Three Dads Walking on suicide, grief and finding light in the darkest of places

April 4, 2024. Series 7. Episode 86

In this episode I’m joined by three remarkable men, Andy Airey, Mike Palmer and Tim Owen – better known as Three Dads Walking. All would rather have never met but through a common and tragic bond – the loss of their daughters, Sophie, Beth and Emily, to suicide – they did.

Brought together by a shared grief, these three dads connected and decided to shine a light on the shocking number of young people who take their own lives in the UK.

A 300-mile walk between their homes in Cumbria, Manchester, and Norfolk in 2021 was their first epic venture. A 600-mile walk then followed, and another is planned for this year. So far, over £1m has been raised for the incredible suicide prevention charity PAPYRUS.

Their new book – 3 Dads Walking, 300 Miles of Hope – tells the story of the courage and hope they’ve found on those walks. It is out now.

Please remember – if you, or anyone you know is having or have had suicidal thoughts, you can reach out to Papyrus UK suicide prevention on 0800 068 4141.


Three Dads Walking: 300 Miles of Hope

3 Dads Walking


Papyrus has been campaigning for a suicide-safer internet for nearly twenty years. Do you want to ensure technology companies are held accountable for the safety of users on their platforms?

Download their draft letter to send to your local MP here:

Send your letter to your MP here:

Stream/buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning:

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Your Daily Practice: Sleep by Myndstream:


Host – Andy Coulson

CWC team: Jane Sankey, Louise Difford, Zach Ellis and Mabel Pickering

With special thanks to Ioana Barbu and the brilliant people at Global

For all PR and guest approaches please contact – [email protected]


Key Words

#suicide #grief #guilt #recovery #positivity #friendship #hope #walking


Full transcript:

Tim Owen:                         [0:00:00] When you lose a child you feel like you’ve done something wrong. You feel like you’ve totally messed up, and then how can you be a father to your other kids if you’ve messed up with one kid? I’d failed as a dad, ultimately, I hadn’t kept my daughter alive.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:00:17] Welcome back to Crisis What Crisis, the podcast that aims to guide you towards a more resilient life and whatever it might throw at you. If this is your first time with us, then please hit ‘subscribe’ wherever you’re watching or listening, it really helps make sure that these, I hope useful, conversations are shared as widely as possible.

Today I am joined by three remarkable men, who are in my view the epitome of finding hope through crisis and despair. Andy Airey, Mike Palmer and Tim Owen, better known as Three Dads Walking, would all rather have never met. But they did, and through a common and tragic bond: the loss of their daughters Sophie, Beth and Emily, to suicide.

Wracked by grief, these three dads connected and decided that together they would shine a light on the shocking number of young people who take their own lives in the UK. Suicide is the biggest killer of under-35s.

A 300-mile walk between their homes in Cumbria, Manchester and Norfolk in 2021 was their first epic venture. A 600-mile walk followed the next year and another is planned very soon. Along the way of that first walk the Three Dads have raised over £1 million for the brilliant suicide prevention charity, Papyrus.

Their new book, Three Dads Walking: 300 Miles of Hope, tells the story of their loss and the courage they have found on those walks, often accompanied by others who lost children to suicide also. It’s a powerful, important read.

So today this is a conversation about the crisis of suicide, about grief, about recovery, and of creating something positive from the darkest of places.

Andy, Mike and Tim, welcome to Crisis What Crisis. How are you gents?

Andy Airey:                        [0:01:59] Yes, good. Good to see you.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:02:01] Thank you for being here. The book is something else. Very moving, quite a tough read in places, but ultimately incredibly uplifting. I suspect quite a tough project for all of you.

Andy Airey:                        [0:02:18] Well, we didn’t set out to do it. The book, it was just a by-product wasn’t it?

Tim Owen:                         [0:02:25] It was just a journal, wasn’t it?

Mike Palmer:                     [02:26] Yes it was, but it felt right to do didn’t it, absolutely. You know, we had the journal, we had a story and we knew we had to tell it.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:02:33] You had journals of the walk, but you also draw on journals that were real time, really. Mike in particular, right in the sort of visceral first days.

Mike Palmer:                     [0:02:45] Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:02:49] It must have been very difficult to pull that together.

Mike Palmer:                     [0:02:52] It wasn’t as if I’d written anything before, but the feelings and emotions and the grief and everything after- after losing Beth, for some reason I just needed to get it down. You know, I needed to try and process it, and putting it down, you know, sitting there in front of the laptop and writing it, you know, sometimes it just came naturally. And I still don’t know why I really wrote it, now.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:03:18] It reads as though you were writing it in real time, in places.

Mike Palmer:                     [0:03:21] I was writing it in real time.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:03:24] You were, right?

Mike Palmer:                     [0:03:23] Yes, absolutely writing it in real time, yes. Day in day out I was recording it. I mean, there’s even more to it than is actually in the book, to be quite honest, but I needed to- it was just a need to put it down somehow, to record it. I felt as though it’s important. And I was encouraged by some friends to do that, as well.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:03:45] Yes. But also the sort of healing nature of writing, that kind of getting it out. Did you all feel that as well in this process? Has it helped in that sense?

Tim Owen:                         [0:03:57] After- I was talking to Mike at the time, you know, four weeks after losing Em, three weeks after losing Beth. We were talking and Mike was talking about his journal, and I did a little bit but nothing on the scale of Mike. And really the-

Mike Palmer:                     [0:04:08] You appeared in it quite a lot.

Tim Owen:                         [0:04:10] I know I did. But I didn’t- the first time really we started writing was when we started the journal into the book, which we kind of expanded and you led the way on that didn’t you Andy?

Andy Airey:                        [0:04:21] Yes, well it was- I’ve got to say, the bit that Mike wrote, I’ve read the whole lot that he wrote down and it’s like we’re living in his head. And at the time that was a particularly horrible place, wasn’t it?

Mike Palmer:                     [0:04:34] Yes, an awful place.

Andy Airey:                        [0:04:35] It’s an amazing piece of writing, because it was just that diary of grief.

Mike Palmer:                     [0:04:41] You do through the process of grief. No matter how you look at it, you know, you have that anger, you have the guilt, you know. And basically I was suicidal myself. I’d lost my little girl and I was lost myself. I was shattered into- you know, well I suppose a stereotypical firefighter I was, you know, I dealt with incidents of life and death many times, never took it lightly but I always felt as though I processed it very well. But to lose my daughter on that level, and losing her to suicide as well, it just absolutely shattered me.

And you are- you can’t even- I couldn’t even reach out to my family and friends, everyone was so distant. You know, the whole world changes colour. The whole world was literally black and white, things were familiar but nothing was the same. You know, it’s an awful, awful place.

Tim Owen:                         [0:05:38] I think that- Mike and I got together and I knew I needed peer support from other stuff I’d been through. In fact Mike was talking about firefighter and doing nasty stuff at work, but then you’ve got peers to support you because you’re in it together. When you lose your child to suicide you feel isolated, alone.

Like Mike said, turning to your friends and family, you’re burning them. But talking to someone, another dad in a pretty similar situation, no one is quite the same, that was a massive privilege, a massive support for each other.

