This is a guest post from Ayesha Begum from suicide prevention charity, Olly’s Future; Ayesha shares the story of her friend Olly and the MENtal health nights that she runs at UCL.
I moved to London in 2013 to study History and French at UCL. As a shy and slightly awkward fresher, I found my first few months at university pretty daunting. One of the first friends I made at university was with a fellow History student called Olly. In seminars, Olly would encourage me to speak out, asked my opinion during breakout discussions, and was one of the few people that really took the time to get to know me and helped me to come out of my shell.
Olly was what you’d call a BNOC – for those of you that don’t know, no, it’s got nothing to do with binoculars (as Olly’s mum mistakenly once thought) – it stands for Big Name on Campus. Olly was super popular and loved by everyone. He was one of those rare people who would light up a room as soon as he walked into it. Olly was inherently kind, charming and charismatic. He graduated from UCL with a First in History, and was part of so many societies – from the Jazz Society to the Dance Society.
Tragically Olly took his life on 14 February 2017, two days before his 23rd birthday.
We were all devastated. Olly’s passing came as a huge shock to all of those that knew him, and served as a stark reminder that you never really know what someone might be going through, no matter how it might seem on the outside. A JustGiving page was set up soon after Olly passed away and raised £30,000. That’s when we realised just how loved Olly was by people all over the world. Almost 700 people donated in Olly’s memory, including a very kind donation of £5,000 from the Worshipful Company of World Traders where Olly had been an apprentice. There were people who desperately wanted to help and do something. And that’s when Olly’s Future was created.
We started out as a small group made up of Olly’s family and friends, spearheaded by Ann, Olly’s mum and all-round Wonder Woman! I remember our first meetings took place under the railway arches in Waterloo. Post-its were stuck around the room as we thought of ways we could make a lasting difference in Olly’s memory. We were propelled by a desire to do something – to turn a moment of great sadness and darkness into love and light.
We decided to start at UCL – a place with so many cherished memories of Olly. We donated £10,000 to PAPYRUS in memory of Olly; £5,000 of which paid for an ASIST training course for staff very early on in November 2017. The remaining £5,000 was spent on delivering suicide prevention training for UCL staff. I’m so pleased to share that PAPYRUS delivered eight suicide prevention training sessions to 205 staff members at UCL, including lecturers, students, emergency medical staff, admin support and support workers, with the final session delivered just a few weeks ago.
One of the attendees said: ‘The session was informative and well-delivered – I learnt so much and feel more confident talking about suicide prevention and raising awareness.’
Our aim is to create a network of people all over the UK who are trained in spotting the signs of someone at risk of suicide and knowing how to support them. We’re so proud of our work with PAPYRUS and UCL in helping to ensure students are provided with support and are not left to suffer alone. We’ve still got a long way to go, but we’re making progress.
As part of our work at UCL, I wanted to create a platform for students to come together and feel empowered to share their stories. Every year, I organise and host an annual MENtal health open mic night where UCL students come together to speak openly about mental health and wellbeing, be it through spoken word, poetry, singing or any creative form. I remember a student bravely coming up on stage, saying that she’d seen the event pop up on her Facebook timeline. At the time she wasn’t even sure if she was going to come, let alone come up on stage and share her story. She sat on the chair, and sobbed for a very, very long time. It was the first time she’d ever really acknowledged what she’d been going through. It was the first time she’d ever opened up to anyone about her mental health, not even to a friend or a family member. Yet she opened up to a room full of strangers.
Another student, who on the outset seemed typically “manly” (whatever that means…), opened up about how he had been battling with suicidal thoughts and had made several attempts on his life. He spoke with bravery, passion and eloquence. He told us that sport was an outlet, that jiu jitsu had saved his life. It allowed him to focus his negative energies on something tangible, on something productive. Here he had met his coach, who was now a close friend and a mentor, and someone who had experienced the same things that he’d been going through. He encouraged people to find their outlet. To find their passion, and to use it as an anchor to help them fight their darkest feelings.
That was when I realised the power of our work. By providing a platform for students to come together to speak, you’re telling them we’re here. You have a story and we’re here to listen.
Ann and I have also established an annual Altruism Award at UCL in Olly’s memory, which recognises and rewards students who have gone above and beyond to do good for others; often these are students who are quietly giving up their time for selfless initiatives who may otherwise not have received any recognition for their good deeds.
Although Olly is no longer with us, his inherent kindness, compassion and love of people endures through our work at Olly’s Future. I’m so proud of everything we have achieved, and I hope we are able to continue to shine love & light into people’s lives in memory of a truly wonderful person.
Rest in peace Olly and all those who are sadly no longer with us. We miss you x