The death of Scott Hutchison, the acclaimed singer-songwriter who took his own life last week, poses a question we can’t avoid.
This brilliant young guy, a poet with a Gibson slung across his chest, took the hectic blur of life and gave it form and structure, every note and syllable drawing out meaning from shattered lives, loves rent apart, wounds inevitable and unforeseen. He made the ineffable lyrical and made your melancholy more bearable because here was someone to share it with – someone who got it.
If he wasn’t able to ask for help, what hope for anyone else?
Across five albums, the Frightened Rabbit singer and guitarist recorded with a burdened innocence the black cloud that doggedly pursues some of us. He sang of a despair that relented only in brief moments of respite before returning and bringing with it thoughts of release. Depression is a fight in which you swing all the punches at yourself.
One of his most affecting meditations, Floating in the Forth, is now being billed as ‘eerie’ when it is nothing of the sort. In the song, he wonders: ‘Am I ready to leap/Is there peace beneath/The roar of the Forth Road Bridge/On the Northern side/There’s a Fife of mine/And a boat in the port for me.’ The lyrics are not the product of odd coincidence. These are the words of someone who knew how things would end.
As he told an interviewer: ‘Floating in the Forth was a real tough one. It’s a real thing. It’s a real thought. It’s a thought that I’ve taken to a place that I’m far less comfortable with. I’ve gone 90 per cent of the way through that song in real life.’
Seventy per cent isn’t much more comfortable but the thoughts and feelings are just as recognisable. There is a sense of inevitability some of us feel. We too know how things will end, or we think we do.
And so, in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Scott Hutchison, a deft songwriter and one of the most haunting vocalists Scotland has produced in decades, tweeted: ‘Be so good to everyone you love. It’s not a given. I’m so annoyed that it’s not. I didn’t live by that standard and it kills me. Please, hug your loved ones.’
This was followed by: ‘I’m away now. Thanks.’ On Thursday, his body was found on the banks of the Firth of Forth.
In his final interview, Scott described his state of mind, saying: ‘On a day-today basis, I’m a solid six out of ten. I don’t know how often I can hope for much more than that. I’m drawn to negatives in life, and I dwell on them, and they consume me. I don’t think I’m unique in that sense. I’m all right with a six. If I get a couple of days a week at a seven, f***, it’s great.’
These words are vital, like his work they live beyond his life. They are a brisk rejoinder to the specious romanticism that surrounds rock suicide. The cult of the tortured artist who battles his demons and the mediocrity around him, who is too great to live – see Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis and Jeff Buckley – is the product of a juvenile imagination and mawkish journalism.
There is no mystic allure in death, no revenge on a callous world. Suicide is painful. For friends and loved ones. For the poor sod who finds you. For the police probationer on their first death knock. And for you who has to take that final step and leave everything behind.
Social media is at its best in these moments. Artillery falls silent and tribal animosities are set aside. When Scott posted his final messages, those who recognised them for the suicide note they were begged him to be safe, contact friends and family, and think about his extraordinary gift and where it was taking him. Musicians, politicians, and fans around the world took part in this hasty intervention but it was already too late.
After Scott was found, Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: ‘Heartbreaking news. My thoughts are with Scott’s family, friends and fans. A remarkable and much loved talent.’
Most heads of government don’t take time to mourn the passing of a musician many Scots won’t have heard of until now. It was a kind and thoughtful response but still a response. It came after a fact that need not have been. Scott, and hundreds of other Scotts, should still be alive today, and perhaps would be if we did better by those with mental ill-health.
The First Minister’s Government has shown it grasps the problem but there is still a great deal of work to do. Ministers have published a ten-year mental health strategy, which came in for criticism at the time, for while it proposed commendable tweaks to the current system, it was wanting for major, transformative ideas.
Even on its own modest terms, the mental health strategy is not delivering. Ninety per cent of diagnosed children are supposed to begin treatment within 18 weeks. Only 71 per cent are, the worst result yet recorded. Six in ten children in NHS Grampian wait longer than four months to be seen.
More than 300 adults waited for more than a year. Only one health board meets the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ perinatal mental health standards, and the most basic standard at that. Seven health boards have no specialist provision for the mental health of new mothers.
It is almost two years since Scotland’s last suicide prevention strategy lapsed. In 2016, 728 deaths were recorded as probable suicides. Men are 2.5 times as likely to take their own lives as women and the poor 2.5 times than the well-off. Last week, research showed one in nine young adults had tried to take their own life and one in six had self-harmed.
Scotland is the sick man of Europe by every other measure. Why would mental health be any different? It is our other Calvinism, the predestination of chronic health inequalities and early death.
Twenty per cent of Scots over 16 suffer depression. This can be difficult to comprehend. One in five of us is depressed? We don’t doubt Cancer Research UK when they tell us one in two Britons will develop a malignancy at some point in their life. But depression? You hardly heard about it until recently.
You hardly did because this predator makes its victims feel worthless, withdrawn and ashamed – too ashamed to ask for help. Don’t bother telling; no one will believe you anyway.
Many of the symptoms of cancer are unmistakable but the indicators of mental illness hide in plain sight. Depression is not an ‘invisible killer’, as we are sometimes told; we just haven’t been trained to see it.
Mental illness has no firmer friend than ignorance. It is the most misunderstood public health crisis since Aids and thrives on that lack of education. The less aware we are of depression, the less adequate our response and the greater its prevalence. This dooms men in particular, since they are taught that speaking about your feelings is weak. Don’t be a soft lad, son.
We still tell those struggling to ‘man up’. When you’re brooding in self-pity because you didn’t get that promotion, giving yourself a good shake and getting on with it probably is the best tonic.
But depression is not simple sadness or frustration; it is a persistent clinical condition and the remedy is medical, not material. If your lottery numbers came up, you would still have an illness. Those urging the depressed to ‘snap out of it’ would be as well telling an Alzheimer’s patient to stop being so forgetful.
Nothing that happened on Wednesday was inevitable. Of course, no society can perfect safeguards against illness and despair. But we must see Scott Hutchison’s untimely death not as a tragedy but an injustice, a failure in how we treat disease and support those who are suffering. Mental health is the great challenge of our time and we must rise to it.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Feature image © Markus Thorsen (Creative Commons 2.0).
One thought on “Why one brilliant man’s death was not just a tragedy, but a screaming, painful injustice”
Sometimes Stephen you make me sad. Sometime amused. often impressed by your writing. This made me cry. Really cry. Keep up the good work. There is not enough writing like this.