Students Hung Dummies Off Westminster Bridge to Highlight the UK's Ongoing Mental Health Crisis
All 20 of the students involved had either attempted or considered suicide before the age of 18.
Photo courtesy of Yasmine Akim
On a cold morning last Friday, 20 students from south London made their way to Westminster Bridge. They walked stoically in single file. Each carried in their arms a human dummy – some dressed in school uniforms, others in pyjamas. Every dummy had a noose looped around its neck, with the remaining length of rope coiled around the students' arms.
As the students approached the space above the second arch, they stopped and looped their respective piece of rope through a hole in the bridge wall. One by one, the dummies were lowered down – each representing a child who took their own life in London in 2017. All 20 of the students involved have either attempted or considered suicide before the age of 18.
"It felt really overwhelming," 17-year-old Jaz told me of the action. She was one of the students on the bridge and is co-chair of Crazy Talk, a group of young people with lived experience of mental health issues. "I was looking at the rope and thinking how close I was to taking my own life."
The demonstration underpins a growing crisis in London, and more widely across the country. In the last five years in London alone, the youth suicide rate has increased by 105 percent. In 2017, 165 young people took their own lives in the UK – including the 20 represented on Westminster Bridge.
In the UK, 850,000 children and young people – one in ten – have a diagnosable mental health condition. It's estimated that 20 percent of adolescents in any given year will experience a mental health problem. Studies show that 50 percent of mental health problems are established by age 14, with 75 percent established by age 24.
Mental health represents 28 percent of the "disease burden" in the UK. Historically, however, it has only received around 13 percent of the funding. With underfunded children's services in particular being branded a "silent catastrophe", the Conservative Party has boasted of creating "parity of esteem" between physical and mental health. Writing in the Daily Express in 2017, Theresa May pledged "record" levels of investment into mental health services, committing £11.6 billion of spending, with an extra £1 billion pledged, by 2020/21.
In July of 2018, the government announced the consultation results for a new strategy and set of funds in the form of the children and young people's mental health green paper, which promises a 10 percent reduction in suicide by 2021 and a reduction in waiting times to a maximum of four weeks for vital mental health support, among other things. Last year, on World Mental Health Day, Theresa May announced the creation of a Minister for Suicide Prevention.
With spending increasing and new legislation on the horizon, as well as a complimentary ministerial appointment, it makes you wonder: why choose now to take action as harrowing and potentially triggering as hanging bodies from a bridge in central London?
As we warmed up in a coffee shop after the action, demonstrator Thalia explained why she had got involved: "My experience of mental health services has always been negative. Through my school, they didn't actually refer me for counselling, they sent me somewhere else. When I went to the GP for help, they said 'refer yourself', so multiple times I’ve gone to adults for help and I’ve been told to do it for myself."
Thalia is 19. Her experience with mental health services in and outside her school has been complex and difficult. At school she received very little support, and what help she did receive was poor. On one occasion an ambulance was called by a teacher to deal with a panic attack. When she eventually accessed services outside of school, Thalia found help there was also not forthcoming.
"I had ridiculous waiting times, and the actual service I received was not suited to what I was going through," she explained. "The first place I went to, they put me on meds within one hour of meeting me, without really even getting to know what I was actually going through. I felt let down and my situation deteriorated to the point where I was considering suicide. It's crushing when you're let down again. I did want to get better, it just felt like there were so many more barriers in front of me, outside of what I was already going through, that were stopping me from getting there."
The Department for Education's 2016 teacher voice survey showed that 32 percent of senior leaders felt their school was not equipped to identify behaviour that may have been linked to a mental health issue, while 44 percent of respondents felt their school was not equipped to teach children who have mental health needs. In Lambeth, the average waiting time for an appointment with the Child and Adolescent community service is 17.75 weeks. The average waiting time for an Early intervention appointment is 23.55 weeks – almost half a year.
Mel is also 19. She was diagnosed with anxiety at the age of 11.
"I had to deal with panic attacks every day. I remember a lesson in Year 10, I could feel my heart pounding in my chest as if I'd just ran a marathon and I had to excuse myself," she told me. "I stood outside with tears pouring down my face, my mouth dry, and my Head of Year came up to me and said, 'I know what panic attacks look like, I’ve had them before and this isn’t one, get back into your lesson NOW.' In that moment, I was heartbroken and scared. That day ended with me crying for an hour straight in the toilet, alone. My school failed me because it made me believe that I was a failure, which just made me hate myself even more than I already did."
Mel was eventually offered counselling at school. After her fifth session, the counsellor informed her that they were leaving but that someone would be replacing them. They never did. "Funding is pretty much non-existent for counsellors and support," said Mel. "In my school there was one counsellor for over 900 students, which is impossible. There aren't that many hours in the day to see everyone."
Cuts to school funding have been catastrophic. In October of 2018, 40 MPs heard how years of severe budget cuts have decimated school services, with those with special educational or mental health needs bearing the brunt. Just two weeks beforehand, thousands of head teachers marched on Downing Street demanding more funding for their schools.
"To this day, I have never gone to a service that has helped me – at all," Mel told me.
In February of 2018, analysis from the Royal College of Psychiatrists showed that mental health trusts across the country were facing a real term cut to their funding due to inflation. Despite "record spending", inflation meant that, in reality, trusts had less funding than they did in 2012.
In every direction, children and young adults trying to access help and support find services that have borne the brunt of Conservative austerity.
"You can say you're investing in the services, but as a person currently dealing with mental health and being in the service, I’m not seeing any changes," said Jaz. At 17, she was one of the youngest people involved in the demo. "It was only when I went to hospital after taking an overdose that they took action," she continued. "It was ridiculous. I’ve seen it happen to my friends and loved ones around me. It happened to my mum. It feels like there’s so much false hope. That we’re just being sold dreams."
Earlier in the morning, a cheer had erupted when Jaz arrived. She had been spending the previous few weeks struggling with a mental health episode and was unsure as to whether she was going to be able to make it to the demo. When we spoke, she talked about other potential plans for the action – one such option being to hang themselves from the bridge.
We laughed as she told me this, at how ridiculous it seemed. But the longer we chatted, the more it became apparent why something as daring was even considered (if only for a moment).
"I have been struggling with my mental health for six years now, with no one to thank for my survival other than a few close friends," said Jaz. "I have attempted suicide four times, and feel as if I am completely alone in my fight against my illness. The system needs to change. I am not a rare occurrence; I am one of so many young people who are constantly fighting to stay alive."
As I'd stood watching the dummies dangle in the wind, my breath had caught in my throat. My eyes filled with tears. On my wrist is a tattoo – a tally with four parallel lines drawn down the length of my wrist, diagonally crossed by another. There is a sixth line missing. Each mark represents one year since one of my biggest suicide attempts.
I'd watched each dummy being carried, attached and lowered with the ache of recognition. Every conversation I'd had with another one of the students pulled up memories that sounded and looked like their stories. Every word dripped with an exhausted desperation and frustration that sounded like it had come from my mouth.
The stories of these 20 students are not anomalies. They are experiences told and lived across the UK every single day. Each body, dangling above the murky brown waters of the Thames, marks a life ended. A potential destroyed. They are a sad indictment of a broken system. One that is overwhelmed by those in need of help, but left barren by cuts made by this government. They are the consequence of decisions made and of promises broken. As the government moves to implement its green paper, Friday's action serves as a reminder to those in power what happens if they fail.
Just before they pulled their dummies back over the wall, the students held A3 pages aloft, spelling out three words: Not One More.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.