Cumbria's deputy council boss on suicide bid - 'If I had not been found for another 15 minutes it would have been too late'

10 October 2017 5:20PM

A SENIOR county politician has spoken publicly for the first time of his attempt to commit suicide exactly three years ago today.

The date - October 10 - is especially poignant for Councillor Ian Stewart, deputy leader of Cumbria County Council, as it has since been designated as World Mental Health Day.

Cllr Stewart is now hoping the move to share his experience will reach out and help other people who 'can't see any light at the end of the tunnel'.

In a searingly honest interview, the outgoing 64-year-old, who was responsible for Cumbria's suicide prevention strategy at the time of the attempt, said doctors informed him he had been within just 15 minutes of dying on that fateful day, when the social isolation he felt after being a carer for his seriously ill wife for 20 years finally took its toll.

"...if I had not been found for another 15 minutes it would have been too late."

"It will be three years ago that I tried to kill myself. So October 10 certainly has some resonance," Cllr Stewart said.

"I was told when I woke up in hospital that if I had not been found for another 15 minutes it would have been too late.

"I still don't know who it was that called the ambulance. I just remember waking up in the Royal Lancaster Infirmary afterwards and thinking 'they should have let me die'," he added.

News that Cllr Stewart had been taken into hospital was known by his friends and colleagues, though few people were aware of the reason for his admission.

And still now, three years on, no-one has asked him what happened, he claims.

"It's acknowledged that mental health issues affect one in four of us but it's still one of the last few taboos.

"No-one has ever just asked me what I did, even now, so I thought if I talk about it and it helps just one person out there who feels there just is no light at the end of the tunnel, then it will have been worth it."

Cllr Stewart, who is also leader of the county's Liberal Democrat group, described how those around him had no idea he had considered suicide. Neither did he reach out to support services in Cumbria because he did not believe they could help.

"I was turning 61," he explained.

"I looked back at the last 20 years and they had been rubbish.

"I thought, did I want another 20 years of the same?

"I had had enough. The only way out seemed to be to go to sleep and not wake up," he added.

"I didn't want to continue to struggle. I don't believe anyone knew of my intentions, I told no-one.

"I suppose I didn't consider myself to have a mental health problem and I didn't think any of the services in Cumbria could change things for me.

"Language is very important. I still don't think of myself as having a mental health problem. Do I have a problem with my mental wellbeing? Yes."

Cllr Stewart, who lives in Arnside, in south Cumbria, has been a carer for wife Jan since 1994.

A highly respected Cumbrian politician known to be outgoing and confident, Cllr Stewart held a senior position on the county council's cabinet committee at the time with specific responsibility for public health and well being.

He was also a governor on the board of the Cumbria Partnership NHS Trust, the organisation responsible for providing mental health services across the county.

But he said he felt his situation could not improve, no matter what help he was offered.

Afterwards, Cllr Stewart learned about mindfulness in Dalton, near Barrow, which has helped change his outlook.

Everyday, he takes time to notice or think of five positive things, however simple and small, to bring focus to the good things in his life. Keeping busy is a big factor in protecting his mental wellbeing, added the father of one, who is now in charge of finance for CCC and one of the most senior members of the 84-strong team of councillors.

He has also since been instrumental in helping Cumbria to become one of the first Time to Change hubs in the country in a bid to improve people’s attitudes and behaviours towards mental health across the area.

But he is keen not to mask reality in allowing anyone to believe he never has bad days, believing that would not be helpful for anyone in a similar situation.

However, Cllr Stewart, who shuns any idea that the steps he has taken to talk about his suicide attempt three years ago are brave, added: "The good days outnumber the bad. I'm in a better place than I was.

"One of the things I have found that helps is an attitude of gratitude and if there's a bad day, I really focus on the positive things.

"The way to break the downward spiral is to think about the good that there is.

"Would I take the same steps that I took three years ago? I don't know, is the honest answer.

"At the moment I am managing and am grateful for many things."

Factfile: Carers in Cumbria

- According to the 2011 census, 56,495 residents in Cumbria declared themselves as a carer, an increase of nine per cent on the previous census in 2001.

- Of these, 10,627 provide care for a loved one for more than 50 hours a week.

- However, experts believe there are far more carers in the county who fulfill the role of a carer but who have not reached out for support.

- One in ten people is an unpaid carer and you have a three in five chance of becoming a carer at some point in your life.

- Caring for someone is known to be a socially isolating role leaving people unable to leave the house, have a day out or go on holiday.

- Support for carers is available in every district in Cumbria to help with advice, to make sure carers do not feel alone and to provide respite. To find out what is available, people are asked to contact Carers Support Cumbria on 08443 843230.

Cumbria - one of the country's first Time to Change hubs

The county was named one of just four Time to Change hubs in the country in March this year.

The move saw Cumbria form a partnership with local health organisations to combine the insights from the Time to Change campaign, run by charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, with local knowledge to support communities, workplaces and schools in their area.

Over the next three years, a further 12 hubs will be established across England.

What is mindfulness?

- Mindfulness is a way of being able to concentrate on the present moment, banishing negative thoughts and anxieties.

- It involves learning a series of mind exercises that promote the feeling of wellbeing, contentment and positivity.

- It is simple to do, can be done at home and costs nothing.

- Mindfulness has been found to be particularly effective in helping people to overcome anxiety and depression.

What other help is available?

First Step offers free talking therapies across the county for people suffering a range of conditions including depression, anxiety, panic attacks, social phobia, obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

You can be referred by your GP or by filling in a form yourself online.

Sessions are held at locations all around Cumbria including evenings.

The service boasts one of the best recovery rates in the country - last year up to 62 per cent of people who began a course of therapy had fully recovered by the end.

Anyone can also contact the Samaritans, 24 hours a day, all year round on the free phone number 116 123.

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