‘Thanks … it’s been a bit of a walk’
Over the summer of 2022, a national conversation around suicide was begun. Here, the founder of The Canmore Trust describes his experience
I promised the editor that I would write an update on The Canmore Trust and LEJoG for this issue of Scottish Dental, but where do I start to update you on the whirlwind that has been 2022?
However, the first thing I want to do is say a very sincere ‘thank you’ to every member of the dental profession in Scotland for your remarkable support of The Canmore Trust. The vision of the Trust, in particular ‘safe spaces’ for those impacted by suicide, has clearly gained considerable traction within the profession and monetary support for the Trust has followed emotional support.
So, thank you to each and every one of you who has written, emailed, texted, walked with us, given of your time and donated money to support the Trust. But, most of all, thank you to those of you who have asked for help and support for yourselves, your staff, your family and your friends – because lives are being saved.
The Canmore Trust (SC051511) has only been in existence since the end of January 2022 and the Trustees set a fundraising target of £250,000 for the rest of 2022.
I didn’t appreciate that, in charity fund-raising circles, this was a huge ask, particularly in a time of economic hardship for the country.
We had two major fund-raising events planned – LEJoG and The Canmore Trust Dentistry Wellbeing Symposium – but I hadn’t realised that so many people would take part in various events to raise additional support for the Trust, including:
- 5K and 10K races
- Half-marathons and marathons
- Conker competitions
- Coastal and loch swims
- A 24-hour trail race
- A Cape-to-Cape walk in Western Australia
- Charity events in veterinary and dental practices
- Charity events in hair salons
- Cake sales
- A garden party – and a whole lot more!
We had reached, and passed, our target for the year by early November.
Team LEJoG travelled south on the weekend of 11-12 June, ready to start at Land’s End on Monday 13 June 2022. Here I was at Land’s End ready to start. I had walked 2,500 training miles and now I was embarking on a 1,200-mile walk to John O’Groats. How ready was I, both physically and emotionally?
I would be walking 25 miles each day, on average, to keep to schedule.
Suddenly, my whole attention landed on memories of Cameron, our much-loved son – a 24-year-old veterinary surgeon who died by suicide in the early hours of Sunday 20 October 2019. His was a spontaneous act with no background of obvious psychological disturbance and no note left.
As the gentle south coast breeze caused The Canmore Trust flag in my rucksack to unfurl, tears started to flow to match those memories. Who was I kidding? I couldn’t do this. How could I make any impact on mental wellbeing and suicide in the UK?
But then, suddenly, as the photographs were being taken on that first morning, it became very clear what lay ahead. A couple stepped towards us, having seen our Canmore Trust shirts and flags, identifying us as a charity involved in suicide prevention, and told their story. This was to be the first of hundreds of deeply moving stories we would hear.
This woman had lost her younger sister to suicide, aged 15, more than 30 years ago but her family had never talked about the loss or the circumstances. Standing at Land’s End, this woman felt empowered for the first time to open up about her loss and then to go back to her family and explore her sister’s story and her legacy – to move the whole set of circumstances from the shadows and into the light.
#OneManWalkingAMillionTalking was up and running – well, walking!
So, as we set off, I was convinced again of the importance of telling Cameron’s story fully and without hesitation – painful as that would be. Suicide is a hugely complex subject. Despite three years having passed, we still have little understanding as to why Cameron took his life in the early hours of that Sunday morning.
Rory O’Connor is a Professor of Health Psychology at the University of Glasgow and is one of the foremost international researchers into suicide behaviour. I highly recommend his recently published book, When it is Darkest (Penguin, 2021).
In his book, Professor O’Connor describes a model of suicidal behaviour which involves possible factors in the background of someone who dies by suicide, alongside the factors which might contribute to suicidal thoughts and suicidal acts. It is a complex model which makes it very clear that no one factor causes someone to take their life – it is much more complicated than that.
With increasing numbers of suicides in the UK appearing to be so-called ‘spontaneous’ suicides (i.e., in those individuals where there is no obvious history of psychological disturbance), it seems that our approach to preventing suicide needs to change with open discussion in schools, colleges, universities and workplaces about suicide and, most importantly, about suicide safety planning.
This new concept of safety planning is evidence-based and opens up discussion about what to do if you
find yourself at some point with suicidal thoughts – something that affects one in five young Scottish adults. So, this walk was about opening up a conversation across the UK on suicide prevention and bringing the suicide community together.
As I started to walk, I was reminded again of how broken I was in the months after Cameron died and how I rediscovered walking and the delights of watercourses, frog spawn, goldcrests, nesting kestrels, red squirrels, pine martens and simply walking for miles on end. Then I discovered that other men and women affected by suicide grief also wanted to walk and talk – and the conversations were remarkable; sharing insights and stories that would otherwise have remained covered over.
