One man walking…a million talking
John Gibson is walking from Land’s End to John O’Groats this summer in the cause of suicide prevention, postvention and research
The next sentence you read may strike you as tone-deaf, insensitive, or just plain wrong. Listening to John Gibson speak about his and his wife Isobel’s loss of their son Cameron to suicide – a son, but also a brother, grandson, friend and colleague – was somehow life-affirming.
This is because John not only spoke about the devastation caused by this completely unexpected moment in their family’s life, but also about a relatively small – though it turns out, significant – step he took to help survive his bereavement; and that was to walk, in the fresh air.
That decision, taken initially for his own mental health, has ultimately led to #onemanwalkingamilliontalking, a wide-ranging initiative launched by John and Isobel and backed by friends and colleagues who will be joining or supporting him on his walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats (or LEJOG, as it is also known) this summer.
Looking to the future, with a newly formed charity – The Canmore Trust (SC051511) – the initiative will also be developed by a range of people whose life is defined, or whose work is driven, by an effort to understand suicide. This combined effort has one aim; to reduce the number of people who die by suicide.
That is why I found John’s description of his experience and his aims, life-affirming. He, his family, friends, colleagues, people with experience of suicide, academics, communities in general, will through their effort – I am convinced – save lives. That was one of the enduring thoughts I had after our conversation.
John announced the walk, and spoke about the family’s experience, in a Facebook post last autumn. In it he said: “It has been a shattering experience and a devastating journey for me, for Isobel and for Cameron’s brother and sister, Malcolm and Eilidh, and also for aunts and uncles, grannies and grandpa, cousins and the wider Gibson family. It’s been a devastating journey, too, for Cameron’s friends and colleagues. Cameron was a 24-year-old man who loved life.
“He loved Scotland, he loved travelling, he loved his family, he loved his livestock, he loved his dog. He loved skiing, Munro-bagging, surfing, and cycling. Cameron had no obvious psychiatric illness, and his death is a mystery. Two years on, and we are as much in the dark about the reasons for Cameron’s suicide as the day it happened.
“As a family, we’ve benefited hugely from the love and support of many friends and from the input of professionals working in suicide and mental health. I have a new second family, in Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide; the most gracious, beautiful, and caring people you could ever meet.”
John added: “My time over the past two years has not just been spent grieving, although our grief has been intense and continues to be so on a daily basis. I’ve also been observing, over these last two years; observing the things that I think need to happen to make a difference in this strange world of suicide – suicide prevention, suicide postvention and research into why so many people take their own lives in Scotland, and in the wider UK, today.
“Is it a psychological disorder? Is it a physiological/medical disorder? Is it a societal disorder? Or is it some combination of the three. We need to find out and we need to take action. And that action needs to be taken now before any further lives are lost.”
The Canmore Trust has been established in memory of Cameron, who died on 20 October 2019. He was a veterinary surgeon – a job he had always wanted to do. While his death is a mystery to family and his colleagues, it is known that the suicide rate among veterinary surgeons is about four times the national average.
The demography of suicide in the UK is also changing, explained John. Twenty years ago, more than 90 per cent of those taking their own life had a history of depression, anxiety, OCD or personality disorder. Now, that figure in some sectors of society is thought to be around 50 per cent with the other 50 per cent being a spontaneous act, often with no known precipitants.
“So,” said John, “this carnage could affect any individual and any family at any time. We have to act quickly to reduce the suicide rate in Scotland. Our family remains broken by the loss of our son and brother, and we are motivated to do everything in our power to ensure that no other family has to go through what we have gone through.”
John begins his walk, to raise awareness and money for the cause, on 13 June. The Trust, explained John, will undertake work in the field of suicide prevention and suicide postvention. Its aims are to:
- Work with schools, colleges and universities to raise awareness of suicide and to prevent suicide, promoting an individualised ‘suicide safety plan’;
- Establish a number of safe places where families affected by suicide can spend time, at no financial cost, rebuilding their lives after suicide of a close family member. Trained individuals with ‘lived experience’ of suicide will be on hand to assist;
- Ensure a co-ordinated programme of research across UK universities, identifying psychological and physiological risk factors in suicide;
- Establish a group of trained ‘lived experience’ counsellors across Scotland who would work alongside Police Scotland and other agencies to ensure that one such counsellor is immediately available to any family in crisis following a suicide;
- Work across the suicide charities sector in Scotland to co-ordinate and facilitate a unified approach to fund-raising and action against suicide.
The walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats is 1,200 miles and will take John around three months, averaging 20-plus miles a day. “We hope to raise awareness of mental wellbeing, but also to talk very openly about suicide, and about Cameron’s journey, to those that we meet on our walk,” John said in his Facebook post.
“So, I will walk 600 miles, and I will walk 600 more – just to be the man who keeps suicide from your door. We hope that many of you will come and walk with us, for an hour, for a day, for a few days, for a week, or for the whole thing if you really want to. Come with us on a journey that will hopefully contribute to making suicide numbers fall.”
Professor John Gibson is Emeritus Professor of Oral Medicine, School of Medicine, Medical Sciences and Nutrition, University of Aberdeen
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