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"My dad had ‘everything’ on paper… but he took his own life"

Paul McGregor lost his dad to suicide when he was 18. Today, he's a mental health campaigner whose mission is to show men that it’s ok to talk about their mental health. He shares his story...

I always looked up to my dad. He seemed to have everything. A loving wife, two sons, proud parents and lots of friends. He was a full-time engineer, ran his own side business as a physiotherapist and also had a psychology degree. He read countless books, was an avid runner and loved by many. But on the 4th March 2009, with everything looking ‘perfect’ on paper... he ended his own life. 

My dad’s suicide impacted so many people. My mum was left without her only love, the man she met at 15. My nan and grandad were left without their only child. Me and my brother were left without a dad and countless friends of my dad were left without someone to run with, to joke with. My dad’s suicide affected so many people he met throughout his life, but in the grand scheme of things, my dad was merely a number – one part of the scary statistic that suicide kills more men under 50 than anything else. Not road accidents, not cancer - suicide.

"I couldn’t handle the awkward conversations" 

 My dad’s suicide was hard to deal with. The pain that came with the grief was too much to face, so I buried it. Inside I was battling feelings of guilt, anger and pure sadness. But I put on a front to mask it and avoided any conversations around mental health and suicide. I feared others would judge him and my family if I told them about it, and I couldn’t handle the awkward conversations that would arise if I said the word ‘suicide’. So I lied. I told people he died in a road accident.

But complete denial and burying those emotions didn’t help me either. I found myself in a dark place, battling depression and a daunting fear of ending up like my dad.

When I found myself in this moment of darkness I started to realise why my dad did what he did. I started to understand how it could happen to anyone. When your perception of life is closing in on you, when you lack any meaning and feel like you are impacting your family negatively. You lose control. The one thing you can control though, is a decision. A decision to fight another day or end it. Being there - and starting to see how easy it can be to get there - was scary. But I had hope. And I knew I needed to do something about it. So I talked. 

Speaking out about suicide

I’d spoken to people before, but this was different. She wasn’t a counsellor or a £100 an hour psychologist. She was Ann. A 65-year-old masseuse who had taken a weekend course in holistic therapy. I went to see her for a back problem but 3 sessions in, after telling her repeatedly I was only there for my back, I found myself opening up to her about my dad’s suicide. 

Being able to talk left me feeling vulnerable, but with time I started to understand myself and what made my Dad do what he did. I started to forgive him, and forgive myself to release the guilt and grief I was carrying. I started reading books on spirituality and psychology, I started exercising and eating better, I started a business I enjoyed and I started to let go of things I couldn’t control. More importantly, I found more meaning in my life and hope that things can get better. Writing that makes it seem like a quick change, but it’s taken 6 years - and learning more about my own mental health will never stop. 

Do I forgive my dad?

Yes, he wasn’t well. Even though from the outside he looked happy, he was battling emotional pain I’ll never be able to truly understand. Suicide isn’t selfish - it was the only way my dad thought he could end the mental pain he was going through at that time. I’m grateful for the dad he was, the role he played in my life and the lessons he gave me. I’m grateful for him, not angry at him.

We need to be more open about mental health. Talking about how you feel and being vulnerable shows strength, not weakness. When I started talking openly about how I felt, and the story of my dad, others started opening up to me too. I’ve heard on countless occasions people share their stories and follow up with “I’ve never told anyone this before”.


Paul speaking at a conference

Why we need research

There's a lack of understanding and education about mental health among both the general public and professionals - and, without research, we can't change this. There's so much guesswork right now, and a lot of people simply having to figure things out themselves. This is dangerous.

Aside from the amazing research MQ and others are doing, there really isn't enough being done by the people in power who can create change. With the statistics there in front of them - hard evidence that depression is killing a man every 2 hours in the UK alone - why isn't more being done to understand mental illness and prevent this from happening to others?

Facts and definitive answers, backed up by science, can help us start to intervene and treat people more effectively. Research has to become a priority for mental health.

My questions for the scientists

This year I'm co-chairing a talk at MQ's Mental Health Science Meeting on suicide and self-harm. I'm eager to see what's been happening 'behind the scenes' with research projects focussing on these topics, and learn of any practices that I can start to use personally and pass on to others.

As a Dad now myself, I'd also love to discuss what we can do to help support young people going through what my dad did. How can research help us save the lives of the next generation?
 

9 years on from my dad’s suicide, not a lot has changed in terms of how mental health is generally perceived and, more importantly, what’s being done to prevent it. I hope my work can help add to that change - and I'm excited to be part of MQ's conversation, alongside world-leading scientists.

To find more about Paul and his story, listen to him on MQ’s Open Mind podcast or visit www.pmcgregor.com.

Last updated: 30 January 2019

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