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Autumn can bring sorrow to the older generation but it marks a sad time for me

‘Dad, it’s gone green again!’

So that’s the end of summer, then. Round our way, the official end of the holiday season is traditionally measured by the water in the big paddling pool.

We fill it at the beginning of summer, late May or early June, and it usually turns green and needs a refill (3000 litres!) by the end of July.

It turns green again around the beginning of September and sometimes – like this year – you just know it’s not going to be worth emptying and refilling the bloody thing again.

The increasing level of sorrow you feel at the approach of autumn corresponds to age, to the old sigh of ‘well, how many more of these have I got?’

There comes a point in your fifties when your future summers stop being a vast, uncountable reserve and start being something you can put an (alarmingly low) figure on. 20? 25? Maybe 30? Still, I’ve been able to enjoy a lot more summers than some . . .

Because there’s another reason the first week of September always marks a sad time in our family: it’s the anniversary of my younger brother Gary’s death.

As regular readers will remember, Gary took his own life in 2010.

John Niven (R) with his brother Gary

He spent four days in a coma before dying on September the 3rd. The anniversary of this always seems to coincide with that time of the year when you notice the nights’ drawing in earlier, when the wind starts to get a bit colder, when the kids go back to school and the vivid green of the trees starts to dim a little.

As many families have found out, it’s sadly often the case that you only become an expert in suicide after it has personally affected you.

And it was ironic that one of the first major suicide prevention campaigns that I became aware of was The Samaritans ‘Men on the Ropes’ campaign, which was launched just a few weeks after Gary died.

Autumn can bring sorrow to the older generation but it marks a sad time for me
John Niven’s brother Gary Niven who sadly passed away

It targeted the men most vulnerable to suicide. Men in their ‘late thirties and early forties.’ Men who were ‘long-term unemployed’. Men who had ‘chronic health problems’, who ‘lived alone’ and who might have ‘fallen into debt.’

Of course, it was only after the fact that I realised my brother ticked all these boxes.

The statistics vary every year, but at the time of Gary’s death, the peak age group for male suicide in the UK was between 40 and 44.

If you can make it into your late fifties, the percentage chance of killing yourself drops right down, from 23 per cent of deaths to around nine per cent. Gary was 42 – right in the middle of that peak danger zone.

It seems to be the time in a man’s life when the joys of youth – of summertime – are furthest behind them and the promise of the peace of old age the furthest away.

You’ve lost sight of where you’ve been and where you’re going. There’s just angry water all around.

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It’s at the beginning of September, when I’m thinking about my brother, that I often find myself checking the latest statistics on suicide.

And there was a glimmer of good news this year in Scotland: the number of suicides decreased by three per cent from 2019 to 2020, down to 805 probable cases from 833. That’s still far too high of course. It’s still hundreds of families – thousands of friends – torn apart and devastated.

Suicide affects people across every level of society, and there’s an adage that runs ‘depression doesn’t care how much money you have in the bank.’

However, the suicide rate in Scotland remains three times higher in its most deprived areas than in its most affluent ones.

Poverty – and its attending factors of poor diet and poor health – is undoubtedly a factor.

So, if you’re reading this and you have someone close to you ticking off too many of these boxes (male, late 30s/early 40s, unemployed, in debt, health problems, living alone), then don’t do what I did.

Don’t become an expert in hindsight. Try to talk to them. And, if they won’t, try to get them to talk to someone else.

You can contact the Samaritans 24 hours a day, seven days a week by calling 116 123 or by visiting their website.

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