LEJoG had taken a huge amount of planning by a remarkable team, particularly my wife Isobel and good friends John and Lorraine Gallacher. The team around me ensured that planning was meticulous. LEJoG started on 13 June and completed on 20 August 2022 – 11 weeks, with only five days of any precipitation in that period and a few days off for COVID-19.
What a remarkable summer it was! I had been given two pieces of advice by seasoned long-distance walkers: firstly, don’t forget that it’s just a walk; and secondly, just concentrate on today and let tomorrow take care of itself. Great advice!
We were joined by many hundreds of people across the UK as we walked, with great representation from the veterinary community. We heard many tragic stories about suicide in veterinary surgeons and now understand that the suicide rate in vets is four times the national average.
We have galvanised discussion in the profession about improving mental health and how to impact the dreadful litany of suicide for this hard-pressed profession, whilst never forgetting that behind every ‘statistic’ is a grieving family, grieving friends, grieving colleagues and a grieving community. We have engaged with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and anticipate that changes in drug-handling will come, along with active research into suicidality in the profession.
We experienced amazing kindness and hospitality across the whole of the UK. However, worthy of mention is that Ian and Zena Mills, dentists from Devon, arranged hospitality for us within the dental profession for the first month of LEJoG and we were shown such generosity by the dental profession as we walked from Land’s End, up to Bristol and round into Wales.
The aim of #onemanwalkingamilliontalking was realised across the 1,200 miles with kerb-side conversations, chats as we walked, public lectures, podcasts, radio interviews and television coverage. We saw families previously isolated by their suicide experience come forward to walk, talk and weep with other families similarly affected.
And, very importantly, we saw lives saved.
Let me share one such story with you. The background is that John Gallacher, who walked much of the way with me, realised that on Day 3 that he had lost his Canmore Trust flag from his rucksack, somewhere in Cornwall.
Then on Day 10, a 35-year-old woman contacted me on Instagram and stated that she had been struggling with her physical and mental health for many years and had previously made three attempts on her life. She had set off to walk the South-West Coastal Path in an attempt to gain fitness – for both her physical health and mental health.
However, a few days into her walk, she realised that she was struggling greatly and had been sitting on a cliff-top contemplating her future with growing negative thoughts. She then noticed some green material in the bracken adjacent to her and found John’s flag. From the flag, she accessed The Canmore Trust website and read Cameron’s Story – and, for the first time ever, considered the negative impact that suicide has on those family members, friends and colleagues left behind.
In that moment, still with great sobs and tears rolling down her cheeks, she decided that she would not take her own life and that she would complete the walk. She wanted me to know that the story of LEJoG had changed her whole outlook on life and that she would keep walking; that Cameron’s Story and The Canmore Trust had saved her life.
A highlight of LEJoG for me was our ‘Meet and Greet’ event in The Meadows, Edinburgh on 6 August when we met so many people, including Kevin Stewart MSP, the Minister for Mental Wellbeing and Social Care in Scottish Government, along with his team of civil servants from the Suicide Prevention Unit. A book detailing our experiences is underway and I hope to share more of that in due course.
The impact of LEJoG continued into the first Canmore Trust Dentistry Wellbeing Symposium in Glasgow on Friday 4 November 2022, so ably organised and hosted by Mike and Juliet Gow. The day was a huge success and was followed by a black-tie dinner in the evening. It was so good to see many friends from dentistry having great fun together – and the wonderful sum of more than £25,000 was raised during the day and evening event for the work of The Canmore Trust. Please look out for the details of the next event in 2023.
So, where to now? Well, undoubtedly the hashtag has gained traction and we will keep walking and keep talking. Plans are already afoot, so watch out for Orkney and Shetland in 2023!
Over the past three years, I have met some remarkable people honed by similar experience. We will keep walking together, ensuring that our communal ‘lived experience’ creates impact and, wherever possible, saves lives.
If you would like to join us, support us or have further information, please feel free to contact me at The Canmore Trust at email@example.com
Our five gutsy aims for the Trust will be honed and developed as we head into 2023, but with education for suicide prevention at the forefront of all we do, as well as developing centres where families affected by suicide can stay and meet with ‘lived experienced’ counsellors, appropriately trained by the Trust.
How can you get involved?
For those who would rather give through practice accounts, the Trust’s banking details are:
- Sort Code: 83-16-16
- Account Number: 00250570.
Please do consider organising a charity event in your family, practice or community to support the work of The Canmore Trust in 2023. Thank you for caring. Stay safe, stay well.
John Gibson is a member of the National Suicide Prevention Leadership Group’s Lived Experience Panel. He is CEO of The Canmore Trust (SC051511).
If you have been affected by reading this article, please see The Canmore Trust’s website for appropriate resources or, if in acute distress, please call The Samaritans on 116 123.