And then when we met Andy a few months later, well a year later or so, just to know Andy was like fourteen months ahead of us in his grief journey, and look, “How do I get from where I am now to where Andy is? And where-” then we met other people who were seven years down the line, and stuff.

Always looking, it’s that kind of, you need that support from peers but then how do I get further down the line? How do I-?

Mike Palmer:                     [0:06:24] You lose that fact, don’t you? When you’re a father you’re there to protect, and I do believe that. I thought I’d done a pretty good job on Beth, you know, but all of a sudden that was taken away. I’ve got two other girls, you know, all of a sudden I didn’t feel capable of doing any of the fathering and protecting any more, you know. So it was so important to start talking to Tim at first and then Andy, you know, as we say, it’s that peer thing.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:06:50] And the ability to see that grief, which we’ve talked a fait bit about on this podcast with other guests, is that grief doesn’t go, it just changes. And the sort of size and shape and the challenge of it changes as time goes by.

So you were able to kind of understand that, because as you say, Andy was fourteen months ahead of you.

Andy Airey:                        [0:07:09] The thing is, what we’ve learned, is everybody deals with grief differently. There isn’t a right way, or there’s definitely quite a lot of wrong ways, I think we’ve found.

But for me, that process started in terms of actually trying to manage the grief, on the afternoon that we found out that Soph had died. Just before Christmas 2018 she sent out a message indicating she was going to take her own life and she went missing for three days. And it was on the third day that her body was found. And it was- that was awful. But-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:07:50] That period was just-

Andy Airey:                        [0:07:51] It’s torture. Torture, torture, torture.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:07:54] You travelled up to-

Andy Airey:                        [0:07:55] She was living-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:07:56] She was living in Edinburgh, is that right?

Andy Airey:                        [0:07:57] That’s right, yes. So we went from Cumbria up to Edinburgh for three days, but it became clear that we were just- well, we were getting in the way of people who were doing the searching, and also it was doing us no favours at all. So we’d gone home, so we were back at home on the Saturday, 22nd is when they found Soph’s body.

And you’re just broken. You’re in pieces, aren’t you? Shattered is not the right word, you’re just beyond broke. And that feeling of not understanding how you’re going to carry on living through the next five minutes, you know? It’s painful, really seriously painful.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:08:34] Physical pain I think you described it as.

Andy Airey:                        [0:08:35] Yes, absolutely. It’s this kind of visceral gut feeling that you wouldn’t want to wish upon anybody.

But with us, that afternoon as we were in the mess of crying and snot and tears, and some laughter still actually, remembering Sophie, our local vicar came round. And he came round to our house thinking he was walking into a house where we were looking for a missing person, but he walked into us to find that we’d just discovered that Soph had died.

And Stuart sat with us for quite a long time, we had lots of cups of tea in a very English manner I suppose, and Stuart talked about love and grief and loss. One of the things he said that afternoon resonated with me then, and it proved to be true. Stuart said that a lot of people will say to you that time is a great healer. He said, “That’s a load of rubbish. You’ll always carry this Sophie-shaped hole around with you, it’ll never go away, you’ve got that. And at the moment it’s the biggest thing, it dominates everything that you can see, so you’re just going to dive into that hole of grief.”

But he said, “Over time you’ll find something, or some things that will begin to protect you from that gaping void.” I obviously didn’t know what, but I remember thinking at the time it was that kind of glimmer of hope. You know, hope is a word we keep using a lot, but for me in that way of processing grief it was that first glimmer of hope that somehow there will be a way that our lives could carry on.

At that time that afternoon you had no idea how to get through an hour, how to breathe, you just did not understand. But that just little seed of hope was phenomenally important for me, and it’s certainly something I’ve passed on to other people as went along.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:10:33] Yes. Tell me, if you don’t mind Andy, tell me a bit about Sophie?

Andy Airey:                        [0:10:38] Soph was fantastic. She was great fun, she was actually 29 when she died, working as a nurse up in Edinburgh. She was kind of loud and brash and funny. The door would always burst open and she’d come in all, “Hiya, hiya!” Shout at us, just invariably take the mickey out of whatever I was doing. But she was loving and caring and kind, and I just-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:11:10] And had helped clearly, as a nurse, a tremendous amount of people during the course of her working life.

Andy Airey:                        [0:11:14] Yes, and the feedback we had from her colleagues was she was a fantastic nurse. You know, she was very caring and empathetic and- could offer tough love, give you tough love if required. Very much like my mother actually, who was also a nurse. Yes, so she didn’t mess about. But just a great pleasure to be with.

And because my background in terms of work was in the outdoor trade, so I spent a lot of time out on the Lake District fells and mountains across the world, Soph spent a lot of time outdoors with me, walking and running and cycling and skiing. And so we just had a really great relationship and she was just, yes, really good fun to be with.

That year, 2018, she was going through a bit of a messy patch, you know. She’d split up with her husband through her own choice, it was her that made the break. So she was going through something that was a bit challenging, and we were worried about her. But we weren’t worried about her being suicidal, we were worried about her being happy. That’s all you want as a parent, isn’t it?

Andy Coulson:                   [0:12:22] Yes.

Andy Airey:                        [0:12:25] And so we just didn’t see this coming. She was due to come home to Cumbria on the 20th December, and then we just got this message in the family WhatsApp group that said, “I love you all so much,” which didn’t quite ring true. And then before we could react to it, George, Soph’s mum, my ex-wife, called to say that she’d got this message to say that Soph was planning to take her own life. Signed off with, “Please don’t bury me.”

And that was when our world changed instantly.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:13:01] Over those three days of not knowing.

Andy Airey:                        [0:13:02] Yes, yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:13:04] You write in the book Andy, about the sort of initial decision that you made, which I suppose is completely understandable, this kind of closing in of your life. But then you write about how you make this kind of conscious decision quite early on to get out into the village and to sort of confront it.

Andy Airey:                        [0:13:25] Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:13:26] That is an incredibly brave thing to do, but what is it that in your- tell me about your thought process as to why your view was that I need to be at- I need to open this up rather than close this down.

Andy Airey:                        [0:13:38] It was the natural thing to do, for us to do. And it wasn’t just me, you know. We were sat at home, me, Fiona my wife and Gregor our son, we were sat at home talking about what had gone on . And we did start to talk about how do we- what happens next?

And we made a few decisions that afternoon between the three of us. One was we weren’t going to cancel Christmas. Since it was the 22nd December it would have been very easy to take everything down and-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:14:09] Yes, yes.

Andy Airey:                        [0:14:10] But we thought no, we’ve got to do it. We’ve got to get through this somehow. We talked about it being- this is Sophie’s choice, Sophie’s decision, and we couldn’t allow that to- the what ifs, why didn’t we see it coming? We couldn’t allow that to crush us.

But we also knew we had to tell people. Because we have so many friends and family, you can’t hide that piece of news. Whether you like it or not, Soph’s died and died by her own hand. So we’ve got to tell somebody sometime, and it was like, “Well, we need to get out the house as well, let’s go and get some fresh air.”

And we knew in that process of being out of the house and walking around the village we would bump into people, and we would just tell them. It felt like the right thing to do. And it wasn’t brave, it was just the way we are.

