Two days ago I heard that a good friend of mine had recently passed away. The medium of discovery was Facebook, but once the milk ran out and a trip to the shops was in order it became clear that, locally at least, his death was a much bigger story than just a few friends passing condolences on a social website. It was front page news in the local paper.
Like so many highly creative individuals he was tormented by his demons, but we connected on that basic level of shared loves and experiences. A respected artist, engineer and actor with a love of festivals and loud music he was always there to help others, but alas always the last to ask help for himself. In all the time I knew him he was a kind gentle soul, but I knew beneath that shell lay a darker soul trapped and waiting. Depression and bouts of violent psychosis were a constant battle for him resulting in regular stays in hospital until finally in the last few years he was homeless. Even then he worked hard helping those around him and raising money for charity until finally, over New Years, at Beachy Head he finally silenced his demons.
The biggest indictment of the Big Society is not that he finally made the decision to end his own life, it’s sad to say that for those who truly are at their lowest ebb ways and means will be found. The big indictment is that no one noticed for nearly a month. His lifestyle is partly to blame here, he was well known to pack a bag, grab his passport and take off for Europe at the drop of a hat. With friends throughout the country he would move around to where he felt most comfortable with himself. I’d like to think that on the day he disappeared whoever knew him would have informed the police of his disappearance at least. At the very least there should have been regular contact with someone from social services, but it seems social workers don’t help the homeless, many of whom are homeless due to their mental health. Knowing he was a high suicide risk and in the vicinity of Beachy Head it’s not a large leap of faith to consider the possibility, but it would seem no effort at all was made to trace him. Instead his body was found a month later, after the police were searching the cliffs for the wreckage of a car that had been driven over the edge of the cliff.
The Big Society does not mean we get to pick and choose who we look out for. Cameron’s Big Society seems to be about looking after everyone except those that need it, the poor, the unemployed, the sick, the old and the disabled. The most vulnerable in society who need the Big Society instead are pilloried by government. It does not mean that our police services ignore those who are vulnerable, the homeless need protecting more than the housed. While I know there was nothing that could have been done to prevent a friend’s death I still cannot shake that feeling that he has been let down somehow. By a government that has actively made the poor poorer. By a police service that couldn’t care about another homeless person going missing. By a health service that has done nothing to stay in contact and counsel the mentally ill. By a society that sees the mentally ill and homeless as something to ignore at best, or to be ridiculed at worst. By friends who didn’t miss him till it was too late. And by myself, for not being a better friend when needed most.