Steve Mallen thinks the signs first started to show when his son stopped playing the piano. Edward, then 18, was a gifted musician and had long since passed his Grade 8 exams. Playing had been a passion for most of his life. But as adulthood beckoned, the boy had never been busier. He had won a place to read geography at the University of Cambridge and was revising hard for his A levels. At his school, Edward was head boy and popular among pupils and teachers. His younger brother and sister idolized him.
“We didn’t attach any particular significance to it,” says Mallen of what he saw as merely a musical pause. “I think we just thought, ‘Well, the poor lad’s been at the piano for years and years. He’s so busy…’ But these are the small things – the ripples in the fabric of normal life – that you don’t necessarily notice but which, as I know now, can be very significant.”
Three months after Edward stopped playing, and just two weeks after he handed in an English essay his teacher would later describe as among the best he had read, police knocked at the door of the family home in Meldreth, a village ten miles south of Cambridge. Steve Mallen was at home, alone. “You become painfully aware that something appalling has happened,” he recalls. “You go through the description, they offer commiserations and a booklet, and then they leave. And that’s it. Suddenly you are staring into the most appalling abyss you can ever imagine.”
The next time Mallen heard his son play the piano, the music filled Holy Trinity Parish Church, a mile from the station where Edward caught the train to school every morning, and where he died by suicide on 9 February 2015. Steve says 500 people came to the funeral. Friends had organized a sound system to play a performance of Edward’s filmed on a mobile phone. “My son played the music at his own funeral,” Mallen says as he remembers that day over a mug of tea in a café in central London. “You couldn’t dream this stuff.”
I first talk to Mallen, who is 52, in November 2016, 21 months to the day since Edward’s death. His hair is white; his blazer, navy. He wears a white shirt and a remembrance poppy. He talks in perfect paragraphs with a default setting of businesslike, but it is clear that the abyss still falls away before him. He says it always will. But life has also become a mission, and in the two years since his son’s death by suicide, Mallen, a commercial property consultant, has become a tireless campaigner, a convenor of minds. He has earned the prime minister’s ear and given evidence to health select committees. The study at his home is filled with files and research papers.
“As a father, I had one thing to do and I failed,” he says, his voice faltering for the first time. “My son was dying in front of me and I couldn’t see it, despite my education, despite my devotion as a father… So you see this is coming from an incredible sense of guilt. I suppose what I’m trying to do is save my boy in retrospect. I stood next to his coffin in the church. It was packed with people – a shattered community – and I made him a public promise. I said that I would investigate what had happened to him and that I would seek reform for him, and on behalf of his generation.
“Quite simply, I’m just a guy honoring a promise to his son. And that’s probably the most powerful motivation that you could imagine, because I’m not about to let him down twice.”
Edward’s suicide was one of 6,188 recorded in the UK in 2015, an average of almost 17 a day, or two every three hours. In the UK, suicide is the leading cause of death among women under 35 and men under 50. The World Health Organization estimates that 788,000 people died by suicide globally in 2015. Somewhere in the world, someone takes their life every 40 seconds. And despite advances in science and a growing political and popular focus on mental health, recorded suicides in the UK have declined only slightly over the past few decades, from 14.7 per 100,000 people 36 years ago to 10.9 in 2015.