What it set in- I suppose the chain of events, that reinforced the idea that talking about what happened to us and what happened to Sophie helps other people. We didn’t realise that at the time, but it was so obvious that by talking and being open it encouraged other people to be open and talk.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:15:24] And it started from your perspective to remove the stigma, remove the sort of silence that so often- we’ll talk about this in more detail.

Andy Airey:                        [0:15:32] Yes, but it wasn’t a plan. It was absolutely this felt the right thing to do.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:15:39] Tim, can I ask the same question? Tell us a bit please about Emily.

Tim Owen:                         [0:15:42] Yes, Em. She was beautiful, she was vivacious, she was crazy, she was life and soul of the party. Sounds a bit- very Sophie-like. But there was another side to Em that we hadn’t seen, or a lot of people outside the family didn’t see. Since she was young, you know, she was one of four children and she was always a bit different to our other children. Kind of outbursts, temper, emotional irregularity. And hit puberty and she really started to struggle with her emotions.

And it came to kind of a crisis point if you like in between the age of 13 and 15 when we had every man and his dog involved in our family, which was quite weird because I’m a professional guy and getting all this support from Social Services and CAMHS and everything. And did have some suicide attempts in that period.

The key thing is we were given no- we didn’t know there was such a thing as a suicide prevention charity even though we were under the care of all these professionals. So between the age of 13 and 15 our life was very, very dark and her life was dark.

And then she had- one of our friends said, “Have you considered autism? High functioning autism.” We went through the process. Anyhow, we had a private assessment and got her assessed and she was high functioning autism.

And suddenly everything started to fall into place and Em’s- we understood what triggered Em’s behaviour, by putting demands on her. She understood what could trigger it, and we just changed our lifestyle. And if we’d had that diagnosis say ten years earlier it might have been a very different story. But we didn’t.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:17:13] As I understand it, alongside the difficulties Emily is also a very talented artist, right?

Tim Owen:                         [0:17:20] Tremendous, yes. Whatever she did, she was talented at Which is a lot of- we’ve subsequently found out lots of autistic people are.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:17:27] Yes, exactly.

Andy Airey:                        [0:17:28] Massively talented. She did athletics, played for the county, she rode, she was a fantastic artist. She did all this stuff but she did it so well she always put pressure on herself and then stepped back from it. But with the help of everyone at school, with lots of support, she got some GCSEs, went to Art college, did some fantastic art then did a year of becoming a personal trainer, did a bit of that. So she was cramming a lot into her little life.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:17:56] Passed her driving test, got a car, which was a-

Andy Airey:                        [0:17:59] Passed her driving test, which was so, so, so important. Because we live rurally she was quite confined. Pass your driving test and she suddenly had the freedom that she needed. So she never ever felt confined, she could go out.

So her way of coping with her autism was working at the pub, the community put in the village, a fantastic community pub where she was the life and soul of the party, going to the gym and driving her car round the roads of West Norfolk.

And it was the week before lockdown, and it was when if you’d got some symptoms of COVID you had to isolate as a family. We started to cough in the family and it was like, “Right, we’ve got to go into lockdown.” We phoned Em, she was at the gym funnily enough.

And we knew that it had been playing on her mind, this impending lockdown, because she’d been talking about, “I might not be able to go to the gym, the pub might close, or the pub will close,” etc. So she was really concerned. And I told her that it doesn’t matter, you’re living at home, I’m not going to lose my job, it’ll be fine. We’ll be fine as a family.

Anyhow, on the Monday we told her she was going into lockdown she had a bit of an explosion on the end of the phone but then she picked the phone straight back up and said, “Right, what do you want me to do?” She went shopping for us in Tesco, got a massive shop.

Somebody criticised her in the shop, it was really interesting. She was going around this shop, she got really upset about this shop. A 19-year-old kid, to feed six people, so £120 the bill came to. And an old couple told her off at the checkout for hoarding food, and never gave her a chance to explain. She came back home and she was really, really gutted about that.

But we went into lockdown as a family. On the Monday and Tuesday everything was fine but on the Wednesday she woke up and she was stressed. She wanted to go out, she wanted to take the dog for a walk on the beach, which she often did, 20 or 25 minutes away. We said, “You can’t, Em, because the rules are-” she by now was coughing, and you can’t- and she slammed the door and went out into our garden. Our garden is quite big, or was quite big, we’ve moved since then, and we just thought nothing more of it.

And we found her about ten minutes later, where she’d tried to take her own life. That was just, as Andy has already said, your world just implodes. You’re dealing with all the emergency services coming to your house, you’re dealing with your daughter, your other kids, it’s just- the words, there are no words for it.

She went into intensive care but it was the COVID side of intensive care so we couldn’t see her for a couple of days.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:20:17] So no contact.

Andy Airey:                        [0:20:18] No contact for two days.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:20:19] Another layer of-

Andy Airey:                        [0:20:20] Just horrendous. And the poor old hospital staff, because it was the week before Boris announced lockdown, didn’t know how to deal with her. You know, it was just a nightmare because they were all going through the first procedures.

And then we had a phone call on the Friday to say it wasn’t looking good. This was two days after she’d attempted to take her life.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:20:36] You’re all having to deal with this together at home.

Andy Airey:                        [0:20:38] At home, with no support from family or anything, no physical support.

And then we end up going to see her on the Friday night where she- she’s got a common cold. She hasn’t got COVID, she’s got a common cold, so she’s taken out of the COVID intensive care and put into normal intensive care. We went to see the doctors and nurses who we awesome, absolutely fantastic, and they basically said there’s no hope she will recover from this, the injuries to her brain are too bad.

You talk about hope, Andy was just talking about hope, and our hope, or my hope if you like, started then. Because they said, “She signed up to be an organ donor when she was 12. Are you happy to do the organ donation?” It was like, “Yes, too right.”

And in the next two days everything was being lined up to do the organ donation. And that was incredibly tough because lots of the staff that were assigned to do organ donation were now put on to COVID wards, so getting that whole chain of events together was horrendous.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:21:29] So in the midst of all this is the sort of- not bureaucratic, that’s the wrong word, but there is this process that you’re trying to manage as well about the most horrendous sort of-

Tim Owen:                         [0:21:40] And going through that organ donation process, it’s literally you know, “We’ve found someone for her lungs,” or, “We haven’t,” or, “We’ve found someone for her kidney,” or whatever. So it’s every single organ that you go through. And it sounds really weird but every single organ that they found was a glimmer of hope.

Andy spoke about hope. It’s like, someone else is going to come out of this better than us. Someone will be having a really good news story today, when we’re having the darkest news story.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:22:01] You were able to sort of see it in those terms in the midst of it.

Tim Owen:                         [0:22:04] Yes. It was just- because we were so- there was this black hole and there was this one pin-prick of light at that time, and that one pin-prick of light was organ donation. If we can get something out of it then other people might benefit from it. And we held her as she died on the Sunday, as they turned the life support off. And then as soon as they turned the life support off, whoof she’s out of there because they need to harvest the organs as soon as she’s passed away. So you have no time left with her.

