Stories of Hope: Isabella De George

“I would tell people – the world is a better place with you in it”

Just over 12 months ago Isabella De George lost her brother Harrison in devastating and unexpected circumstances. He was found unresponsive by his housemate on December 7th 2020, after he hadn’t attended his work placement in the morning. In the wake of his suicide, Isabella founded the organisation Positive Changes ;n Placements and now campaigns for universities to update their policies and improve well-being services for placement students. For this week’s Story of Hope, we caught up with Isabella to learn more about her campaign work and her brother who inspired it.

Your campaign work is all delivered in memory of Harrison, can you tell us a bit about him?

Harrison was so cheeky and lovely, everyone loved him. His friends loved him. Girls loved him. But he was very emotional too. He was very passionate and he was someone you could always have a chat with. He had done an undergraduate and a master’s in aerospace engineering at Manchester University and then took a year out of studies. He was doing his PGCE in secondary maths education at Manchester Met, living up there with two of his friends. He had struggled with mental health issues, more depression and anxiety. But never to the extent that we realised. 
He was very good at brushing over it, saying he didn’t feel great but it would be fine, things would pick up. He was also very good at asking us about our mental health, getting us to have a conversation. I remember he put an Instagram story up on World Mental Health Day saying ‘I’ve struggled myself, if anyone needs help my DMs are always open. Here’s my mobile number. I’m not a trained counsellor, but I’m happy to speak to you.’ 
He was very good at talking about other people’s mental health and reaching out if you were struggling. I was upset at one point, so he sent me a cheese plant. He loved cheese plants and he sent it to me as his way of saying ‘it’s okay, things are gonna get better.’ That’s where the logo for my campaign has come from.

How did you find out what had happened to Harrison?

Harrison took his life on the 7th December 2020. He was 23. He never turned up to his placement that day. It was a Monday morning. He was meant to be teaching a class between 11:30am and 1:30pm at a local college where he was doing a secondary maths education for them. But he never turned up to teach that day. 
The first we heard of it was in the evening when one of his housemates got home and found him there. A year has passed and it still shocks me to this day that he’s not coming back. I just never thought that this would happen. He had made an attempt on his life about 18 months prior. But he had promised me it was never going to happen again. He said it was just a really stupid moment. That he didn’t think.
I think that’s what happened on the night he died. He kind of forgot the support that was around him, how loved he was, how much was ahead of him. I think at that moment, he just did it without thinking. He was very, very intelligent. But he was just a bit of a boy, you know how they just do silly things, like climb the tallest tree or be like ‘oh, what would happen if I poked that fork in a toaster’ and not really think of consequences until afterwards.

How did you react to the news?

The day after he passed away, we contacted Manchester Met to tell them the news. They had no idea that he’d never turned up to his placement. I thought to myself, why had no one tried to contact him when he didn’t turn up at placement? Why didn’t the university know?
I spoke to Harrison’s girlfriend who was also a PGCE student and I asked her if there were any kind of frameworks and policies around unnotified absences. I am a children’s nurse and as a nursing student, it was very much drummed into us that as soon as you don’t turn up to placement, there will be someone knocking on your front door and dragging you to placement, there was someone there who cared about you. It really surprised me that no one had any idea that Harrison had been absent.
So I looked at their frameworks and found that it was only if a student didn’t turn up to their placement two or more days consecutively that the university would be notified.  I was just so surprised, we would never treat an employee that way, so why a student? And why was no one thinking about Harrison and wondering where he was? It turns out his mentor did message him at 3:30pm asking if he was coming in, but that was hours after he was due to be teaching.

So how did the campaign come about?

Initially, I just  shared my concerns with Manchester Met Uni and they were really good, responsive and willing to make changes. My approach was very much focused on that unnotified absence policy. It takes two seconds to send someone an email just be like ‘hey, they’ve not turned up today, is everything alright?’ so it was a good place to start. I worked with them to make sure that their guidance and policies were worded in a bit more of a student-friendly way, ensuring that they knew that even though they were on placement, they were still part of the university, if they were having a hard time, they could still access support at the university.
We worked with them in four key areas. The first was the unnotified absence policy, the second was making sure that there was internal and external signposting to support systems for the PGCE students, to things that were available at universities but also the likes of Samaritans, Mind and Calm. Thirdly, we worked with them on making sure there were regular check-in points and forums with their PGCE students, so that they knew more about what was going on with them. Finally, we looked at making sure that the university lecturers and academics had effective support and training themselves, so that they knew how to recognise issues and support students effectively. 
Once we’d worked together for a while I shared what we’d done on social media and the response was huge and really unexpected. People were like – this is really important. I went to uni, I didn’t get support. I guess the campaign kind of spiralled from there.

How did the campaign develop from there?

