Mandy Small’s husband Chris took his own life in November 2016 after suffering from mental health issues for four years.
Although not diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Mandy – also a veteran – had recognised the symptoms.
After receiving the tragic news, Mandy had to find a way to tell her young son, Jamie.
Thanks to the support from Armed Forces charities, they made it through a horrible time and Mandy came to realise, contrary to the belief held by some veterans, that showing emotions makes you a strong person.
Losing A Loved One
Royal Air Force Police veteran Mandy was married to Chris, who served in the British Army as a chef in the Royal Logistics Corps for 21 years.
Over two decades, he was deployed to Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Kosovo and Northern Ireland, and was repeatedly exposed to the reality of conflict.
Now working as a rehab assistant, Mandy remembers seeing a change in Chris when he returned home from his second tour of Afghanistan in 2012. She said:
“The man that got off the bus that day, was not the man that I said goodbye to seven months previously."
The family left the military in 2014 when Chris took voluntary redundancy. They relocated from Germany to Durham, leaving behind their support network.
Mandy noticed Chris’ mental health deteriorate as they prepared to leave. She said:
“I honestly don't believe he truly realised what it would be like to leave the Army after 21 years.
"And being that he was already struggling, it just got worse the closer we got to the exit date. Both myself and Jamie were constantly living [sic] on eggshells.
"You never knew which Chris you were going to get either when you got home or when you got up in the morning.”
Mandy recognised the symptoms of PTSD as she had also previously been diagnosed with it while in the RAF.
She encouraged Chris to talk about it but he refused to accept that he needed support. His condition continued to spiral downwards. He was unfaithful and drank too much, causing the couple to separate, although they later reunited.
It was when Chris became violent that Mandy decided to leave again.
After Mandy and Jamie moved to Suffolk in 2015, Chris began to distance himself from his family. But in early 2016, Mandy thought there had finally been a breakthrough. Mandy remembers the visit and said:
“I think he knew deep down that things weren't right.
"I went up to pick up some of Jamie's toys and we had a really long heart-to-heart when he admitted to me that he needed help and that he was going to go and get some.
"It felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I thought, Jamie is going to get his dad back and Chris will be back to the man that we all knew and loved.”
Sadly, this was not to be.
Later that year, Mandy heard that someone close to her husband had told him that he had been 'showing weakness' by seeking help.
Then, in November, Mandy received a call from Chris’ step-brother who gave her the devastating news:
Chris had taken his own life.
Mandy was left to tell Jamie, then only eight years old, that his dad was gone.
Crying Makes You The Stronger Person
To cope, Mandy turned to SSAFA, the Armed Forces Charity, whose team were “absolutely amazing”.
SSAFA caseworker, Sue Cross, helped Mandy with a range of support – from finding funding for the funeral and arranging counselling for Jamie, to helping to replace Jamie’s wardrobe, which collapsed during what was already a very tough time. Mandy said
“[Sue] let me talk and she let me be me. I wasn't Jamie's mum. I wasn't Chris' widow. And she didn't judge it."
“With suicides, so many people have a preconception, and they have their own ideas about people that take their own lives. But there was none of that. And, you know, that probably helped me to open up, knowing that she was being supportive and there was no judgement at all.”
Feeling able to express herself made Mandy realise that there was no shame in crying and she feels it even helped Jamie understand the loss.
Mandy also knew that many veterans avoid looking vulnerable, but this experience taught her that showing emotions “makes you the strongest person in the world”.
Remembered As A Hero
To remember his dad, Jamie has a memory box which holds his medals, wallet and driving license among other items,. It also has photo albums dedicated to Chris. Jamie also enjoys watching his dad’s favourite movie, 50 First Dates. Mandy said:
“I want him to remember that his dad loved him more than anything. And that what happened was absolutely nothing to do with Jay. I want him to remember him as the hero that he is and the times when he made us laugh.”
Since losing Chris, Mandy and Jamie have become passionate fundraisers, raising money for charities that have helped them through their grief and other challenges.
In fact, Jamie was named Inspirational Young Person of the Year at Suffolk’s Raising the Bar Awards for organising a SSAFA Fun Day in 2018, raising £7,000. SSAFA also gave Jamie a 'Family Values Award' at the 2019 Soldiering On Awards.
Advice For People Affected By PTSD
Mandy offers advice to other people who may be dealing with the suicide of a loved one, or with a family member showing PTSD symptoms.
Firstly, she recommends surrounding yourself with an “awesome support network” and staying in touch with friends when you leave military life because they understand what you’re going through.
She also suggests contacting charities including The Ripple Pond, which supports people caring for veterans or people serving with PTSD, and Scotty’s Little Soldiers, which supports children and young people who have lost a parent who served in the British Armed Forces.
Finally Mandy, offering advice, said:
“But most importantly, of course, is somebody for you to talk to, because I think forces’ families are forgotten in the big scheme of things, but we go through so, so much, and give up so much to keep our families together.”
This article features as part of Mind Kind - a week-long series of interviews, videos, case studies, and practical tips and information on mental health and forces families, across BFBS platforms.
The week will culminate in an interactive panel session on BFBS Radio Facebook on Friday, July 3 at 1pm (UK time) to bring together families, mental health experts and welfare champions to help support forces families with the mental health challenges they face.
If you have a question you would like our panel to discuss on July 3, please email [email protected]