Striking similarities in personal stories

Kate Johnstone watches Roman Kemp: Our Silent Emergency (BBC Three) and Caroline Flack: Her Life and Death (Channel 4).

By a strange quirk of programming, two different documentaries about suicide were recently broadcast within 24 hours of each other. Roman Kemp: Our Silent Emergency was released on the digital BBC Three channel the day before Channel 4 showed Caroline Flack: Her Life and Death. Both documentaries were difficult to watch in places for their rawness; both were sincere, and heartfelt. And watching them so closely together, for me they illuminated differences as well as striking similarities in personal stories of suicide.

Whilst I knew who Caroline Flack was, I was only vaguely aware of Roman Kemp, who has mainly worked as a breakfast radio DJ on Capital FM. Kemp’s best friend was his producer, Joe Lyons. Roman and Joe clicked on first meeting, and they became more like brothers than friends, who lived in each others’ pocket. Roman lit up when he talked about Joe. Yet when Joe killed himself in August 2020, it was out of the blue for Roman. Joe had never said a word about how he must have been struggling; he had not given the slightest indication that there was any problem at all, and never asked for help for his mental health. 

Roman was, understandably, devastated. The documentary is his attempt to find some answers. The silent emergency of the title is the high suicide rate among men. Three quarters of all suicides are men; and on the day Joe died, we are told that seven other men would have taken their own lives. One of the first places Roman visits is Belfast – Northern Ireland has twice the suicide rate of England. He meets a group of boys who have experienced the suicide of their friend, aged only 15. They are being helped by a local charity to cope with their grief, and also in the knowledge that there is a strong contagion element in suicide. Like Roman with Joe, the boys struggle with the fact that their friend didn’t ask for help; like Roman, they blame themselves for not spotting that something was up.  

The documentary covers a range of personal stories and professional insights. Roman meets Professor Rory O’Connor, Director of the Suicidal Behaviour Research Lab at Glasgow University, who talks about the difficulties men can have with asking for help with their mental help; the emergency mental health team in Nottingham who go out with the police in response to 999 calls; and a year 6 class in Tamworth discussing mental health. 

Roman’s own story is gradually revealed. As well as having taken anti-depressants since he was in his teens, in one moving scene he tells his mother for the first time about his own suicidal thoughts a year earlier. It’s an incredibly brave admission for anyone to make on television, and perhaps especially so for someone whose professional life is based on being a sunny morning companion. Roman’s genuine openness with his emotions, his ability to cry for his friend as well as himself, provides a much-needed example of male vulnerability. This is an important and sobering programme, and it is to be hoped that Roman’s youth and high media profile helps other young men be more open about their mental health.

The documentary about Caroline Flack’s death was different: featuring family and close friends, it was part obituary, part therapy, part eulogy. Her mother Christine and twin sister Jodie spoke quietly, so exhausted with grief that tears were rarely shed. It follows the timeline leading up to Caroline’s death, interwoven with her life story. It seemed clear from the family that Caroline had always had mental health struggles. There’s fleeting reference to many earlier suicide attempts, long before she was in the public eye and always triggered by a romantic loss; and she had a ‘fascination’ with suicide. There seemed to have been various attempts to get her help, but Caroline always shrugged it off. The impending court case against her, which involved her boyfriend, was always going to be a massive trigger, so much so that friends and family dared not leave her alone. 

Whereas Our Silent Emergency moves from Joe’s death to wider issues about men and suicide, the programme about Caroline stayed with the specifics of her story throughout. Joe had never admitted any mental health issues, whereas Caroline’s were well understood by those close to her. But what really stuck me was the similarities in Joe and Caroline’s personalities: warm, gregarious, and intensely likeable, with a strong desire to make those around them happy. The documentary about Caroline ended how she might have wished it, with her sister reflecting on how much fun they had had together: ‘she was so full of joy’. Whether or not you have an interest in celebrities, both programmes are well worth a watch to better understand suicidal behaviour in the 21st century. 

- Kate Johnstone is Associate Editor for Culture.

Find more in our archive on suicide. A special feature, including an interview with Professor Rory O'Connor, is due for the June issue.

If you are affected by suicide or you are worried about someone, Samaritans are available 24/7 on 08457 90 90 90 (UK).  They are also available by email [email protected]

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