And then we were just thrown into that black hole that Andy spoke about.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:22:36] Tim, I’m so sorry. And I should have said this to all three of you right at the start. I am just so sorry for what you’ve all been through. I’m sure that anyone listening to this now is going to feel exactly the same way.

One of the things Tim that you say in the book is that in that period after losing Emily that you found it impossible not to question everything that you’d done as father, were the words that you used. I’m sure this is something- you’re all nodding, this is something that resonates across the three of you.

Tim Owen:                         [0:23:08] Absolutely. You’re there to bring your kids- you do everything you can to protect your kids. You know, you try and provide them with a good house, just absolutely everything to give them that stable upbringing, and everything for their needs. You want to give them the skills that they can survive on their own when they are older.

And so when you lose a child you don’t know what- you’ve done- you feel like you’ve done something wrong. You feel like you’ve totally messed up, and then how can you be a father to your other kids if you’ve messed up with one kid? And there was so much questioning internally for me over that period. Everything I’d ever done was wrong, I’d failed as a dad ultimately, I hadn’t kept my daughter alive, and that was really hard to come to terms with.

But I did- there was a brilliant suicide bereavement worker called Steve from Mind, Norfolk and Waveney Mind, who came round to our house. And he was one of only three people that were allowed to come round to our house because of the COVID, we had to sit outside at two metres distance.

And he started to talk about grief, he’s an ex-police officer, and suicide. And then he told me to go on a course which was called the Anchor Project, and this was about six months after Em died, and that was an incredibly powerful course. Andy has already spoken about some of the emotions you go through after losing someone to suicide; it’s grief with the volume turned up. Because there’s lots of guilt and blame around there, and it’s guilt and blame, guilt at yourself, blame at the other person, blame at yourself, blame at family. There’s some really toxic-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:24:33] Anger.

Tim Owen:                         [0:24:33] Anger yes, anger is another one. Loads of emotions. And the most important thing that this course did was validate those emotions. Said that you are allowed to feel all those emotions, the key thing though is not to get stuck in any of those emotions. If you get stuck in any of those emotions then it will be destructive. So let yourself be angry at Em, let yourself blame yourself, but don’t blame yourself forever. Don’t be angry at Em forever, don’t be angry at yourself forever. But you are allowed to have those emotions; it’s what being human is all about.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:25:03] Is it a case that when those emotions come, over time those moments become less frequent and perhaps not quite as long or as deep a hole as they were at the beginning?

Tim Owen:                         [0:25:16] Yes, you’re-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:25:17] One assumes though that all three of you still have those moments, right? They still-

Mike Palmer:                     [0:25:21] Yes, you keep falling in.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:25:23] But you recognise it and you’re able to recognise it better than you ever did before.

Mike Palmer:                     [0:25:25] I see it as sometimes having the ability to forgive yourself, that’s the way I look at it now. I forgive myself for falling into these black holes on occasion. You know, and sometimes it’ll last for hours, sometimes it’ll last for a few days. But I forgive myself and try and reinvent myself. But it’s like my anger towards Beth. I understand my anger towards Beth, and if she could look down on me now she’d understand as well, because I’m angry because I loved her so much.

You know, so it’s things like that. Your mindset sort of changes. The grief is still there but you’re right, you have different ways of coping and different ways of looking at things.

Tim Owen:                         [0:26:11] And you know sometimes there will be times- we’ve just had the fourth anniversary of Em’s death on Friday, and we knew as a family that was going to be tough. Almost the build up to it is worse, because you know at some point, especially because it was kind of a protracted five-day death basically, you know at some point over that time you’re going to feel emotions all over that. You don’t know what you’re going to feel but some of those emotions are going to come out and you kind of prepare yourself for them.

But then there’s other times where we’ll be giving a talk and Tim will start to cry as normal, oh he’s going again. But Em’s got a fantastic painting, a self-portrait she did for her GCSEs, and I’ll put that up and I will catch her eye on there and that will just trigger me. So now when we’re talking I try not to look in her eye because it just triggers me.

But there’s all these kind of triggers that I know will cause me.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:26:57] And sometimes I assume it just comes out of nowhere.

Tim Owen:                         [0:26:58] Oh yes it does yes, absolutely.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:26:59] Tim, can I ask you? You mentioned the incredible kind of legacy of the organ donation, but there was another remarkable moment that you talk about in the book that I think also has a legacy attached to it. Some weeks after Emily’s funeral you are clearing out her room. You have to do it earlier than you wanted because you’ve got people coming to stay. And you find a note that she’d left behind, that the police hadn’t-

Tim Owen:                         [0:27:28] Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:27:29] Can you just tell us about it, please?

Tim Owen:                         [0:27:31] So yes, it was just hanging in a bag on her wall. A piece of A4 paper folded into four with “I’m sorry” on the front. And I opened it up. I knew as soon as I found it what it was. I was like, “Oh no,” because the police had looked in her room but there were no suspicious circumstances so they hadn’t looked. I read that note, and Mike and I by this time were talking to each other but we’d never met, and I can- oh dear, it felt like that moment again when I’d lost Em.

It just blew me apart. I just fell into that hole that you’ve just spoken about. And there were two sentences in there, it was a really eloquent- I won’t go into the full detail of it because that’s for us, but there was a really eloquent couple of sentences in there.

There was, “Don’t be ashamed.” Well, like Andy we hadn’t been ashamed when all the world’s emergency services had come to our house, we’d told villagers exactly what had happened. So, “Don’t be ashamed,” and then the second really powerful sentence was, “If other people can learn from what I’ve done.”

And I can remember telling Mike I’d found it, through more tears, and it was just that- that was almost like a green light from Em to do something. I didn’t know what, but she wanted me to do something to stop other people falling.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:28:47] Tim, it’s utterly heartbreaking, but I mean, her being able to put that into writing and recognising that there’s something here that you, her parents, can go and use in some way. It’s an astonishing thing.

Tim Owen:                         [0:29:05] It was, it was just- the note kind of just explained about her struggles, how she had always struggled, her autism and stuff. And basically everything just being too much I think at the start of lockdown. And yes, it was really emotional, but having that green light was really, really important for me and- and it definitely just gave me the, “Yes Tim, you’ve got to do something.” We didn’t know what, did we, when I told you about it.

Mike Palmer:                     [0:29:29] No, but we had that- I think we both knew we had to do something.

Tim Owen:                         [0:29:35] We just didn’t know what.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:29:36] Yes. Well Mike, please tell us a bit about Beth.

Mike Palmer:                     [0:29:42] Bethy was the youngest of three, Bethy was just 17. Bethy was training to be a vocal artist, she was at college in Manchester, she was absolutely smashing it. She was singing in local venues, she was also a very natural dancer, she was head of a show team, dancing team.

She was very funny, very sharp witted, and you know, like Emily and Sophie she was life and soul of the party. You know, she had so many friends, many different circles of friends. Growing up she’d been the most loving, happy little girl, always on my shoulders until she got too big. Always holding my hand, always, “Daddy this, Daddy that,” she could get away with anything by just saying, “Love you Dad.”

