A councillor who spoke out about her suicide attempts has hit back at negative online comments and explained why mental health needs to be at the top of the council’s agenda. James Cain reports.

DR CAROLINE JACKSON is, by any measure, a successful person. At 36 she runs dental practices, employing more than 30 people and still finds time to represent the people of Hutton ward in Guisborough as an an elected councillor on Redcar and Cleveland Council.

But things were very different five years ago. Dr Jackson was hit by severe episodes of depression that led to two attempts to take her own life. Having found the support she needed, Dr Jackson was able to turn her life around.

In November, she spoke openly about her experiences at a public meeting of Redcar and Cleveland Council. It was a speech which led to cross-party support for the councillor and her words were reported by the Local Democracy Reporting Service.

But following publication, a number of online comments questioned whether someone suffering with depression was suitable for elected office.

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but some of the comments were based on a stereotype that is not true,” says Dr Jackson from her practice, Hartlepool Dental and Implant Centre.

The Northern Echo:

“Imagine if one of the men that wrote those comments had a daughter or son with depression who thought ‘I could never tell my dad because this is his opinion’.

“It’s long overdue that people start having conversations about it. If someone like me can’t speak out then who can?"

Christmas can be the most difficult time of year for some people, says Dr Jackson. “We’ll never ever get rid of the problem unless we start talking to each other," she continued. "By listening and being there for someone, you might just save someone’s life.

"A lot of people would think if you have depression you can’t manage responsibility, you’re a nervous wreck, things like that. But it’s not true. I’m probably doing more that a lot of people I know are doing.”

In her case, depression hit her out-of-the-blue. “I had no real reason to be depressed,” she says. “I had friends, family, I was a qualified dentist working in a job I really liked.

“Everything I used to enjoy I stopped enjoying. It came out of nowhere. It’s almost like I woke up one day and everything was different.

“If you imagine being at the bottom of a well, you can hear people outside, above you, laughing and having a great time – but you’re detached from it, you’re in the dark.”

Dr Jackson says she hid her depression from the outside world until eventually she sought help. But she says the disjointed mental health system meant the cause of her depression was missed and eventually she couldn’t simply put a brave face on and pretend everything was normal. She says she was never asked about her family history. If she had been, it would have emerged there had been two suicides in Dr Jackson’s family in living memory, but because the subject was never broached, the cause of her depression was missed.

Eventually she couldn’t simply put a brave face on and pretend everything was normal. “I just couldn’t do it anymore – I just couldn’t – that’s what led to my first attempt,” she says. “When I was discharged from hospital the first time, no-one checked on me. The consultant said ‘you’ll never do that again will you Caroline?’ I said, ‘oh no, I’ll never do that again’ so it was like, ‘right, off you go then,’ and no-one followed it up.

“I knew what to say, I’m not stupid, I didn’t want to be in hospital. That should have been followed up.

“My mother said ‘never tell anyone what you did’. But I don’t think that’s the right attitude – you’re never going to help anyone, you’re not going to change opinions or get rid of the stigma.”

Only after a second attempt did Dr Jackson finally receive the help she needed. “Nobody ever asked me if there was a history of depression in my family,” she says. "If they had, then the family secret we were never to speak of would have come to light and they would have treated me in a different way. They have been treating me for many years now which is why I’m well.

“I’m in a really good place, I have an amazing life, I love having these practices with over 30 people working for me – I couldn’t be happier.

“But I feel it’s incumbent on me, as someone who has suffered in the past, to try and get a message across that, if you’re in a really dark place, reach out for help – speak to someone.”

Dr Jackson is now pushing to have mental health put to the top of the council’s agenda. “We need to push more and be more assertive and really measure that what we’re doing is really working,” she says. “My suggestion would be to put together a working group – invite councillors to join a task and finish group – and call people in like the commissioners and get some answers about the steps they are taking. We might look and think there’s something obvious we can see that’s missing that we can point out and join everything up because mental health is quite a disjointed system."

  • If you are in distress, the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day, every day, by calling 116 123.