A former rugby player wants to end the ‘man up’ culture and replace it with a ‘speak up’ generation by giving young people a platform where they can seek help when dark clouds descend.
Richard Lucas has joined friends on a mission to save lives after two young men who played for a rival grassroots club died by suicide.
Working as a gas engineer at the time, he had already been impacted when a young employee at the company had attempted to take his own life.
The father-of-two was brought up to aspire to a manly image, playing rugby from an early age before switching to coaching and a five-year spell as chairman of his local club in Hitchin, Herts.
While he was aware of the stark figures around teenage suicide, the numbers turned into a deeply personal mission in 2018 when his friends at a club that his side regularly played against took their own lives.
‘Rugby is a very aggressive sport, it’s man-on-man, but we’re all friends off the pitch,’ Richard said. ‘When you lose a couple of young lads it has a big impact on everybody and it became incredibly personal for me.
‘I grew up in the “man up generation”, I went to an all-boys grammar school, rugby is a male-dominated sport and I worked in a male-dominated environment. I really hope I never uttered those words, “man up”.
‘But the environment we grew up in was very much framed by that. After the suicides locally we began to ask the question of, when people get to this point, where is the support for them? We just wanted to fix the problem.’
Richard, 47, identified a gap between the available mental health and wellbeing support and the time it took to access the help, especially in schools, sports clubs and workplaces.
His mission is also informed by his time as a team manager in the gas industry, during which one young man was described as a ‘near miss’ after attempting to take his life in a park the night before work.
The troubled soul had suffered a relationship breakdown and other issues in his private life that Richard had not been aware of.
Together with two friends from the local rugby scene, the entrepreneur set up Govox, a company providing a digital platform which is now being offered free to 1,000 secondary schools.
The tool is intended to be an early-warning system, with pupils completing monthly ‘check ins’ that allow teachers to provide help and support if an overall wellbeing score shows someone is at risk.
Launched on Wednesday, the £5 million programme comes at a time when suicide among teenagers has increased by nearly 50% in the past decade, according to data from the Office for National Statistics.
Richard, who lives in Hitchin with his wife Elaine and son, 19, and daughter, 22, found some common threads when he and his team researched suicide.
‘In quite a few cases of suicide, which were predominantly men, but also women, the people around them, their support networks, their friends and family, they all said they didn’t expect it to be them,’ he said.
‘There was something missing in the link of society, if you like, that people were struggling to a point where they thought taking their own life was the answer to their issues and their problems.
‘But the people around them who could have really supported them didn’t have visibility of it, and that’s the bit we are trying to bring to the table.’
Experts including Dr Sam Norton of King’s College London, the Papyrus mental health charity, the local Mind service and NHSx, the health service’s tech and data wing, have helped develop the programme.
Govox is aimed at allowing schools on a tight budget to assess pupils’ capabilities to cope with pressures such as work and exams and can also signpost to external organisations if necessary.
As well as rising levels of teenage suicide, it also comes on the back of figures from NHS Digital showing one in six children aged between six and 16 in England are likely to have a mental health problem.
The online platform is also available to organisations such as businesses or sports clubs through a paid model.
As a leader in the sporting and work arenas, Richard is conscious that reaching out to young people is crucial in creating well-balanced, conscientious leaders in the future.
‘All of the medical and ethical people we speak to talk about adult mental health being traced back to things that happen in people’s youth, so the earlier you can have a conversation and provide support the better,’ he said.
‘I want to create an environment where young people know if they do ask for help, then the help is there and it is effective.
‘We have chosen to do that through a digital route because that is the medium through which young people feel comfortable with.
‘There are a lot of negative elements to social media and the digital world but the honesty that comes through from our young people on the platform is really quite open, honest and powerful.
‘I grew up in the man up generation and we want to create a future where we have a speak up generation who know if they do that they will get support. For me, the leaders of the future are in education today and we need to create an environment where it’s ok to say, “I don’t feel happy today” and someone will sit down and give you support.
‘When they are leaders in the future they will bring those behaviours with them and they will create environments in school, the workplace, sport and wider society where people don’t feel shy about saying they don’t feel ok and the support is there.’
Schools can sign up at govox.com/schools-partnership.
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