You know, she was cheeky but she was, you know, she was the favourite cousin, she was a granddaughter, niece, she was so many things to so many things to so many people.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:30:49] And as a performer whenever she walked in the room I imagine-

Mike Palmer:                     [0:30:51] Oh yes, absolutely. But where she got her voice from I’ll never know, because I can’t sing a note. Her mum is a dancer, she got that off her mum, but she belonged on stage. But was this an outward face she put on? I don’t know, but it’s very difficult, isn’t it? But certainly lockdown played a huge- was a huge factor in her taking her own life.

I remember very well the week before, we’re nearly up to four years anniversary, it’ll be her four years anniversary of losing Beth on the 28th. But looking back I can see maybe signs that she wasn’t at her best, she wasn’t happy. She was asking questions. “Dad, how long is this going to last?” She was staying in bed, I was saying, “Beth come on, get out of bed. Come downstairs, don’t be ridiculous, come in the garden.” I spent a lot of time doing the garden up so it was nice. I wasn’t really feeling the pressure of lockdown, but looking back Beth was and I probably missed signs as well.

But Bethy, basically she had the whole world at her feet. You know, maybe she made a very teenage decision, maybe I’ll never know. But we were always there as a family and it’s very hard to fathom. But I find it very hard to look back at that happy little girl who had so many hopes, ambitions, you know-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:32:31] And to make sense of it.

Mike Palmer:                     [0:32:33] She really had it all. She was absolutely loved, and you know, she showed that love back as well. But this is what we’re trying to do, isn’t it? Raise awareness. We never saw this coming. You know, Emily’s story, Sophie’s story and Beth’s story, they’re all very different but the commonality is that they were all absolutely loved.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:32:56] Yes, yes. So Mike, you had the- as you did Tim, the sort of nightmare scenario of your child dying at home.

Mike Palmer:                     [0:33:09] Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:33:10] I mean, you’ve written about it, you’ve touched on it already, so viscerally and powerfully in the book, just give us a- just tell us what happened if you can.

Mike Palmer:                     [0:33:21] You are surrounded by uniforms, things going on that are out of your control, people asking questions, and you can see the despair on the emergency services face as well. This is the thing, it touches everyone. I’ve got my family around, it’s seeing the pain within your family too. People are coming, friends are coming, no one knows what’s going on really there, it’s absolute chaos.

But the- as Andy said, you almost forget how to breathe. It’s the lowest place that you could ever imagine. As I say, you’re literally shattered and you literally go almost underground. Everything is heavy and it’s- I still remember it very vividly now.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:34:09] You said that you were having suicidal thoughts, right? You were very clear about it in the book. How quickly- and I suppose-

Mike Palmer:                     [0:34:15] Immediately.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:34:16] Immediately.

Mike Palmer:                     [0:34:18] Immediately. I remember having a choice whether basically to hug my family or just carry on down the stairs and take my own life. It hits you that hard, you know? And I think it’s important that people hear that, because this is the ripple effect afterwards.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:34:40] There is a statistic that I’ve seen that is- it’s a fairly wide window, but even if we take the number at the lowest end of this it’s terrifying. I think I’m right in saying it is something like a 35 to 300% chance that if you are related to someone who takes their own life you are therefore likely to take your own. So even if we take it at the lowest number-

Mike Palmer:                     [0:35:08] Yes, I’ve taken it 80 to 300.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:35:09] Right, okay.

Mike Palmer:                     [0:35:10] They say suicide can affect up to135 people. I know with Beth it was far more than that, and you’ve got the close family and friends in the epicentre of it.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:35:23] Yes.

Mike Palmer:                     [0:35:24] And you are, you’re plunged into an awful, awful place. And it’s almost understanding how someone becomes suicidal because, you know, you just want to be gone.

It’s important to talk about it. I’m still here now, four years later, and it’s been tough at times. But now I have reason and I have a point, everything is a little more focussed. I’ve got my family to look after, their lives would be so much worse if I wasn’t here. And what we do with the Three Dads, we are passionate about this. We believe we can make a difference to so many people, because there are families out there now who sadly are not prepared for what may just be round the corner.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:36:18] So let’s talk a little bit more about the statistics before- I want to talk about the walk and how that came to be. We’ve mentioned it already. The biggest killer of under 35s in the UK, 200 school-age kids every year. And of course these numbers may well be significantly higher.

Tim, I think you alighted on this, because of the way that our Coroner’s Courts work.

Tim Owen:                         [0:36:43] Yes. I said about the course that I went on, the suicide bereavement course with Mind. I’m a bit of a numbers man, and Louise the facilitator gave me the statistics for 2017 where you have 6,000ish people died by suicide. And then it was just before Em’s inquest when Steve the suicide bereavement worker was chatting me through the inquest about what was going to happen, at that point he said, “You realise that Em might not get died by suicide.”

I said, “Hey? We know she took her own life.” And then he started to explain that there has to be reasonable proof that she intended to do that. Fortunately we’d got the letter so that was the reasonable proof. But we found- and Beth got a narrative verdict, didn’t she?

Mike Palmer:                     [0:37:23] A narrative verdict, yes.

Tim Owen:                         [0:37:24] And so that was- the inquests were four days apart. Em’s was on the Friday and Beth’s was on the Monday, so we were talking to each other through that.

And all of the- it was definitely the second walk it really hit me. We met so many parents of 11, 12 and 13-year-olds on route, not one of them I can remember the Coroner saying it was suicide.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:37:43] Really?

Tim Owen:                         [0:37:44] There were all death by misadventure.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:37:45] Right, and most of the people that you- because it’s a very moving aspect of your book is these people who are joining.

Tim Owen:                         [0:37:52] It was the second walk was where all those numbers really hit home to me. On the first walk there were lots of people that were talking about- but I guess it was just the numbers. We were just like, “Hang on a minute.” If there’s 6,000, if we take 6.000 as a figure and there’s 135 people affected by each suicide in the UK, that’s over 800,000 people every year in the UK are affected by someone’s suicide. If we go and take the deaths by misadventure, the open verdicts, the narrative verdicts, it’s way more than a million people. It’s got to be.

And that figure of 200 school-age children, well, all of those 11, 12, 13, 14 year-old kids that we heard about, they’re not included in that 200. So there are so many kids out there, this is an epidemic and we’re not doing enough about it. Hence we’ve got so enthused by our campaign to get suicide-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:38:42] I want to talk about that. We’re sat in a studio in Westminster, maybe if we speak a little bit louder we can try and- I’m really interested to hear about what you’ve done and what you plan to do on that front.

But Andy, let’s go back to the start of the first walk. So here you are, the three of you, this horrible wretched thing that you all have in common. Just tell me how the walk comes about, tell me how that kind of manifested between the three of you.

Andy Airey:                        [0:39:17] Well, to start off with obviously we didn’t know each other at all. And we’re lost Soph fourteen months before Beth and Emily died. And the way that process started was, Soph at the time of her death had been training to run a half marathon in the February. Over the Christmas when we talked about what we were going to do, and Sophie’s mate Laura who she was training with was still going to run this half marathon in Northumbria. It was finishing at Banbury Castle. We talked about going across to support her, and then I quickly realised that that was copping out and I really should be running that half marathon myself.