So, with the help of my mum and my auntie, I emailed about 150 universities across the country, asking them about their policies and frameworks for placement students and sharing what we’d done with Manchester Met and why. Since then we have worked directly with 15 of them, on those same four key areas, and I am now working with Universities UK. 
At the moment Universities UK has the Papyrus Suicide-Safer Universities guidance in place. What we’re working on is an insert to that, which specifically focuses on placement students. It looks at what universities can be doing to support their placement students more effectively and will eventually form part of the official guidance. 
The long-term goal is working with Universities UK on a specific framework that all universities can follow. So for example, if they’re thinking they need to improve the wellbeing support for placement students, It’s guidance from Universities UK that they can look at which says things like,  have you considered the quality assurance in your placements? Have you looked at your unnotified absence policies? What support are you giving your placement students? How often are you checking in with them? Do you do a pre-placement briefing and a post placement briefing? And it’s not just focused towards PGCE students either, it’s towards healthcare students, industries placement students as well. So those who are going off for a year but ensuring they still feel a part of the university as well.
Through Universities UK, we can create continuous working relationships too. We’re not asking them to spend loads of money on different resources, in fact we are highlighting to them all the different free resources that are out there. So for example, the Hub for Hope, the Uni Heads E-learning Guidance – bringing it all together and showing them that they don’t have to be spending money on loads of therapists.
Another thing I would love to do is get some legislation in place that addresses this, but that’s a huge challenge. I have managed to have some questions asked in Parliament about how existing frameworks are followed, so it has been brought to the attention of the government. I’ve been able to speak to some of the politicians in the Conservative Party about it, but I still can’t see anything that’s been done. It can feel like you’re banging your head against a brick wall. But I’ve also met a lot of people who are trying to do similar types of things to me, who I’ve managed to link up with. We’re hoping to kind of create a bit of a network between us so that if other people do find themselves in these awful positions and are thinking about taking action, there’s already people doing it and we can work together, rather than trying to navigate these things alone. 

How can people help or get involved with the campaign?

Well they can follow us on social media – Twitter (@placementchange) and Instagram (@positivechangesinplacement) and share and support our work. I’m also keen to speak to anyone with connections to universities, so student ambassadors for example. Those people are so valuable in terms of insight and connecting with universities and students. I’m also on the hunt for someone to provide voluntary support with our comms and social media – trying to get everything done in my one day off is a mammoth task and I’d welcome some support and advice from someone with expertise in this area.

In terms of accessing mental health support generally, do you think Harrison was failed by the services he reached out to for support?

Yeah, so I do think that Harrison was failed by a number of services. I know information sharing is so complex, but if we had pieced everything together with Harrison, we would have identified that he was a very at risk person.
He had spoken to the university counsellor and said that he had tried to take his own life before. They asked him what he wanted, he asked for CBT, but then he lost engagement with them. He had expressed his concerns to his GP and had expressed those concerns to the university counsellor. They all encouraged him to keep up with his antidepressants, to keep going with this therapy or that therapy. But they didn’t see him as high risk because they weren’t looking at the full picture. 
Our dad has bipolar and Harrison had been on and off antidepressants for about five years. Harrison asked his GP if he could be forwarded on to a primary mental health team, because he felt that he had bipolar or some kind of borderline personality disorder, but when the primary mental health service looked at his referral from the GP, it was incomplete. They basically just brushed it off, said to the GP that it was incomplete and also that Harrison wasn’t a person at high enough risk to need primary mental health services. 
But actually, if they looked at everything and pieced it together, it was easy to see this was someone who was high risk. Someone with family history – our Dad had tried to take his own life as well. He’d had a suicide attempt. He was clearly concerned about himself, enough to be able to ask for various types of support.
 This is not the GP’s fault. It’s not necessarily the primary mental health team fault either, because funding is so limited and they have a criteria. But there were a lot of holes in Harrison’s safety net. There were a lot of failures. And he wasn’t the first person that this has happened to. It’s happened to so many people, and it’s because of the lack of funding within the services.

You’ve achieved an incredible amount in a short amount of time, but it must have put a strain on you? How has your own mental health fared throughout this?

When I first started off the campaign, I was on phased return at work, so I had loads and loads of time. But I’ve now gone back full time, I’m trying to squeeze this in along with working four days a week, 8am – 6pm, so it is challenging!
I’ve always struggled with mental health issues myself. I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression about eight years ago and have been on antidepressants since. My mental health has also been impacted since losing Harrison. We were very close. We’re similar in age, we have really similar beliefs and interests as well. But I think a huge thing that I’ve struggled with is the loss of identity. I’m now having to be someone different. Really, I don’t want to have to be doing this campaign. I don’t want to be doing all of these things. I want to have my brother back. 
But I know that this is what Harrison would want me to be doing. He wouldn’t want me to sit back and be really upset every day. I know that he would want me to go out there and make sure that someone else doesn’t feel the way that he felt. After he passed away, I moved back home for a little bit. I was off work and a lot of my friends changed around me. I became very close with his friends. I think that’s a huge thing with grief, but particularly suicide grief – you find yourself asking, ‘who am I?’ and  ‘who am I meant to be?’ I don’t feel like the same person that I was anymore and I’ve really struggled with that. 

