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How do you talk to teenagers about suicide and about what matters in life?
Our house is full of teenagers who are devoted fans of Love Island, much to only son’s disgust. They’ve also grown up with X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing so Caroline Flack is a very familiar face. It was a huge shock then to read on Saturday night that she had committed suicide.
I thought I should talk it through with the girls, but I confess that I think I was more shocked and saddened by the news than they were. They seem to take suicide as almost an expected part of celebrity life. There have been a few suicides in the world of K-pop of late. They are surrounded by friends and family who have mental health issues. This is part and parcel of their lives. I spoke to them about bullying on social media and generally, but, of course, they know all about that too because that is also a standard part of their world.
I mentioned the need to be kind and to reflect on the consequences of your actions. It’s an important message and worth emphasising. Yet, though we talk often about the things parents teach their children, sometimes it is the other way around. One of my daughters was horribly bullied at primary school and she could very well have hit back, but she didn’t. She nominated other people who were having a hard time for star of the week and tried to make them feel better about themselves.
I took the girls to my uncle’s funeral last week. I wanted them to be a part of it, but also I wanted them to celebrate his life, to see what a good life is. It was, of course, a desperately sad occasion. He died shockingly quickly and at only 69. My uncle was an education journalist. I’ve written in the past about mentors. Mentors are normally understood these days to be people you talk to about your career, who help you to identify your skills and map a way forward.
My uncle was not a mentor in that formal sense, but he was, in his unassuming way, an ally. Though I always wanted either to act or write – to tell people’s stories – before I even really knew what he did for a living, he became, as I grew older, an example of what a good journalist is. I worked in the same building as him at one point, by chance really, after I swapped from the BBC following the birth of my eldest because of the long hours and commute.
We would go over to his house with all the kids and he would be buried under the Sunday papers, popping out to write something before having lunch. We did talk about education, but we talked about a lot more, about human rights, about politics, about family and life in general.
I read his articles and I knew how highly respected he was, but since his death there have been an outpouring of tributes from teachers, politicians and journalists, every one of them saying what a great journalist he was, passionate, dedicated and knowledgeable, the father of education journalists. But what has struck me the most is how many mentioned how he helped them, how he was interested in people and how kind he was. His funeral was a celebration of his life and that kindness was woven through every speech.
My uncle was not a saint, of course. He was way more interesting – and fun – than that. But he was a great role model in every way and he showed that good journalism is, above all, about listening and understanding, not rushing to judgement. Caroline Flack’s post from last year about mental health has been much circulated in the last 24 hours. She wrote: In a world where you can be anything, be kind. Kindness is often underrated, but it has a lasting, positive legacy and lies at the root of whatever it is we call society.