Dr Phil Hammond: 'Depression led my father to kill himself'

Dr Phil Hammond as baby with his father Image copyright Dr Phil Hammond
Image caption Dr Phil Hammond as a baby in 1962 with his father Barrie, who took his own life when he was 38

GP, comedian and broadcaster Dr Phil Hammond wants to talk about suicide. He was only seven when his father took his own life but until his early 30s he believed his dad had died of a heart attack. This is his story in his own words.

My dad - an athletic, non-smoking Australian - died of a heart attack in 1969 at the age of 38. Or so I thought for a quarter of a century. In 1994, I discovered the truth. He took his life with cyanide.

I was only seven when he died and had no idea that he suffered from depression. I've got a memory-box of his achievements - a scholarship as one of Australia's outstanding physical chemists, captain of the Australian Universities basketball team, Cambridge Blue, PhD, brilliant teacher, loving husband and father - but nowhere among the photos and newspaper cuttings is any hint of his periodic despair.

My memories of him are only fond ones and he certainly wasn't depressed all the time. His attacks seemed to be precipitated by illness, overwork and an inability to say "no" or to admit that he was struggling.

When it overwhelmed him, he decided the world would be better off without him. My mum found him and thought he'd suffered a heart attack.

Image copyright Dr Phil Hammond
Image caption Barrie Hammond was captain of the Australian Universities basketball team
Image copyright Dr Phil Hammond
Image caption Hundreds of his students turned up for his funeral in 1969

It was only after the post-mortem examination that she found out the truth, by which time my brother and I had been told he'd had a heart attack and the perceived wisdom was to leave it that way until we were "old enough to take it".

Suicide was illegal until 1961 and although lots of people shared their sorrow at my dad's death, no-one talked about how he'd died. Hundreds of his students turned up to his funeral because they loved him, but at his darkest, most self-critical moments my dad was unable to love himself.

We moved to England and my mum later remarried one of the happiest men I have ever met. She always expected me to ask difficult questions about my father, but I'd rationalised the version of events I'd been given and just got on with life.

Image copyright Dr Phil Hammond
Image caption Dr Phil Hammond said one of the reasons he chose medicine was because his dad had wanted him to be a doctor

Dad had wanted me to be a doctor and that was one of the reasons I chose medicine. I had my heart checked out, but lived with the nagging fear that it might pack up in mid-life. Instead of reverting to abstinence and vegetables, it turned me into someone in a hurry to get things done - and a little reckless as a result.

As well as holding down the day job, I became a fierce campaigner for a reduction in junior doctors' hours and started writing comedy. There was something gloriously, inappropriately funny about roaming the wards like a zombie on an 81-hour shift, doing all sorts of dangerous things to patients you hadn't been properly trained to do. Much less funny if you happened to be a patient.

In 1990, Tony Gardner and I formed a double-act called Struck Off and Die and blew the whistle at the Edinburgh Fringe. Junior doctors were knackered, dangerous and hungry: 'If junior doctors were prisoners of war, the sleep deprivation we suffer would be considered torture.'

Clinical depression:

  • Symptoms can vary widely between people but as a rule, if you are depressed, you feel sad, hopeless and lose interest in things you used to enjoy
  • Symptoms persist for weeks or months and interfere with work, social and family life
  • Psychological symptoms can include low mood, tearfulness, irritability, anxiety, suicidal thoughts or thoughts of harming yourself
  • Physical symptoms can include change in appetite or weight, lack of energy, disturbed sleep and unexplained aches and pains
  • Social symptoms include avoiding contact with friends, not doing well at work and neglecting your hobbies and interests

Source: NHS website

What is mental health?

Radio 4 gave us three comedy series and we attracted record numbers of complaints to the Broadcasting Standards Council. I decided to go all out for career ruin by writing a column for Private Eye to wash all of the NHS's dirty linen in public.

In 1992, I broke the story of the Bristol heart scandal which later became the subject of a huge public inquiry that I was summoned to give evidence to. I became a fearless campaigner for NHS whistle-blowers. All very stressful but I reasoned that my heart was going to pack up at 39, so I may as well cause as much trouble as I can while I'm here.

When I found out about dad's depression, I was puzzled that I'd piled a lot of pressure on myself as a doctor, comedian, broadcaster and journalist but never gone under.

Image copyright Dr Phil Hammond
Image caption Although people "shared their sorrow" after his father's death "nobody talked about how he'd died"

The children of those who've committed suicide struggle to understand why those who loved them have left them, feel guilty that it was somehow their fault and are fearful the same thing may happen to them.

The perceived wisdom now is to tell children the truth from the outset, in small steps they can understand. But in a high profile death such as that of footballer Gary Speed, the media dictates the pace of events. My mother never meant to take so long to tell me the truth, but she may well have done me a favour.

When I looked back into my family history, I discovered that my great uncle and great grandfather on my mother's side had also taken their lives. In each case, it was extraordinary women who had to pick up the pieces and hold it all together. One reason I think I've remained so mentally healthy is because of the love, courage and resilience of my wonderful mother, who continues to inspire me by gate-vaulting at 80.

Image copyright Dr Phil Hammond
Image caption Dr Phil Hammond said he had "fond memories" of his dad who was "not depressed all the time"

Not everyone who takes their life is depressed, but many are. Depression is a horrible illness because it lies to you - like a nasty bully, it sits on your shoulder and tells you how worthless you are and how the world would be better without you. If this secret cycle of self-criticism can be broken, there's a chance more suicides can be prevented.

The rate of completed (I hate to use the word successful) male suicides has risen in all cultures since the recession, and men must learn that in any long life, there may be periods of sickness, failure, poverty, isolation and despondency.

But there may also be moments of great joy, connection and contentment and the most uplifting interviews I did for BBC Inside Out were of men who had struggled with the thought of ending it all, pulled back from the brink and had learned how to love and care for themselves, as well as help others going through a similar hell.

For those left behind after suicide, there are excellent charities like Winston's Wish to help children come to terms with it. Real men get depressed and entertain thoughts of suicide, but with help they also come out the other side.

Depression and failure are part of life, particularly when we're stuck in recession, and we must learn how to protect and love ourselves, and fine tune those antennae to pick up despair in others.

Dr Hammond's film for Inside Out West is on BBC One in the West region and on BBC One H, at 19:30 GMT. It is then available on the BBC iPlayer for 28 days. Dr Hammond is also doing two shows about mental health at this year's Edinburgh fringe - Dr Phil's NHS Revolution and Life and Death (But Mainly Death).

In The Mind - a series exploring mental health issues

Explained: What is mental health and where can I go for help?

Mood assessment: Could I be depressed?

In The Mind: BBC News special report (or follow "Mental health" tag in the BBC News app)

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