On June 24 last year, Rose Paterson walked from her family’s home in Ellesmere, near Oswestry in Shropshire, and hanged herself, leaving no note for her husband and children. It was his birthday. The inquest was told that she had searched for ways of killing herself via Google three times before doing so.
In reaching a verdict of suicide, the coroner said that Rose had a “previous history of anxiety and depression”. Does this suggest to you an image of a woman on anti-depressants? Or who was being treated for the condition? Or perhaps had behavioural problems, alcohol or drugs issues, and had become dishevelled – “let herself go”?
If so, you would be mistaken. Rose was beautiful, popular, accomplished and successful. She was the Chairman of Aintree Racecourse, an art expert who had worked for Sotheby’s, and the former Northern art critic of the Daily Telegraph.
She also managed the office of her husband, Owen Paterson, the MP for Shropshire North and former Cabinet Minister. Rose was thus a Tory wife of the kind who is a power in her own right, and an old-fashioned version of the genre, in that she was well-connected within the party.
Her uncle was Nicholas Ridley, a Cabinet Minister under Margaret Thatcher; her brother is Nicholas Ridley, the Conservative peer and writer on science, the environment and economics. She and Paterson had three children: Felix, Ned and Evie.
What do you do when your wife kills herself? As many ConservativeHome readers will know, Paterson is a direct man who likes to get straight to the point: “I cannot ever possibly get over this,” he told Woman’s Hour earlier this week. “All days are bad, some days are terrible, and some days are really terrible”.
“How on earth didn’t I notice?” he said – and that question is near the heart of the charity that he and his family have set up, the Rose Paterson Trust. There are a mass of similar charities, set up in memory of a suicide, and the man or woman, father or mother or relative or friend, who took their own life.
One can’t duck the hard question that follows, which is: why is this one different? Paterson spared ConHome some time over the phone yesterday, and his aims seem to us be clear, sensible, and cogent. For a start, one of the main aims of the Trust is to fund other charities.
Or as its site puts it more broadly: “we will identify the most promising and effective suicide awareness, prevention and bereavement-oriented organisations, and provide them with financial support and media exposure”, it says, under the heading: “Investing in Excellence”.
This is one of its three main aims. The second is “Foundational Research: we fund, consolidate and conduct research into suicide and its prevention”. Paterson is, he told us, “lined up to speak to more professors next week”, and has already been speaking to many, as well as other experts, charities, families and people who attempted suicide.
The last is “Driving Change: we campaign for national policy reforms that aid the prevention of suicide”. This is where Paterson can especially make a difference. He is not the only MP forced to confront the issue: for example, a cousin of Grant Shapps attempted to kill himself (and now has an MBE for his campaigning work).
But as far as we know, Paterson is the most directly affected. No-one would want to be in his position. But it is characteristic of him that, being in it, he intends to use it. There are few better platforms than Parliament for driving change.
What precisely he believes it should be will depend on his research, but some elements of it are already clear. The challenge is formidable. Paterson told the Shropshire Star in the first interview he gave after Rose’s suicide that “there were 5,691 suicides in England and Wales in 2019, 321 more than the year before”.
That’s some 18 a day – and the total figure is equivalent to 15 jumbo jets, he has said on Twitter. This brings us back to Paterson’s question – “how on earth didn’t I notice?” – and he believes that awareness training will help others to not be in the terrible position of having to ask it.
“Even an hour in school for every child could make a difference.” It may be impossible to find a common thread in the best part of six thousand suicides a year, but Paterson, in speaking to people who have tried to kill themselves, speaks of a “mental snakebite”.
This is the sudden conviction which seizes the person who takes his own life, or tries to, that the world will be better of without him: that suicide is in some way the solution to a problem. It isn’t. Mind reports a “ripple effect, extending well beyond the person’s immediate family and friends”.
For the latter, “feelings you might experience when you lose someone to suicide include intense sadness, shock, anger, frustration, confusion and isolation. Some people also talk about experiencing a sense of shame or guilt” (though please note: “the reasons for suicide are complex and you are not to blame”).
Paterson also references the net: just as there are pro-anorexia sites, which encourage girls in particular to harm their health by starving themselves, so there are pro-suicide sites which, while not stepping outside the law, spur tragedies to happen which otherwise wouldn’t happen.
He’s too sensible to advocate outright bans (“which would just drive them underground”), but stresses the kind of measures that have been effective in reducing the cut-through of child porn: warnings, counter-sites, action that affects what search engines throw up.
Parliament has arguably been as preocuppied by more suicide rather than less in recent years, if not more – with Assisted Dying Bills being debated in the Lords and Commons. Nonetheless, a Hansard search throws up a Health Select Committee Report in 2017.
There are occasional Parliamentary questions; a Lords one from Lord Harries last year, and a Commons one from Conor McGinn. Paterson, who is now the Vice-Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on suicide and self-harm prevention, will have much to do.
He mentioned the Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust’s zero tolerance approach to suicide, which is based on the Henry Ford system in Detroit. The suicide rate among its patient population fell by 75 per cent within four years and by 2008, they eliminated all suicides among people in their care.
The Government provided some £2 million for the project in 2017. But ultimately, suicide prevention is not just a challenge for government, but one for civil society, families – and individuals. Paterson says: “if we can help just one single family, we’ll have done a little bit of good”.
Donations to the Rose Paterson Trust can be made via this link.