What have you found most useful in learning to live with grief?

I think giving myself a purpose, I found that really useful. When Harrison first passed away, at first I didn’t know if I could bring myself to be involved with the funeral organising, then I ended up organising the entire thing. Then came the campaign, I threw myself into that. I kept myself busy, maybe over-busy at times. On reflection, the purpose is good, but you still have to listen to yourself, try not to push yourself too much. You need to find balance.
I’ve also loved being close to Harrison’s friends since he passed. I love being able to talk about him and do the things that he would have done with his friends, that kind of stuff. I also found being in contact with people who have been through similar situations really useful too, recognising that our grief is so different to one another’s, but actually knowing that you’re not the only person in this. There’s so many other people who are in a horrific little boat, who don’t want to be there. But you are all there and it is nice in that way to have those links with those other people as well. 

What have been your moments of hope, since Harrison passed away?

I think it’s been really small things, like on my days off when I’ve been speaking to people about the campaign and I find that really drives me forward. It makes me like, ‘right, I need to do this, do this, do this’ and I think that really gives me strength. 
But I think it’s also seeing little things around. I was at the train station one Sunday evening recently. And I had just watched some videos of Harrison that my friend had sent me. And I was just like, I miss him so much. And then I saw the Hub of Hope sign, the one from the Network Rail campaign, and I was like ‘I know them’ – and I know you because of the work I am doing in Harrison’s memory.
There’s so many things that I didn’t notice before. Like the Hub poster, the Samaritans sign at the station – all these people, organisations trying to do the same as me. Stop people losing people – losing themselves – to suicide. I’m not the only person in this world wanting to do more. That’s really, really nice and drives me on. 
Knowing that Harrison would want me to do this work, as well, that keeps me going. There’s been a couple of newspaper articles I’ve done that I’ve seen and been like ‘oh my gosh, what on earth is going on here? How have I done this’ – I actually think I’d be annoying Harrison with it all now, which spurs me on more, because it’s fun to annoy your sibling, get your own back for when they annoyed you.

How easy do you think it is to access mental health support?

I think it’s easy to get that initial help. It’s the step after that where it gets difficult. I think there’s so many fantastic support mechanisms out there and whatnot. But it’s what happens after that, once you’ve reached out for that support. And I think that’s where the problems lie. You’ve reached out, but now what?  You’re contesting with waiting lists. Having to retell your story again and again and again to people. I do think we’re heading in the right direction. I think we’re having better conversations about it. But I do think that’s what needs to be worked on next, that kind of that second level of support. That and treating mental health as if it is physical health. GPs actually being able to refer people to specialist services, rather than having to keep them with them because there’s nowhere else to go at the moment. That’s the challenge we need to overcome.

What advice would you give to someone struggling with their mental health right now?

It’s really a very cheesy quote. But it’s one that I’ve seen a lot online and it’s this: ‘The world is a better place with you in it.’ I think that is so true. I think that when people are struggling, they don’t realise that there is so much out there for them, so much love for them, that there is support that can be reached, no matter what kind of position you’re in. I think Harrison never realised how loved he was and how actually the world was a much better place when he was in it. And it’s not just my world but so many other people’s worlds. So I think that’s a huge thing, reminding people – this world is better with you in it.
I’d encourage them to reach out, try to get that support. If you’re not getting that support, keep trying to push or let someone else come in so they can advocate on your behalf as well. Because if you’re not feeling up to it, that’s completely fair enough. But the people around you would want to help. I know that I would have wanted to push for more for Harrison 100%.

Finally, if you could speak to yourself at your lowest point, what would you say? 

I would say to go tell somebody rather than keeping it to yourself. By getting that out of your head, you’ll realise that what you’re thinking about yourself isn’t true. And you’ll see that somebody else wants to hear about that as well. I was speaking to a wellbeing counsellor about this recently. I told them that when I get upset, I really don’t know what to do. She told me to tell somebody. I told her I didn’t want to burden people with my problems. She said ‘wouldn’t you rather Harrison had called you at that moment?’ My response was ‘of course I would, a million percent’ – the point is, although it can be so difficult, telling someone can get that problem out of you and they can signpost you to help and support.

You can follow and support Isabella’s campaign Positive Changes ;n Placement on Twitter and Instagram.

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