King's Lynn woman wants to help other families avoid the devastation of suicide
Charlotte Underwood was just 18 when her father Stephen Fox took his own life four years ago.
It was only after he died, also leaving wife Catherine and Mrs Underwood’s two brothers, both now in their 20s, that she learned he had suffered chronic mental health problems, but hid them from his loved ones.
Now she is campaigning to raise awareness of what help is available, in the hope of sparing others from the pain which has engulfed her family.
On the surface Mr Fox, 49, from Wisbech, was a respected prison officer, who worked in the top-security Whitemoor jail. But beneath the professional exterior, he was a tortured man.
“As far as we know from the inquest, he had mental health problems dating back to 1996,” his daughter said. “But he kept it a secret from his family because he was a proud man, who didn’t want to upset anyone.
“Allegedly he was offered in-patient support but he wanted to be at home. He didn’t want to upset his children because he cared about us a lot. He was one of those dads who’d do anything for his children.”
Mrs Underwood, who lives in South Lynn with her 23-year-old husband Harry, said her father called the mental health crisis team he had been assigned to shortly before he disappeared. But his notes had been lost when his case was transferred from the King’s Lynn crisis psychiatric team at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital to the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Mental Health Trust. He was advised to contact his GP.
Mr Fox was due to return to Whitemoor, where he had worked for around 10 years, on the day he disappeared.
“The prisoners were upset by his death, I have been told,” said Mrs Underwood. “My Dad treated them as human beings despite their crimes.”
Mr Fox worked on the prison’s dangerous personality unit. His line manager said after his death: “He was a key player and as a work colleague was an excellent example for others to follow. He took his job seriously and genuinely cared for other people.”
Mr Fox, who also ran a Hypnotherapy business, suffered post traumatic stress disorder that had surfaced years after he was subjected to water boarding torture during an army training exercise.
Consultant psychologist Jacqui Saradijan visited him at home as a work colleague before he went missing. She told his inquest: “He had florid flashbacks and nightmares and showed physiological symptoms of the trauma he had experienced.”
She said she feared he had made a “flight into health”, a where a person is so worried about dealing with traumatic past experiences that they pretend to be well.
“Short term it works but long term it leaves a person very vulnerable,” she said.
Mr Fox went missing from his home in Clarkson Avenue, Wisbech, on January 31, 2014. His body was found in the River Nene in the town on March 3.
The mental health team dealing with Stephen Fox lost paperwork and didn’t carry out a proper risk assessment until the day before he was discharged, the coroner at his inquest heard.
Annie Ng, head of patient experience at the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust, said: “There were errors of good practice.”
The case prompted changes in the service. The coroner concluded Mr Fox was “clearly ill” and had “deliberately put himself into the river”.
Mrs Underwood is staging a charity ball in her father’s memory in aid of West Norfolk Mind at King’s Lynn Town Hall on Thursday, April 26. There will be live music and speakers.
“The point is here it can affect anyone, no-one’s immune to it,” she said. “But we can talk about it.
“Suicide is becoming more common but it’s not commonly talked about. My whole goal is prevent and raise awareness.
“There’s lots I want to do. This charity ball is just the start of it. I want to make Norfolk a more mental health-friendly place.”
Mrs Underwood has also written an e-book about her experiences.
“It’s about how I personally came through the grief,” she said. “It’s not a self help book, it’s more I’ve been there and you’re not alone.
“My aim in life is to do whatever I can to create more support for mental illness and get rid of as much negative stigma as possible.
“If I can save only one person, then I will be content with my life but I will never give up fighting for better support for those in need.”
Tickets for the ball in King’s Lynn are priced £3 and include a glass of bubbly. They can only be bought online here.
The Samaritans are available to contact 24/7 on 116 123 or by clicking here.