Burgess Hill. Ever been? It’s a small, ever-so-slightly neglected town, just outside of Brighton. Nothing particularly exciting ever happens there. A few good pubs (and a few dodgy ones, too), a big Tesco, a tiny cinema, charity shops, a funny old library, one great school and a load of shit ones. ASK is the only “restaurant” and the new Lidl is, quite literally, the talk of the town. You get the idea. Everyone knows everyone’s business in Burgess Hill, because that’s the most interesting thing about it.
Call it what you will, but – despite living in London for the past seven years – I call it home.
Truth be told, I have slated Burgess Hill over the years. A love-hate relationship with my small-town roots. But, over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen Burgess Hill in a very different light. Inspiring. Nurturing. A haven. Not words that usually spring to mind. It’s funny how the benefits of growing up in a smallish community reveal themselves in times of tragedy and need.
On Wednesday 25 July, my world, and my beautiful family, changed forever. My charismatic, kindhearted, full-of-life 21-year-old cousin, Jesse, took his own life. The whole town is grieving. Not just because it’s small, but because Jesse was the type of person who gave the town a soul.
At this dark, dark time, there has been one clear comfort – the overwhelming response and support of the people Jesse knew. A single message on Facebook meant 150 people turning up at the local pub to have a drink in his honour less than 24 hours later. Messages from primary-school teachers and old friends he used to kick about with in the park; countless groups of his mates bringing flowers and notes to the family home; viral sharing of photos and good times on Facebook; a bench made with the most colourful plaque; kind, thoughtful words spoken at every given moment. My awe-inspiring aunty and uncle showered with the purest form of love.
The funeral was on another level; without a doubt the saddest, most humbling, moving day of my life. Four hundred people filled the local church to the rafters, with more people joining to celebrate Jesse’s life and soul at the pub around the corner. Crowds of friends were singing and chanting, “We love you, Jesse, we do”, wearing football shirts proudly bearing his name. It was really quite a sight. Hundreds of people were hugging, kissing and crying together, telling each other how much they love him and how much they love each other. It was raw and it was very, very real. Humanity at its very best during the utmost depths of despair. It was Jesse through and through.
Although our lives and hearts are broken, I can’t help but feel this is how it’s supposed to be; small pockets of human love helping each other through the unspeakable hardships of life
The light of community spirit has shone steady and bright in the darkness. The vicar brought comfort like no other. No judgement, no need to believe, just pure, humbling, human comfort. Enough to retain an element of faith in the world. During his emotional speech, four words are still ringing in my mind. A plea with such conviction: “We need each other.”
Jesse’s brother, Harley, my cousin and close friend, spoke to the crowd as if summoned by all the positive forces in the universe. His words were an outpour of devotion to Jesse’s memory, beautifully so, but they were also a rallying cry to protect one another while we protect his name. To talk and support and nurture each other. We must do it, for him. For my grieving family. For the sake of every person we have ever known.
And, better still, the vicar is making it his duty to make Burgess Hill a kind of mental-health awareness zone. And, although our lives and hearts are broken, I can’t help but feel that this is how it’s supposed to be: small pockets of human love helping each other through the unspeakable hardships of life, enough to make its inhabitants feel safe and cared for. Enough, perhaps, to save them.
I will never see Jesse’s death as anything but utterly tragic. But it sure is a comfort to feel that the snowballing conversations have the potential to help people. Awareness is everything. And, let me tell you, there’s nothing quite like the awareness of a small town. So very many people sharing messages about mental health on social media and in person. All with the desperate knowledge that talking saves lives.
However, it’s important to remember that talking is merely a starting point, and that the road to recovery is often immensely long. As someone who strives to be open and honest about my own mental health, I’m all too aware that talking is one thing, and talking about the right thing, at the right time, is another. I don’t have the answers. I just know that we simply have to keep believing in each other, no matter how bleak things seem. There is nothing that can take away our sadness, but I have never felt prouder of my family, or my home town.
So, please – I’m not too proud to beg – if there’s anyone you fear might be struggling with their mental health, or who has recently lost someone, know that the struggle is very, very real. Talk, seek professional help, be there in any way you can – physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. We need each other. Perhaps more than ever.
And, please, also know that you, like my family, might be doing everything you can, but it’s our societal infrastructure that drastically needs to take action. To avoid feeling completely helpless, I wrote this feature. I realised that, however small, raising awareness is our biggest potential catalyst to ignite the next phase of progression. The progression we all (young men in particular) so desperately need. I’m spreading the word for them. These words I wrote for my cousin.
Want to take action? Young Minds is leading the fight for a future where all young minds are supported and empowered, whatever the challenges.
If you’re a parent needing help, contact the Young Minds helpline today: 0808 802 5544.