FOR a long, long time Jacqui Walton craved answers. Torment gnawed at her, one word haunted her thoughts: Why? Questions niggled every waking moment. Was there something she should have done? Could she have stopped it, did she do something wrong?
What had happened was painfully real: her husband had killed himself. A harsh, horrible, agonising fact that plunged her into the deepest of grief and the darkest of places.
But with his death and the pain of mourning came endless questions. None of which, Jacqui eventually realised, could ever be fully answered.
“I wanted to find the answer to why he did what he did,” she says softly, recalling the anguished hours she spent trawling websites about mental health issues and suicide and reading heartbreaking posts on grieving widows’ forums. “But now I know that there is no answer. The only person that can answer that question is gone.”
Today she still grieves quietly for her husband but time has made the 50-year-old mum-of-two stronger. She’s come to understand that what drove Mike to take his life at the age of 44, was a complex jigsaw of events and thoughts. None of them terribly significant to most people, perhaps, but for Mike, utterly devastating.
Unravelling the reasons why someone might suddenly tip into the darkest of places where the only release from their misery is the most drastic of acts, borders on the impossible.
Yesterday heartbreaking images of Gary Speed’s widow Louise following an inquest into his death in November – which was unable to conclude if his death was accidental or intentional – revealed the strain of her grief. Her long blonde hair curtained her face as she fought to retain composure after giving harrowing evidence in which she spoke of their final row.
The Wales boss, who hours earlier had appeared relaxed and jovial on a TV sports programme, had joined her at a party. It had ended with him being pushed into a pool fully clothed, but, according to Mrs Speed was “all good fun”.
At home the couple rowed over something trivial – so slight that now she can’t even remember what. She ended up locked out of the house, slept in the car and next day discovered her husband dead.
Sadly, the inquest coincided with news of another high-profile suspected suicide – that of The Bill actor Colin Tarrant, 59.
Today Jacqui, sadly, can appreciate what both men’s families are enduring. Like Louise Speed, she too found her husband’s lifeless body. There was the nightmare of breaking the news to their two children and family, official inquiries, paperwork and then long nights alone wondering why.
Mike, shy, quiet – “he kept his thoughts to himself,” recalls Jacqui – had been diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder and depression years earlier. He’d attempted to take his life back then, and the risk he might try again had cast a shadow over them.
Still, it didn’t prepare her for the horror she was about to face.
“I couldn’t make any sense at all,” she recalls. “Mike had depression and also anxiety. We all get anxious from time to time. But for Mike, what seemed small to other people would be quite significant to him.”
His depression was diagnosed in the early 90s. Mike, quiet and uncomfortable about making a fuss, was not the kind to “bother the GP”.
“In some ways he was really laid back about things. But in others he got very caught up. I’d think ‘what are you getting so upset about that for?’,” recalls Jacqui, who lives in south Edinburgh.
“It came to a head when he had two attempts the same year. I got into a panic. You question yourself and wonder if you have done something to cause this. You try to keep focused and try to keep the children occupied as much as possible to let him have some peace and quiet.”
Mike, a software engineer, was prescribed anti-depressants and treated at the Royal Edinburgh. He seemed to recover, but for the next 13 years Jacqui lived with the constant fear that one day she’d return home and who knew what she might find. . . “There were times when you just got on with life,” she adds. “But you’d always be thinking ahead of yourself, trying to decide if I do this will he be OK or I wonder how he will feel about that? When you love someone, you put up with the ups and the downs.”
It was 2006. A family bereavement and Mike’s new job had brought stress and more responsibility – factors that may well have tipped him over the edge. This time, his suicide was complete.
Jacqui sought support from friends only to realise none could fully appreciate what she was going through. “I was aware that friends had their own families and I didn’t want to be a burden on them,” she adds.
So she shared her feelings with other widows in online support groups but found no mention of suicide or mental health as a cause of death. Jacqui sent out messages asking if any had experienced loss through suicide and replies slowly came in. A new support group began to take root.
She now runs Widowed by Suicide, a website that is helping more than 100 widows from across the globe through their grief.
She also shared her experiences through the Scottish Government’s See Me campaign, which fights to end stigma surrounding mental illness and has started working in administration for local mental health charity, Penumbra.
“I feel as though I’m doing some good in the background,” she explains. “I often find when I talk about Mike’s suicide, the person I’m talking to usually knows someone who’s completed suicide, attempted or is on medication for a mental health problem.”
She points out that the only guarantee depression and, sadly, suicide, brings is that anyone, anywhere can be affected. “Sometimes the person will seem to have everything to live for: loving family, profession, financial security,” adds Jacqui. “And it can take something terrible like that to happen to someone like Gary Speed for others to become more aware of these things.”
• For help dealing with the loss through suicide of a partner, go to www.widowedbysuicide.org.uk
Help at hand before sense of despair loses control
An estimated one in five of the Scottish population will experience depression at some point in their lives.
And each year around 300,000 Scots consult a doctor for help with feelings of depression.
Meanwhile, around one in ten suffers from anxiety or some kind of phobia, which can also lead to depression.
According to the Scottish Government’s See Me campaign – which aims to end stigma and misunderstandings surrounding mental illness – one in four of us (28 per cent) will experience some kind of mental health problem at some point in our lives.
The campaign (www.seemescotland.org) adds that despite mental health problems being relatively common, many who have experienced them claim to have been confronted by physical abuse, discrimination, harassment and feelings of being stigmatised.
While the incidence of depression and anxiety is higher amongst women than men, Scottish statistics show that men are more likely to be driven to take their own lives.
There were 781 deaths by suicide in Scotland in 2010. The suicide rate for males that year was almost three times that of women.
According to Norman Craig, chair of support organisation the Samaritans in Scotland, people can be driven to desperate acts by many combinations of various events and feelings.
“Quite often it’s a sense of despair in a situation which they feel that can’t get out of,” he says.
“Mental illness is a major factor in many of the calls we receive. Financial issues, relationships, childhood issues, abuse through relationships too.
“What’s important is that people talk them through.”
Samaritans in Edinburgh handles up to 60 calls every day from people struggling with suicidal thoughts. The organisation can be contacted on 087457 909090 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. For more details, go to www.samaritans.org.
Meanwhile, today has been declared “Well Wednesday” by help organisation Breathing Space, which provides an online and telephone help service for people experiencing depression and anxiety issues.
It is aimed at anyone experiencing difficulties and unhappiness in their lives and their families.
Breathing Space can be contacted on 0800 83 85 87 or through www.breathingspacescotland.co.uk.