FEATURE: Charlie Watkins Foundation aims to leave legacy with mental health support for young people
Charlie Watkins struggled to overcome the grief of losing his mother at a young age.
The pain became so overwhelming for the 22-year-old that he took his own life after completing his third year at university nearly two years ago.
Charlie and his twin brother Harry were only nine years old when their mother lost her battle with cancer.
The pair received support following her death, but the traumatic experience continued to torment Charlie into adulthood.
“I didn’t know what was going on in his counselling sessions,” explains Harry. “But it came out at the inquest that he was still struggling with our mother’s death.
“These things can build up over years and years,” says Harry, who was unaware of his brother’s inner turmoil.
“I expressed my grief, but I think Charlie guarded it more and bottled it up.
“I was upset, but he obviously struggled with it a lot more – it’s very hard to express your true feelings.”
As an adult, Charlie suffered depression and received private counselling while studying at the University of York.
“There were times when he wanted to be on his own in his room watching a film,” says Harry, who recalls the last moments he spent with his brother.
“I saw him the day before he passed away – he was cracking jokes,” Harry adds, who described his brother as a charismatic and intellectual person.
“He was a fun, bubbly character – he was really quick-witted.”
Since the death of their mother, Harry has been able to come to terms with the loss by channelling his grief.
“As you get older, you have these emotions that you start to let out – I’ve released my anger and I’ve been a bit troublesome over the years,” says the 24-year-old, who plays for Sudbury Rugby Club.
Supporting others through bereavement has provided Harry with comfort.
“I had some really close friends who lost their father, and I take great strength from helping others,” he says.
Recognising the shortage of support services for young people struggling with mental health conditions, the Charlie Watkins Foundation was founded through the joint efforts of Harry and his father, Tim, who owns The Crown in Stoke-by-Nayland.
“We don’t want my brother to be forgotten,” says Harry, who lives in Higham. “We want to leave a legacy. We don’t want anyone to suffer like Charlie did.”
Since the organisation was launched, an online support service has been set up in partnership with Mid and North Essex Mind, a mental health charity.
Chat with Charlie enables students at the University of Essex to talk with trained volunteers via an online portal about any concerns they may have involving their mental health or emotional wellbeing.
“The fundamental goal was to help young people struggling with being away from home,” says Harry.
The free sessions, which are run seven days a week, between 6pm and 10pm, serve as a stop-gap in the evening, when other services at the campus are not available.
The service, which is planned to be rolled out to other universities in the UK, provides immediate support in a practical setting – something which Harry highlights is key for students. “They can be in the comfort of their own home, log on within 30 seconds, and talk to a trained volunteer,” he says.
“They don’t have to go all the way across town and sit in a waiting room.”
The service enables online users to share their concerns confidentially, which avoids the anxiety of being identified and has proved vital in engaging students.
“Being anonymous is absolutely key. Knowing that there isn’t anyone judging you is imperative for someone to open up,” says Harry.
In recent years, mental health services under the NHS have come under fire, with calls for waiting times to be shortened.
Universities across the UK have been criticised for failing to provide efficient support for students in need of urgent medical help or counselling referrals.
Waiting times for counselling sessions have been known to take months, which is deemed far too long for someone at crisis point.
According to the Office for National Statistics, 95 suicides were recorded among students in higher education between July, 2016, and July, 2017, in England and Wales.
In the UK, men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women.
The stigma of mental health illness, which can prevent individuals from seeking support, is gradually being broken down, but there is still a long way to go, added Harry.