Beachy Head is a chalk headland in Southern England, close to the town of Eastbourne in the county of East Sussex. The cliff there is the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain, rising to 162 metres above sea level. Its height has also made it one of the most notorious suicide spots in the world.
There are an estimated 20 deaths a year at Beachy Head. The Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team conducts regular day and evening patrols of the area in attempts to locate and stop potential jumpers. Workers at the pub and taxi drivers are also on the look-out for people contemplating suicide, and there are posted signs with the telephone number of Samaritans urging potential jumpers to call them.
During the past 10 years, the majority of inquests relating to these deaths have been carried out either by Alan Craze, coroner for East Sussex, or by his Deputy, Joanna Pratt. Remarkably, not many of the inquest reports to be found in the newspapers of East Sussex mention either toxicology findings, or the medical history of the victims. It would seem fair to assume that these tend not to be brought up at the inquests themselves – at least, not instigated by the coroner.
Nevertheless, here are just a few of those stories.
In November 2003, Mr Craze presided over the inquest of Oliver Carter, an ex-soldier from East Sussex who drove his car off Beachy Head after breaking up with his girlfriend. Mr Carter had been discharged from the Army the previous year, when he was diagnosed as having a depressive illness. He had been placed on the antidepressant Citalopram. His brother Toby said: “I saw him six hours before his death. It was the best I had seen him for a good long while that night.” Mr Craze delivered a verdict of suicide, without considering why Mr Carter’s mood had changed so drastically.
Days before his death in July 2008, Giles Parker had been prescribed antidepressants, following months of declining such treatment. Three days later he turned up at 6am at the hospital in Eastbourne saying he had taken an overdose of around 30 tablets the night before. He was seen by a doctor, and a series of tests were taken. He told staff he did not have suicidal thoughts and left the hospital. The inquest heard that a couple were walking on Beachy Head later that morning at around 10.15am when a vehicle that Mr Parker was driving sped by on a nearby track. A witness statement said, “He ran around the back of the vehicle, towards the cliff edge and dived off.” A post-mortem showed he had died of multiple injuries.
Mr Parker’s mother said she had no doubt he had taken his own life because he could no longer live with a mental illness. She, along with Mr Parker’s sisters, questioned why the team at the hospital on the day did not have access to his previous mental health records and why, if someone came into hospital having said they had taken an overdose, they would be considered not suicidal. A consultant at the A&E department said that Mr Parker was deemed a low risk and therefore the hospital could not stop him from leaving the premises. He told the inquest that the team did not have access to patients’ mental health records because of legal reasons. Had Mr Parker been seen by the psychiatric liaison team they could have accessed any such records.
Coroner Alan Craze said, “I find myself on so many occasions saying ‘if only’. If only Mr Parker had chosen to stay or there was something medically wrong this might have been different but the fact is he didn’t.” Recording a verdict of suicide he called Mr Parker’s death an ‘awful tragedy’ and added, “I can’t see that anybody linked to this tragedy could have taken different action.” Yet Mr Craze himself could have taken a different action. By 2008 he must have been aware how volatile antidepressants can be at the beginning of uptake. Nevertheless, he failed to let Mr Parker’s family know about the significance of the medication that had, in all probability, led him to the hospital, and from there to the cliff.
Medical student Matthew Campsall was spotted at Beachy Head by a coastguard who said he had seen a man who was pacing up and down over the fence line. He was then seen to walk to the cliff edge and disappear. Matthew, who had in fact driven all the way from Leicestershire, a distance of approximately 300 km, to take his life, had previously spent a few days in a psychiatric unit after presenting bizarre behaviour while in A&E.
His care co-ordinator said, “I think that he felt he had been working a lot, doing lots of odd hours, no sleeping pattern on top of revising for finals, he found he was under a lot of stress.” She added that he was making jokes the last time she saw him, a fortnight before his death. A psychiatrist added that Matthew had been relatively frank in meetings. Responding to these comments, Coroner Alan Craze said, “This is a rare case, even with hindsight there’s nothing to indicate to me as a lay-man or to you as a professional that he was at risk of taking his own life.”
He recorded a verdict of suicide while the balance of the mind was disturbed. Matthew’s parents gave an interview to the Sunday Mercury that revealed more of his story: “When his girlfriend left him, he had mild depression but literally just mild depression. He was prescribed Prozac, which we didn’t know about and were unhappy about, but he seemed to be recovered and had seen a counsellor. The moment you mention those things people start thinking there is more to this. But if you had seen him in the weeks before this – he went on holiday to Yorkshire and with his aunt to Bournemouth. “The only thing we can think is the failure on the course, but on the other hand 35 people failed this year. As far as we know six or seven of his friends had failed, so he was going to go back with them to retake it. But you don’t know what’s happening behind the eyes. We don’t understand why he did it.’’
Perhaps by now Matthew’s parents know more about the propensity of Prozac to induce suicidal thoughts. What is certain is that they were not given that information at Matthew’s inquest.
Mr Craze’s deputy, Joanna Pratt (above) appears just as adept at ignoring evidence concerning the effect of antidepressants. This can be seen in the inquest of Jason Edwards. The 40-year-old father-of-two had been prescribed antidepressants in November 2009 after suffering from sleep problems following a bad back. Paula Harding, his partner of 22 years and the mother of his children, said, “He wanted a short-term fix to enable him to get a few nights’ sleep so he could go up to London to further his business. “When he came back with anti-depressants I was surprised because he said he only wanted something to help him sleep. “The anxiety was down to getting his business moving. It was just frustration.”
Ms Harding said Mr Edwards changed after he started taking the medication. “Overnight he seemed to change,” she said. “He was restless and agitated. He said he felt like there was adrenaline sawing around his body.” Ms Harding said her husband had gone from being confident and easy-going to paranoid since he started taking the medication. She said, “I said, ‘you have got to go back, you need to get off this’. It was just not right.” Ms Harding always wanted her partner to get off the medication and she researched the drugs and found psychosis and paranoia were recognised side-effects.
There was a time when Mr Edwards stopped taking the medication for a short period and Ms Harding said his mood and behaviour settled. Mr Edwards had many appointments with his GP, was referred to the community mental health team in Littlehampton and tried meditation and hypnotherapy. He experienced ups and downs and admitted that he had suicidal thoughts when filling out a depression questionnaire at his doctor’s surgery. At that point, his GP changed his medication to an anti-depressant which he said was less dangerous in overdose. Presumably this would be an SSRI, which is particularly risky upon starting or changing dosage. Despite continuing his job and taking their daughter to school, Mr Edwards’ mental state worsened and on March 19 he sent a goodbye text message to his brother from the top of Beachy Head. His body was recovered from the foot of the cliffs by coastguard teams the next day.
After hearing all this first-hand evidence, Miss Pratt simply recorded a verdict of suicide.
The most recent name in my inquest database is Sally Ann Vye, a redundant shoe shop manager who, like Matthew, also made the 300 km journey from Leicestershire. Last June she travelled by bus to London, and then took another bus to Eastbourne. She was rescued on the edge of the cliffs by members of the local chaplaincy team, and taken back to Leicestershire. Twelve days later, she repeated the journey, but this time there was nobody to stop her achieving her goal. She was on antidepressants.