Mum's heartbreak after her student nurse son took his own life aged just 31 after battling painful condition

It was the moment Poppy ­Hocken’s life came crashing down around her. Her eldest son had died from an overdose of painkillers.

Alex, 31, had been struggling to cope with the pain and depression brought on by a condition called ankylosing spondylitis.

This progressive form of arthritis causes ­stiffness in the back and joints and extreme fatigue.

But 19 months after Alex’s death, Poppy is channelling her grief into raising awareness, and is determined to spare other ­families from a similar tragedy.

Poppy says: “Being diagnosed with AS at a young age is ­devastating and if you add ­depression into that mix you’ve got a lethal potion.”

Until 2016, Alex had been leading a full life.

He was diagnosed in his early 20s while studying ­engineering at Sheffield University and put on ­anti-inflammatory drugs.

Alex, 31, had been struggling to cope with the pain and depression

On a year off, he worked as a healthcare assistant and enjoyed it so much he decided to switch to a career in nursing.

But in his third year at UWE Bristol, he injured his leg in a skiing accident.

Poppy, 57, says: “When his leg didn’t heal properly he got very depressed but after ­counselling and getting a small ultrasound machine to help with the pain, he returned to university.

“The weekend he took the ­overdose, I think his AS, combined with the problems of being a student nurse, became too much.

“He’d done four 12-hour shifts at Bristol Royal Infirmary and he was completely exhausted.”

At the inquest, the coroner recorded a verdict of misadventure. Poppy says: “I urge young people with this illness to speak out if they feel depressed.

“If they don’t, no one will know how they’re feeling. I’m also keen to ­reassure them they can do well in life despite having AS.”

And Poppy speaks from the heart – because she also has AS but has managed to pursue a career in nursing and raise four children.

She says: “You resent AS but you learn to manage it.

“As soon as young people are diagnosed, it’s essential they’re shown how to manage it with ­exercise and by pacing themselves.”

Poppy is channelling her grief into raising awareness, and is determined to spare other families from a similar tragedy

Poppy has been working with charity National Ankylosing ­Spondylitis Society (NASS) and Novartis Pharmaceuticals to produce an online tool to help youngsters get to grips with AS.

Understanding Your AS ­Treatment Pathway explains the symptoms and the new NICE guidelines for its treatment in simple terms.

There is also a section where youngsters can blog about their illness and talk to each other.

Since she was a teenager Poppy, from Bath, has suffered from pain in her back and knees.

But in the 1980s, few people had heard of AS, so it was not until she was in her 30s that she was diagnosed.

Even today it can take eight years or longer to get diagnosed, but she is optimistic the new guidelines and online tool will lead to earlier intervention.

“I’m doing this for Alex and because I don’t want another family to lose a child to AS.”

Poppy uses Secukinumab, an injectable drug, to treat her AS and takes Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory, ­dihydrocodeine and paracetamol.

In November with her other children Matt, 31, Bethany, 28, and Ellie, 27, Poppy did the Great London Swim, plunging into the icy waters of the Thames.

She was raising funds for NASS – and thoughts of Alex gave her the strength to carry on.

What is AS?

This long-term progressive form of inflammatory arthritis causes pain and stiffness in the lower back and joints, as well as fatigue. Not surprisingly, it often leads to depression.

In the UK, one in 200 people suffers from it.

Dr Raj Sengupta, lead AS consultant at the Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases in Bath, says: “Young people worry about keeping their jobs, their relationships and how they’ll manage in the future.

“But because of the stigma attached, many don’t admit to having depression.

“I’d like psychologists to be involved as soon as young people are diagnosed.

“I’m also concerned this condition is going undiagnosed because, without treatment, symptoms get worse. For every year’s delay, a patient’s chances of becoming work disabled increase by 6.5 per cent.

“We have good drugs to treat it but these work best when used early. Because AS develops between the age of 18 and 30, GPs frequently attribute it to growing pains.”

For confidential support, the Samaritans can be contacted for free around the clock 365 days a year on 116 123.


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