So I went to enter, and it was full. So I actually phoned the organisers and they allowed me to enter on Sophie’s entry. As soon as I put the phone down I thought, “That’s a fantastic human interest story, I’m sure I can use this to raise some money for Papyrus,” who we had been introduced to by a friend when we were looking for a charity to support at Soph’s funeral.

And so that’s what I did. I started this thing, Run for Sophie. If you Google #runforsophie you’ll find a lot of videos of me being very sweaty doing a video diary. It’s not good, none of them are good.

And that started me down this fundraising path, and the money started rolling in very quickly. I was looking to raise £1,000 and quickly it was £10,000, I think in the end I raised about £40K on that run.

But I realised by the time I got into the second week that the money was the byproduct, and what I was really doing was getting people to talk about suicide and suicide prevention, and introducing people to the Papyrus prevention of young suicide and the work that they do.

So that was me. And once the run was done I just kept going, because they’re great people, they are just fantastic people aren’t they?

Mike Palmer:                     [0:41:10] Yes.

Andy Airey:                        [0:41:11] And the work they’re doing is just wonderful. And I couldn’t stop, so I ended up doing another run. In lockdown I was skipping and hula-hooping incredibly badly.

Mike Palmer:                     [0:41:25] We can’t imagine that, can we?

Andy Airey:                        [0:41:28] No, no, don’t even think about it. And so I became quite high profile within Papyrus. So that was me, and then you two got together differently.

Tim Owen:                         [0:41:37] Yes, so it was Annabel, Annie my eldest, very sensible, Miss Very Very Sensible, about four weeks after Em died she came to me, middle of lockdown. “Dad, I’ve met a guy in Manchester, I’m talking to him.” I was like, “She’s 21. Not the time to be meeting-”

Andy Coulson:                   [0:41:51] Your first thought was not a positive one?

Tim Owen:                         [0:41:53] No, it wasn’t positive. And it was like, “Annie, what are you doing?” And she’d got a long-term boyfriend who she’s now married to, you know. So it was always Miss Stable. So, “What are you doing?” “No, no Dad. It’s not like that, they’ve lost a daughter. They’ve lost a daughter called Beth.”

And what had happened was Annabel had reached out to another Emily, your daughter, and Emily had had this strange girl called Annie contact her from Norfolk and then Annabel had ended up talking to Mike, and I texted you, didn’t I? It was literally a month after Em had died.

Andy Airey:                        [0:42:23] It was a long conversation I had with Annie, but it basically came down to, you know, “Would you like to talk to my dad?” And yes, that was it.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:42:32] This is an aspect of your story where your other children play such a fundamental part.

But it’s interesting to me that your other kids were clearly aware of what you needed, what you all needed as families, but what their dad’s needed.

Andy Airey:                        [0:42:52] Yes, it was very bizarre. And then-

Tim Owen:                         [0:42:53] We spoke for ages, you found out about Papyrus, and then-

Mike Palmer:                     [0:42:55] That’s right. I started doing courses and some fundraising myself for Papyrus. There’s something called Run the Ring that’s a VW thing round the M25, I stumbled on that by mistake. I was introduced to Papyrus by a friend of ours, basically, but I was on one of those courses.

I started to hear about Andy, he’s a bit of a legend within Papyrus, but I bumped into Andy’s son on one of the Champions courses there. I spoke to Gregor and said, you know, I’d already started to hatch a sort of- I’d spoken to Tim, you know. How can we illustrate that suicide is the biggest killer of under-35s in the UK? It’s by maybe walking from one house to another, from Manchester to Norfolk.

And then Andy came in, I spoke to Gregor and said, “Would your dad be interested?” He says, “I don’t know. Ask him.” So I sort of made contact with Andy and it just made sense didn’t it?

Andy Coulson:                   [0:43:51] Can I ask you guys, how have you approached it with your other children? Because you talked about the impact on you as fathers. How has that kind of- how have you moved forward with that?

Andy Airey:                        [0:44:04] With my family, in all honesty I don’t think I gave them any chance to do anything other than get behind me. Because I was so wrapped up in that run initially, the Run for Sophie stuff, and I knew, I could see very quickly I was making a difference. So I just was absolutely blinkered and focused on it, so I kind of dragged Fiona along behind me.

Gregor at that time was in his first year at university, at Liverpool University, and so he went through that first Christmas at uni when he was back at home with us trying to organise his sister’s funeral. And he really was desperate to get back to uni at the end of January. He went back and it was, yes, it was good for him to escape from all that grief.

But my family have been massively supportive. Gregor gets it. He goes out and he talks to a lot of people about Papyrus and suicide prevention. Like all of us, we wear these Papyrus wristbands, and Gregor is a great advocate for the charity. Invariably he’ll be out in a pub somewhere and he’ll be handing these things out. He does it, so he goes out and works as an advocate.

But in hindsight I didn’t give them any change, it was just- this is they way I’m going.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:45:32] With your other kids? I know that your youngest daughter I think was-

Tim Owen:                         [0:45:36] She was great- when we came across the finish line she was there and she went into the B- there was a BBC van and they were showing Evie thing. But the- I’ve got the youngest kids and we try and keep them away from- they’re supportive, but they went through two years of lockdown out of school, so our youngest two, schooling has been messed up massively for them. My eldest, Annie, she’s just off and running, she’s kind of Miss Teacher, she’s going strength to strength.

But you know, you put in the book I think didn’t you about when we were walking into Manchester, where one of her pupils takes his own life as we are walking into Manchester.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:46:17] Oh goodness me.

Tim Owen:                         [0:46:19] And you know, bless her, poor old Annie. That really hit her then. She’s in her first four or five months of teaching and she lost a 14-year-old pupil.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:46:28] Goodness me.

Tim Owen:                         [0:46:29] And yes, the only thing that she’d got to deal with that, the only skillset she’d got to deal with was the skillset that she’d just lost her sister sixteen months earlier. So yes, they are supportive but we’re trying to keep them-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:46:43] And finding that balance.

Tim Owen:                         [0:46:45] Finding that balance, especially with Dad going away on more walks as well.

Mike Palmer:                     [0:46:51] It’s hugely complicated, isn’t it? You know, one thing that still very much hurst me is the pain I can see within my family still. My girls cope with it in very different ways, and basically they don’t want to be in any limelight, and I’m fine with that. As long as they’re happy you know, and I am so proud of the way they are coping as well, that’s what matters to me.

So you know, my girls really keep out of the limelight and that’s fine. So it’s a complicated thing. Obviously we’re very driven but they do need protection as well.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:47:34] Yes, and something that you’re constantly adjusting and just kind of- you must all be hyper vigilant of it all as well, you must be-

Mike Palmer:                     [0:47:42] Yes.

Tim Owen:                         [0:47:43] You do this sensitively around them.

Mike Palmer:                     [0:47:43] Yes, yes. You keep any eye on them but it’s hard isn’t it? It’s that father thing as well, you know, it’s constantly there. But your children are the most precious things you could ever have, and you just want them to be happy, that’s all. And I know so many parents now are just struggling because their children aren’t happy. And whether it’s all the pressures of life and different things we’ve got now, you know, but I think they’re difficult times at the moment.

