To mark the 42nd anniversary of the death of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis yesterday (May 18), two of his surviving bandmates – Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris of New Order – appeared in Parliament to discuss mental health and suicide prevention.
Curtis took his own life in May 1980 after battling depression and epilepsy in his final years. In an event that was originally due to take place in 2020 to mark 40 years since his passing, but was delayed due to the COVID pandemic, a special talk and panel titled Suicide Prevention: Breaking The Silence took place in the Speaker’s House in Parliament.
NME were invited along to the event hosted by Kerry McCarthy MP that was chaired by the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham. It featured Sumner and Morris along with insight provided by the mental health charity CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) and speeches from the Speaker Of The House Sir Lindsay Hoyle MP, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer and Minister For Mental Health, Gillian Keegan MP.
The panel discussed the current state of mental health in the UK, the cultural stigma surrounding suicide and the issues faced by those suffering mental health problems in accessing appropriate support treatment.
Sumner opened on behalf of the band by discussing Curtis’ final years and how hard it can be to spot the signs of depression.
“Originally, we didn’t think he had a mental health problem – we thought he had a problem with epilepsy,” said Sumner, describing the frontman as a “regular” and “happy-go-lucky guy”. “His lyrics were a bit on the dark side, to put it mildly, but when Ian was with us on a day-to-day basis and in rehearsals, he was a good laugh.
“You look at a lot of photos of Ian at the time, and a lot of them are of him with his head in his hands. Those photos were taken in the two weeks before he died. Most of the rest of the time, he was fine.”
Joy Division’s Ian Curtis (Picture: Rob Verhorst/Redferns)
Noting CALM’s statistics that, on average, each suicide directly affects 135 friends, family and colleagues, Sumner said: “I’d like to say that, apart from the person who takes their own life, it’s the people surrounding them that get destroyed as well.
“The family, the support group and friends – they need support as well. Very often, if someone has psychological problems, then medical professionals won’t speak to the family. I kind of think that’s wrong, because the family can’t take care of that person unless they know what the problem is.”
Sumner went on to explain how attitudes towards depression and breaking down the stigma that surrounds mental health have come a long way since Curtis’ death. “You were told in those days that [suicide attempts] were a cry for help, but that’s not really the case,” he said. “It’s as serious as hell and should be taken seriously.
“Ian stayed with me for two weeks before he died and I tried every day to talk him out of it. He didn’t agree with me, but I think he was on a mission. He had this agenda that he wouldn’t discuss with us. It was going to happen, and I don’t think there’s anything we could have done.”
CALM state that 75 per cent of all suicides are male, and it is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45. Reflecting on these statistics, Morris commented: “The problem with Ian and with young men with depression is that you’re gradually boxing yourself in and you don’t know who you can talk to.
“[Back then] it came from your parents: they came up in an age where you don’t bother people and you just carry on. At least nowadays, there’s more of an awareness that you can talk to people.”
Talk then turned to the need for more provisions being required to care for people suffering, especially among the young.
“You hear tales of the 18-month waiting list,” Sumner said of the NHS. “You can’t go on a waiting list if you’re thinking of killing yourself. That’s ludicrous.”
The Speaker’s House at the Houses of Parliament – Suicide Prevention: Breaking the Silence event (Picture: Warren Jackson / Press)
To help tackle feelings of alienation, the New Order bandmates said that attitudes from schools should change to allow for more acceptance, individuality and creativity – describing music and the arts as being like “therapy”, “meditation” and “an escape”.
“The education system is there to divide pupils into two piles,” said Morris. “One pile, ‘You’re OK, you’ve passed all the tests, you’re going to university, we as a society will embrace you and look after you’. The other pile is, ‘Sorry, go away’.”
Sumner agreed: “We have this way of the world where everything is functional, everyone gets a job, everyone gets a house, a car and kids – but that doesn’t suit everyone. There are misfits who are left out. Maybe those misfits become musicians because they don’t feel part of that.”
On the band’s own history, he recalled: “We were born from punk music. Apart from the rebellion of punk, it was an escape from normality. Normality is very frightening for some young people. Teenagers are brought up having fun, and then all of a sudden they’re told, ‘That’s it – party’s over. Get a job, get a house, get a car, have kids and leave a straight life’.
“We don’t all suddenly decide to tow-the-line. Some of us want to carry on having fun. You join a band so that you can be a 30-year-old teenager.”
Bernard Sumner and Ian Curtis performing live onstage at Bowdon Vale Youth Club (Picture: Martin O’Neill/Redferns)
Sumner said that schools need to have less emphasis on being “exam factories” and focus more on pupils’ individual needs.
“You can buy a calculator for a fiver or do sums on your phone, but you can’t buy creativity,” he argued. “Creativity and the arts are a massive thing. If you want to be an accountant, then be an accountant. But the arts aren’t embraced enough. Not everyone’s good at passing exams and not everyone’s academic.”
He added: “Secondary schools are processing 1,800 kids each, and they’re all different. They’re trying to produce the same pupil. It doesn’t work, people aren’t like that. They should go in as individuals and come out as individuals. Whatever talent they’ve got should be enhanced and encouraged.”
Chairing the panel, Burnham agreed that “one of the best things you can do is connect people to what they love” and hailed “the place of creativity in education and in therapy”. During his remarks, he also said that the results of the #BeeWell survey in Manchester, asking 14-15-year-olds the question ‘Do you have hope for the future?’, made for “very hard reading”.
