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20 years on, would Stuart have been saved?

Virginia Low founded a charity that aims to counter the downward spiral of mental illness after her son's death in 1997 – but now fears stretched mental health services could lead other young men to take their own lives

21 April, 2017 — By Koos Couvée

Stuart Low died after failing to find the support he needed

AFTER her son Stuart, who struggled with depression and had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, took his own life, Virginia Low drew up a “bereavement strategy”.

Stuart, 27, died in 1997 after failing to find the support he needed. Two years later, Ms Low set up the Stuart Low Trust, based in Angel, in his memory.

“My bereavement strategy was that you can ­never replace the person that has died but you can make a gesture making up for the good they did or the benefits that they are no longer able to bring,” she said as she spoke to the Tribune on the 20th anniversary of her son’s death.

The Trust aims to counter the downward spiral of mental illness and social isolation by providing a welcoming place of support and community. It runs a variety of activities that are open to all, including Friday evening social events, a gardening club and a singing group.

While awareness of mental health issues is greater than in the 1990s, Ms Low, from Angel, is concerned that stretched mental health services and the stigma that continues to be attached to schizophrenia could lead other young men to take their own lives today.

“Stuart could keep up with his school work, he was bright enough, he didn’t speak much and socialising was difficult for him, but he was likeable,” she said.

“He loved making things from wood and he liked gardening, [but] in our family those were hobbies and not things you did professionally, people had academic qualifications. That was hard for him.”

She added: “Stuart was bright and liked, and had a loving family, but in the end he couldn’t feel that. I was very proud of him but he and I had a lifetime of mutual incompre­hension, which was OK for me but I don’t think it was OK for him. He needed more support. In retrospect I realise he was on the autistic spectrum.”

Virginia Low set up an Angel-based charity in response to the death of her son Stuart in 1997

Stuart graduated with distinction from the London College of Furniture, and went on to study furniture making in Oxford­shire. But he started hearing voices in his head, his mother said.

“He enjoyed the work but he went into a depression,” said Ms Low. “He couldn’t accept that he could do well. I didn’t realise [he heard voices]. He heard negative comments, the same voices wherever he went, and he thought they originated within himself.”

The schizophrenia diagnosis was a “mistake”, Ms Low said, adding: “I think a diagnosis of depression would have been a lot easier for him to live with.”

Six days before Stuart hanged himself while his mother was away in New York, Stuart went to see his GP. He told the doctor the voices had been keeping him awake for three days and that he had stopped taking his medication. He was given a prescription but the chemist he went to did not have the drug in stock.

No further checks took place to see if Stuart had in fact been able to get the medication and whether he was taking it.

“The medical care he got wasn’t up to anything really,” his mother said.

“He was offered some outreach work and declined, and no one followed up on that. He did book in with a counsellor but didn’t keep any of the appointments, nobody followed it up.”

Ms Low later made a complaint against the doctor who last saw her son.

“I felt all of his medical treatment had been inadequate,” she said.

“But the doctor didn’t feel like she’d done anything wrong. The message I have taken away from it is that they don’t ask follow-up questions. But sometimes you need to.”

The Trust has been named the British Medical Journal’s small charity of the year for the third time in a row and won the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service in 2015, which Ms Low describes as “one of my proudest moments”.

Now in her 70s, she is stepping down as chairwoman of the Trust in July.

She added: “It recognise how important our work is, and how many terrific volunteers we have had. And I’m pleased that we can break down barriers to the extent that we do.”

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