It’s hard to be a parent, basically.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:48:18] Yes. With the stats it’s hard to get a clear grip on whether or not the numbers are going up. If you look over a long term actually it looks like they’ve gone down, but you don’t know if that’s a sort of reporting issue as much as it is this issue with the Coroner’s Courts as well. But there is a general sense, isn’t there? I mean, we get it a lot on this podcast. There’s a general sense that there is more anxiety, that there is more kind of inward-looking issues that are developing for younger people rather than that kind of broader view of life.

Why is that, then? You guys must spend a lot of time probably chatting about this on the walk, I don’t know, but what’s your analysis of where we are right now?

Tim Owen:                         [0:49:00] There’s a couple of things especially with this one thing. When we went to school, you went to school at 8.30 in the morning, if you got bullied at school it stopped at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, you got your weekends free. But now that’s 24/7. I also think there’s massive pressure on the kids to achieve academically, which I certainly didn’t have if you look at my academic record. I just scraped through stuff.

But I just think there’s a massive pressure on the kids to achieve academically and go to university. What pops out at the other end of university might not be a very resilient kid, it might just be a very academically qualified young person but not resilient. I was quite used to failing at school, I failed many of my exams, but retook and retook them. But it just doesn’t seem to happen at the moment.

It just feels as though there’s so much pressure on our kids to achieve academically, and we don’t need to put them under that much pressure.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:49:50] To achieve academically but also to achieve in this kind of weird world that they’re seeing every day on their phones, right?

Mike Palmer:                     [0:49:57] Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:49:59] Did technology play a part, do you think, the three of you, or not?

Andy Airey:                        [0:50:03] No. Soph was 29, she was not- it was not part of that story for Soph.

Tim Owen:                         [0:50:12] I don’t think so. I know it took us ages, because the police obviously wanted to get Em’s phone, so they got Em’s phone but we couldn’t unlock it and it was like, “How do we unlock it?” But they unlocked it just in case there was anything bad on there, and they didn’t find anything. I think it was just total despair at lockdown, not being able to go out, her little brain couldn’t process it.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:50:35] Yes.

Andy Airey:                        [0:50:37] With Beth, she was certainly on her phone, and she spent a lot of time on her phone. So I can’t say for sure, but what I will say for our young people now, and certainly even myself, you are influenced 24/7 by your phone. And if you’re a young person it can totally take over your life. You can spend 24 hours on it and you go to your bedroom or whatever, you can basically search whatever you want to, social media is constantly pecking you, and if you ask me, yes, I think the mobile phone and the internet, social media, they are huge factors in our young people’s lives. They’re not always equipped to deal with it, either.

Mike Palmer:                     [0:51:26] But just to pick up something there Andy about what’s changed, one thing that definitely has changed is people’s attitudes towards mental health issues and actually being open about it. When we were growing up mental health issues or depression didn’t exist, because nobody spoke about it. It was not a thing, it was not a topic.

Whereas now our young people are encouraged to talk. One of the things that we were prompted to do off the back of the first walk was go and have a look at the RSHE curriculum to see what was on it. Now, I’ve got to say I was taken aback by how broad it was, particularly about mental health issues, about mental health and wellbeing, the benefits of exercise, you know.

And in there there’s a lot of things about emotional content and it encourages our young people to talk. It actually encourages young people to open up. It doesn’t actually tell you what to do with it in a lot of times, and I think like Annie on the receiving end as a young teacher, our teachers are not taught to deal with any mental health issues that come up within the classes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:52:31] It’s kind of diverted off, yes.

Mike Palmer:                     [0:52:33] Yes, but our young people are encouraged to talk about it. So there’s suddenly all this outpouring of information but we don’t have a structure to deal with it. And the one thing that we did spot was in that RSHE curriculum suicide and suicide prevention is not mentioned whatsoever. So any young person who is starting to have suicidal ideation is very quickly outside of the stuff that is being talked about in schools, which seems just bloody stupid.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:53:00] I’m keen to talk about that. Before we do, what’s your sort of collective view then on what appears to be the sort of resilience gap? We had Antony Seldon who is a- I don’t know if you’ve ever come across him, he is a most magnificent headmaster of some fairly well known schools, but he was also the sort of pioneer of what got described as sort of happiness lessons. They weren’t happiness lessons at all, it was resilience lessons.

And that’s his firm belief, is that somewhere in this we have got to start building resilience in our young people.

How do we do that alongside what is, I totally agree, this now much more positive place we are in around the conversation of mental health? How do we also build in the resilience bit? What’s your view?

Mike Palmer:                     [0:53:52] We obviously want suicide prevention as a compulsory part of the RSHE curriculum. If you like, that is a line in the sand. We also need to work, to underpin all this we need to work on life skills and there are so many of them. As Tim has alluded to before, we need a balance between academic qualifications now and those life skills that will give the resilience so young people will be resilient, hopefully happy, and to be able to use these qualifications. So life skills can be all sorts, can’t they? How to look after your money, how to eat well, just wellbeing as a whole, you know, all kinds of things.

But I think the balance has to change now, and I think the Department for Education needs to look at this as well. You know, sort of- I think the evidence is in the fact that we are hearing more and more problems within universities, with kids who are going to universities with a ruck load of academic qualifications but not those basic skills to thrive, look after themselves and keep themselves safe. And I do believe it has to happen in schools. Schools are there to equip our young people, you know, so they can-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:55:02] Exactly right. You guys are keen to see the idea of suicide, the conversation around suicide to begin at a much younger age. That’s the kind of key ask, isn’t I, that it gets-

Mike Palmer:                     [0:55:11] It has to be- it’s suicide prevention.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:55:13] Prevention, and at a much earlier age. You’d like to see that start- am I right, you’d like to see that start at about 8? Or where-?

Andy Airey:                        [0:55:22] It depends on how you define it. The thing that really got us wound up, after the first walk we’d had so many suicide bereaved parents who had said to us they didn’t see the suicide coming, it was only after the young person took their own life that they found Papyrus, it was only then that they found that suicide is the biggest killer of our young people. And they all said, “Why didn’t anybody tell us? Why didn’t anybody tell us? If this is the biggest risk to our young people why aren’t we talking about it?”

And it was this that prompted us to look at the school curriculum and then write to the government. And the response we got from the government, so this was Christmas ’21, didn’t half wind us up. Because it said- it was a couple of pages. The first page was a list of how much money has been spent, and that it’s been done, and it was like, you’re missing the point. Because our question was, if this is the biggest risk to our young people, why don’t we tell them about it?

And in the second bit of the letter it went on to say schools may talk to older pupils, so it proved- it showed that firstly it wasn’t compulsory, and they were only talking to 17 and 18 year olds about it. And we met so many parents who had lost young children, and imagine how they felt if their child, “Sorry, you’re not old enough to get a suicide prevention lesson at 12 or 13. Never mind, you’ve killed yourself.”

Andy Coulson:                   [0:56:44] What’s their argument? I always think, when you’re looking at a campaign look at the other side and try and understand where they’re coming from, which I know you guys have done. But what’s the argument against introducing this subject with younger people? Is the concern that you’re putting an idea into a much younger mind?