“The COVID pandemic has been replaced by a permanent mental health pandemic,” he said. “We just have to be honest about that.”
As well as calling for better resources for the young, he urged people to take a look at Manchester’s Shining A Light On Suicide campaign, as well as making the most of organisations such as CALM.
Andy Burnham and New Order (Picture: Warren Jackson / Press)
CALM CEO Simon Gunning told the room that suicide should be considered a public health emergency in the UK, with 125 lives lost to it every week. In 2021 suicides rose to their highest-ever recorded level, underlining the urgency of the situation.
“We’re dealing with something that confounds us in many ways,” he said, explaining the ways in which people can go from “feeling totally fine to wanting to die”.
“You can get there in a number of ways,” he continued. “One of them is a place of belonging. When you don’t have that, it’s very hard to avoid another step, which is a low sense of self-worth. When that sense of self-worth or a sense of belonging to something bigger than you isn’t there, then you start to move into entrapment.”
As well as explaining how financial and relationship factors can also impact on suicidal feelings, he revealed that “more than half the people who take their own lives haven’t sought help – and that is the first step towards recovery”.
He added: “If you call our helpline, you’ve already done a bit of self-diagnosis and are quite a long way along with the kind of behaviours that are going to help.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (Picture: Warren Jackson / Press)
After commenting on “the power” of Curtis and his music, Labour leader Keir Starmer took to the podium to comment on his feelings about suicide, having known two colleagues to have taken their own lives.
“The grief process is so unique,” he said. “Suicide is often stigmatised and difficult to understand. Attitudes have moved on. Andy [Burnham] is right, it takes a lot of time and it’s gone too slowly.”
He continued: “People, generally speaking, are more willing to be open about these struggles that they face, but there’s a long, long way to go. Having conversations is always hard, but changing social attitudes does make those conversations easier. It’s important that we say, ‘There’s no shame in finding life hard at times and in saying so’.”
Starmer explained how statistics around mental health were “a reflection of [the] failure that so many people can’t get the help they need – particularly those with the greatest need” and that “the level of need is rising”, with COVID having “made a bad situation even worse”.
“The government figures showing that one in six 11-19-year-olds have a probable mental health problem is not a statistic you can just walk past,” he said. “When young people do get a referral, they’re facing long delays – there’s no getting away from that.
“We’ve got nothing short of a mental health crisis in this country, with a generation of young women and men being failed by the lack of support that they’ve got. I’m stood here today to say that this can and must change.”
Starmer then vowed that Labour would tackle the crisis by bringing down waiting times, recruiting, training and retraining staff, as well as “shifting the focus of healthcare to prevention as well as the cure”.
“We have to make good on the pledge that mental health is as important as physical health,” he added. “We’ve been saying this for a very, very long time. We’ve talked about parity for a long time, but we’re nowhere near it.”
New Order with Kerry McCarthy MP (Picture: Warren Jackson / Press)
The Conservative Minister for Mental Health, Gillian Keegan MP, also spoke of normalising the conversation around mental health, depression and suicide.
“One thing I’ve learned is that anybody can have a mental health breakdown: every single one of us, at some point in our life,” she said. “Anybody can recover, too. That’s something we need every kid in every school to understand.”
Adding that “suicide is everyone’s business”, Keegan said that the government would be investing billions in tackling the crisis, as well as training more mental specialists and developing specific suicide prevention plans to “break the stigma and see that people get the help they need”.
Urging people to take part in the government’s call for evidence over their Mental Health And Wellbeing plan before July 7, Keegan made it clear that there was still much work to be done.
“It is very normal to experience mental health issues, and it is normal to reach out,” she said. “It won’t impact your future, it’s just a normal part of dealing with everything. Suicide is preventable. Two thirds of people who take their own lives do not reach out for help. That’s the challenge we face. We do need to change the conversation.
“Mental health is everyone’s business. It’s one of the most important conversations of our time, and I do look forward to continuing the conversation.”
Kerry McCarthy, MP for Bristol East, added: “I really appreciate Bernard and Stephen coming to Parliament to speak at this event. Despite a greater awareness of mental health issues these days, suicide rates remain tragically high, waiting lists for support are far too long and mental health services are often stretched to their limits.
“We can’t bring back those we have lost to suicide, but if by speaking out we can help prevent even a few of the 5000-plus suicides that take place each year, then it’s worth doing.”
The talk took place in The Speaker’s House at the invitation of the Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle MP, who opened proceedings by telling the audience of his own experiences, having lost his brother-in-law and daughter to suicide.
“I am still rocked to this day and still cannot believe that she’s gone,” he said of his daughter’s passing at the age of 28, describing her as “someone with so much love and so much to give, who was the perfect aunty to my grandchildren”.
“It is without doubt the hardest and most difficult [thing]. Something I don’t like to talk about because it is so personal. Of course, life goes on. It doesn’t really get easier. It’s just not there as much. It comes back when you don’t expect it.
“People who take their lives; they struggle, and we don’t know they’re struggling.”
He ended by saying that he hoped events such as this would “encourage just one person to think twice about ending it all”.
“At least, let’s raise the awareness to encourage people to talk about it, to share with each other and be there for one another,” he added. “Because as I said, when it happens, you will never get over it.”