Chris Brown’s son Ben took his own life aged 22 - now he’s battling to prevent more student suicides
In the two years since his son Ben killed himself while at university, Chris Brown has been campaigning tirelessly for mental health and suicide prevention charities. Here he describes the lessons which can be learnt from his family’s tragic loss. Call the Samaritans for free on 116 123.
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Chris Brown has a stark message for parents.
“The fact is, suicide is still the biggest killer of young adults in this country,” he says.
“Talk to any parent and ask what’s the most likely thing your child could die of, it’s not illness, crime, an accident – it’s suicide. But most parents don’t know that and they need to be aware of that.”
The 53-year-old IT consultant from Berkshire is all too painfully aware of the devastation suicide can bring to a family.
In April 2020, his son Ben took his own life while studying at Loughborough University. He was just 22.
Described by Chris as “engaging, very popular and driven”, Ben, like most other students his age, enjoyed travelling abroad and all the social aspects that came with being at university - he loved his university life.
“He was that sort”, Chris said. “But there was another side to him.”
Chris said his son struggled with “conventional learning”, such as lessons in classrooms and sitting exams - something common for people living with autism.
“He was neurodiverse, which brought about challenges in his life. It brought about anxiety and stress and not being able to cope with some things that ‘normal’ people would be able to cope with.”
Ben, from Gloucester, had been studying architectural engineering and design management. He was also enrolled as an officer cadet in the army and was due to go to Sandhurst after university. Despite doing “brilliantly” on all other coursework, Ben struggled with long written essays, Chris said.
He was retaking his final year after failing to complete his dissertation the year before and although telling his family he was on top of it, in reality he hadn’t done anything.
Then the coronavirus pandemic put the entire country in lockdown and like so many others, Ben was confined to his student accommodation. Living in the loft section of a converted house meant his only daylight was from a skylight in the ceiling.
“He would lie on his bed looking at clouds,” Chris said.
“But when you are 22 and you are so full of energy and you live on your own there and the government tells you you can’t do anything but go and exercise for 30 minutes a day, that is really tough.”
Ben took his own life the night before his dissertation was due.
Since his death, Ben’s family have tirelessly fundraised for mental health charities and campaigned to raise awareness of suicide. The family have raised more than £50,000 for youth mental health charity Papyrus, which has mainly been used to train people in suicide prevention.
Chris is also a co-founder of WASP, the campaign for Workplace Awareness of Suicide Prevention, and is campaigning for legislative change to have suicides in the workplace recorded.
Chris, who is separated from Ben’s mother Helen Hartery-Brown, said they were both in an online support group for parents who had lost their children to suicide.
He said: “Every single day there are new members to that group – that’s the scale of the problem in this country. It’s a big thing and we’re just one of many, many parents who wake up to this. That’s all we care about, anything that stops families going through this.”
He describes the guilt he still feels. “You don’t bring up your child to kill themselves so you think you failed as a parent because your child did that and that’s a tough one to live with.”
Ben is just one of dozens of students who die by suicide each year.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal 319 university students across England and Wales took their own lives in the three years to July 2020.
In the three years to December 2020, 106 students in Scotland and 19 students in Northern Ireland died by suicide, separate figures show.
Despite recent efforts to boost student mental health support services in higher education, an exclusive investigation by NationalWorld has found that most UK universities do not keep records of the number of students taking their own lives.
Loughborough University, where Ben studied, was one of the universities that said it had no record of the number of students dying by suicide.
Responding to a Freedom of Information request sent by NationalWorld, the university said the information was not held: “Whilst we record student deaths, we are not able to confirm the cause of death. We do not receive coroners’ reports nor do we ask the families of students about the cause of death.”
A spokesperson for Loughborough University said they do not actively request confirmation of the cause of death from the coroner or the family but do review all student deaths.
“We have a dedicated Mental Health Support Team at the University who provide practical support and facilitate pastoral support to students experiencing mental health difficulties.
“The University also has a dedicated Wellbeing Team to whom students can self-refer at any point in the year.
“We liaise with local health services and undertake projects and engagement around suicide prevention. Information about the services available to students is communicated regularly, and particularly at key points during the academic year.”
Chris said he does not lay any blame with the university for his son’s death.
“What I can see from most universities is that they are very good at providing mental health support. At the end of the day there will always be people who fall outside of that through their own choice and that was Ben,” Chris said.
“At the end of the day he was 22 years old, he was an adult, we can’t blame everyone else all the time. He had lots of chances to pick up the phone. He was involved with suicide charities, he was fundraising for them so he knew exactly all the things to do when you feel down.
“He didn’t do anything about that. Blaming the university would be wrong but there is a lesson to be learned.”
Chris said he would like to see families made more involved if a student’s welfare was of concern.
“If a student is retaking a year and struggling again there needs to be some sort of intervention which should certainly involve parents – we weren’t involved,” he said.
Chris said he didn’t know whether it was always the right solution to involve parents, because some students would want to be more independent, “but if you are saving youngsters’ lives then maybe it is the right answer”.
He said if a student was failing to complete a significant amount of coursework, this should be flagged up to someone else.
“There needs to be levels of escalation when it’s clear a student is clearly struggling. The university then has a responsibility to flag to someone. They know the parents, or they should, so that’s the obvious starting point in my view. I think there does need to be a shake-up.”