Mike Palmer:                     [0:57:01] Yes, that’s it. It’s the factor-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:57:04] That isn’t able to kind of understand the-

Mike Palmer:                     [0:57:06] Yes, yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:57:06] So what’s your view on that argument?

Tim Owen:                         [0:57:11] So many kids get given a mobile phone. As soon as you give your kid a mobile phone they’ve got an access to the world. And if they are having dark thoughts they can Google it, they can look at it on their- and that’s the last place you want your kids to be learning about suicide. Because you need to be teaching our kids in a safe space about suicide prevention.

And you’re saying how young kids can be taught. In my view they definitely need to be taught before they hit puberty, and you can do suicide prevention really gently, age appropriately, as you say, from 8, a young age. You don’t have to mention the s word, you can simply have it- I saw a mum-

We gave a talk at Keswick Mountain Festival and a mum with her two children went to the Papyrus stand and said, “Do you know what this is all about?” “No.” “Sometimes people don’t want to be here anymore. If you ever feel sad you’ll come and talk to me, won’t you?” That was suicide prevention to 6 and 8 year olds. It’s simple. It’s giving kids- if we as adults don’t mention the s word the kids will look at it on their phone.

I heard of another- a couple of 12 year olds, one of their friends had tried to take their own life, and the 12 year olds were overheard by a school member of staff on the psychiatric side, school member of staff, that they didn’t want to tell an adult because they were trying to risk assess that themselves. These two 12 year olds were trying to risk assess how bad their other friend’s suicide attempt was.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:58:46] They didn’t want to report-

Tim Owen:                         [0:58:47] They didn’t want to tell the adult because no one had spoke to them about it. So we as adults have got to recognise there’s a problem.

If a terrorist came and blew up a school of 200 children every year, the government would do something about it. When they die as individuals no one does anything about it. That’s all we’re saying.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:59:04] Yes, that’s exactly it.

Tim Owen:                         [0:59:04] Treat the risk.

Andy Airey:                        [0:59:07] To go back to how young do you start, one of the things that we’ve discovered is the idea of building a foundation of help-seeking behaviour. And you can start that at Reception. So the idea there is to build the idea into our young people as they’re growing up that whatever challenging circumstances they are in, the way to actually deal with it is to reach out for help rather than try and solve the problem yourself. So you can start that at 3 and 4 years old.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:59:36] Make that a habit, almost.

Andy Airey:                        [0:59:38] Absolutely. So that help-seeking behaviour is key. Because on that foundation you can build all kinds of different structures, whether it be in the financial world or bullying or when it comes down to suicide prevention. If that foundation of help-seeking behaviour is built in there, our young people will actually, as they grow up, naturally reach out and ask for help. And that is the key to people being saved from taking their own lives. Asking for help.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:00:06] So, election year. We’re sat in a studio in Westminster, what is it we want to see? Are you looking for the three main parties to have this, some might argue by they way that it’s more than three, that you want to see a unity across all parties?

Mike Palmer:                     [1:00:25] Cross party yes, cross party.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:00:27] Yes, you want to see it in every manifesto?

Mike Palmer:                     [1:00:29] Cross department, that this is bigger than just politics if it can be, that’s what it is. But we need to do stuff in schools. We hear so often from teachers as well who are spending their days dealing with the mental health issues of the children, behavioural issues, and they’re not able to teach. And we know, teachers are wonderful people. We know they’re leaving in such numbers. I’ve heard the figure of 65% stay in the job over five years, and so we need to look after the teachers as well, we realise this. So it has to be a whole school approach.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:01:06] But in one or two phrases, what it is you want to see in a manifesto?

Tim Owen:                         [1:01:10] Suicide prevention as a compulsory subject on the school curriculum.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:01:11] It’s that simple.

Tim Owen:                         [1:01:12] That one sentence, that’s it.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:01:12] He’s a marketing man.

Tim Owen:                         [1:01:17] That was exactly what our petition was that got the 160,000 votes or signatures, that was exactly what all the MPs were debating in Parliament, and they all- once they’d looked at the figures, they all quoted the Office of National Statistics figures at each other and then, “We’ve got to do something about this.” It’s right, everyone agrees.

Andy Airey:                        [1:01:34] What those fellas said, yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:01:36] So you can still sign up to this now. Where are we going to direct people towards?

Tim Owen:                         [1:01:38] The petition has gone but you can write to your MP. The best thing to do is to write to your MP, whichever party they’re from.

Mike Palmer:                     [1:01:46] Write to the MP. We have taken- experts have gone on our request to round-table meetings with the Department of Education, and they basically have said, “We need to teach suicide prevention in schools.” And we’ve seen it. There’s many trials out at the moment. I must mention the Liverpool John Moore’s University have their MAPSS trial now which is a multi-modal approach to suicide, preventing suicide in schools, that is absolutely wonderful.

I’ve seen it being taught to Year 10s, absolutely amazing. The way the kids absorbed it, they don’t have a problem with it, absolutely wonderful. The feedback and everything we get, we need to do it.

I’ve probably gone off track with the question, but-

Andy Coulson:                   [1:02:36] But if someone wearing a rosette turns up on your door, dear listener, viewer, the question to ask first and foremost is, “Where are you on suicide prevention?”

Andy Airey:                        [1:02:46] This is the biggest risk to our young people in this country, what are you going to do about it?

Andy Coulson:                   [1:02:50] Very good, very good. Let’s see if we can get that going. It occurs to me gents that we haven’t talked about the walk.

In a way I think that’s rather good, because what we’re going to tell people to do is go and buy the bloody book.

Andy Airey:                        [1:03:05] Part two.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:03:07] But I can say, because I’ve read it, it is an astonishing read. It’s the simplest of ideas in some ways, that in that idea of just getting out and walking together you have, as evidenced by the people who came and joined you, the people who supported you, you know. Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, Prince William, but then-

Andy Airey:                        [1:03:25] Lou Macari, don’t forget-

Andy Coulson:                   [1:03:27] Lou Macari.

Andy Airey:                        [1:03:28] And that’s a Man City supporter saying that.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:03:30] Who of course lost his own son to suicide.

Andy Airey:                        [1:03:33] He’s an absolute star, that man.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:03:33] The book is- we touched on this earlier. The word ‘journey’ is massively over-used these days, but yours is an entirely appropriate use of it. It’s the most astonishing read.

So I want to say thank you, actually. Thank you for coming in today, thank you for writing this book, I think it’s going to make the world of difference to people.

All:                                     [1:03:50] Thank you very much.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:03:53] It’s great to meet you all.

If you’ve enjoyed this conversation with Andy, Mike and Tim, please do give us a rating and a review, it really does help enormously. And if you hit ‘subscribe’ wherever you download your podcasts from you will find loads more useful Crisis conversations. You can follow us on Instagram and TikTok, and you can watch the full episodes on YouTube. Just search for Crisis What Crisis podcast. You can also find full transcripts of this and every episode on our website,

And if you or anyone you know has had suicidal thoughts, please do please reach out to Papyrus, the charity that Andy, Tim and Mike have supported so brilliantly, on 0800 068 4141.

Thank you for listening.