IT’S the darkest of subjects but please stick with it – there’s light to be found through the power of music and friendship.

When World Suicide Prevention Day dawned last week, it was particularly timely as far as the North East is concerned because our region has the most disturbing and tragic figures in the country.

According to the latest report from the Office for National Statistics, the North-East has the UK’s highest suicide rate at 12.5 deaths per 100,000 people. We also had the highest rate of male suicides for the second year in a row at 20.4 deaths per 100,000.

Against that terrible backdrop, a project called One More Light was launched at Stockton Town FC’s social club by the whirlwind of creative goodness that is Mike McGrother, along with Infant Hercules, the magnificent male-voice choir he has triumphantly assembled.

Many of the members of the choir have suffered from mental health issues and the aim is to bring men together to talk about their problems, instead of bottling them up.

In February, this column was devoted to the story of father-of-three Andrew Mawson whose life was saved by Infant Hercules. He had been about to throw himself from a viaduct near Yarm when his phone pinged with a reminder about choir practice and it brought him back to his senses.

The choir’s success led to the launch last November of The Pals Programme which takes its name from the wartime Pals battalions, made up of friends and colleagues.

The modern-day Pals meet together, talk together, walk together, sing together and support each other, and One More Light is the latest and most ambitious of Mike’s tireless community campaigns.

The project takes its name from a song written by Chester Bennington with his bandmates Linkin Park and it was released when he took his own life two years ago.

Having been launched at the footy club by Infant Hercules, the aim now is to have the cover version sung by 1,000 Teesside voices, including primary schoolchildren, the elderly, prisoners, members of the emergency services, doctors and nurses, and people from a variety of faiths.

The song will be performed by community choirs at Christmas Lights switch-on events across the five Tees Valley boroughs of Middlesbrough, Stockton, Hartlepool, Darlington, and Redcar. World-famous Middlesbrough artist Mackenzie Thorpe has donated an image to support the project and a single will be produced in late November.

Proceeds from sales will be used to train members of Infant Hercules to become facilitators who will set up more Pals programmes on Teesside and across Britain.

After the song has been performed, celebrated blacksmith Peat Oberon, who is based at Stockton’s Preston Park, will make five lights – crafted from iron and steel – to be left in each of the Tees Valley boroughs as a reminder that the community cares.

Supporters include Cleveland Police and Crime Commissioner Barry Coppinger, Stockton Riverside College, Thirteen Group, plus donations from other businesses and individuals.

“I’m not a doctor, a psychologist, or a counsellor but I do know that when people come together, there’s more of a chance that loneliness and helplessness can be reduced,” says Mike.

The suicide statistics for the North-East may be grim but, when there are leading lights like Mike McGrother in the world, there’s always hope. I just happen to think that what he’s doing is priceless.

JACK Darnell – adopted County Durham lad, grass roots sportsman, shareholder in a failed racehorse, and much-loved character – has sadly left us, aged 96.

Born in Chesterfield from farming stock, he moved north and became a fixture in Cockfield: a canny footballer in his day and valued member of the village darts and quoits teams.

I got to know him when he became the elder statesman of the syndicate that owned Northern Echo the racehorse. It never won but Jack never lost faith.

For his 80th, the locals bought a darts trophy – the Jack Darnell Birthday Cup – and, on July 23 every year since, it’s been the prize in a hard-fought contest.

He was widely considered to be the landlord of the King’s Head – otherwise known as The Middle House – but he wasn’t. He simply occupied the flat upstairs with his beloved wife Dot who died just a couple of months before him.

“He was a grand old fella who’ll be sorely missed around Cockfield,” said friend Nigel Dowson.

Nigel recalled the time Jack – 80 at the time – was in the Post Office when someone ran in to tell him his car was rolling down the hill: “He’d left the hand-brake off but he was after it like a greased weasel, leaving blokes half his age in his wake,” recalled Nigel. “He didn’t quite catch it mind – not until it came to rest against a garden wall.”

The old trophy will now be renamed the Jack Darnell Memorial Cup and, if there’s a darts team up in heaven, it’s a safe bet he’ll be after a trial. RIP.

The Northern Echo:

FINALLY, it was a pleasure to speak to Ripon Women’s Institute, where one member told he how she’d passed a sign outside her local hospital: “WARNING – GUARD DOGS OPERATING”.