be allowed to die by suicide.”
Stoke Newington School said: “The school suffered the tragedy of losing two of our young people to suicide in 2016 which deeply affected our whole community. We have always worked hard to make sure that our young people are safe and well supported in school through a range of well-resourced pastoral provision.
“We value our partnership with Safaplace as a way of helping disseminate the learning that we have gone through and finding ways to prevent similar tragedies happening elsewhere. The government’s Green paper, Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision, recognises the need for additional support for schools in managing the increase in young people presenting with difficulties in their mental health.”
*For confidential teenage suicide prevention advice, contact Papyrus https://papyrus-uk.org/
- An edited version of this story has appeared in the Evening Standard: https://www.standard.co.uk/news/health/mothers-who-lost-teens-to-suicide-start-charity-tackling-mental-health-in-schools-a3953296.html