“By creating a healthier workplace for all, we can save lives.”
As part of our Charity Month, we spoke to Mike McCarthy, the Co-Founder of the Baton of Hope. Mike told us about the importance of suicide prevention strategies in the workplace, how Baton of Hope staged the largest suicide prevention initiative in the UK, the process of attaining full charity status, and much more.
When was the Baton of Hope founded and why did you decide to set it up?
The Baton of Hope started as an idea after my beloved son Ross took his own life in February 2021. He had battled depression for a decade, and we celebrated as a family the fact that he seemed to have turned a corner over Christmas 2020. But the depression came back with a vengeance in the new year and he was put on a six-month waiting list for therapy. He took his own life two weeks into that wait; quite simply, the support wasn’t there.
In his parting note, he left a heartfelt request that his family campaign for better mental health support, almost like he was giving me my destiny. When the fog lifted and I was able to focus on this challenge, I discovered that thousands of other families were suffering the same fate.
The Baton of Hope was set up to honour not just Ross but all of those families, and give hope to those who are bereaved by suicide, survivors of suicide and those experiencing mental ill health. That’s the common denominator for anyone who takes their own life, that they’ve lost all hope, and it’s our wish that the Baton can be a symbol for those who feel misunderstood, ignored, or in despair that no matter how dark things may seem, there is always hope.
Can you tell us more about some of the work you do?
We are a registered charity and a community that is united in the belief that one day we can be a zero-suicide society. With that in mind, we are committed to a relentless pursuit of broader education around suicide awareness and prevention leading to practical measures which will reduce the nation’s stagnated suicide statistics. We believe that collaboration with other charities is key to this.
As part of this mission, in our first year of existence, we staged the largest single suicide prevention initiative in the UK. This took the Baton, our physical symbol of hope, on a 12-day, 12-city tour of the UK.
Beautifully designed and crafted by Thomas Lyte, goldsmiths to the Royal Family and makers of some of the world’s most renowned sporting trophies, the Baton represents the shared responsibility we all have to each other. It is a stunning piece, designed with a range of important symbolism, from the semi-colon, a recognised symbol of suicide prevention and of hope to suicide survivors, to being engraved with a quote by Archbishop Desmond Tutu: ‘Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.’
How did it feel to get endorsement from the Prime Minister during your 12-day tour? Was it beneficial for your charity?
This was a deeply emotional moment at the end of a project that the team worked tirelessly to deliver.
Because, although I might have come up with an idea, I couldn’t have envisaged the success and breadth of the Baton of Hope in terms of the support it has received – from football stars, Olympians, F1 drivers, DJs, musicians, pipers, singers, songwriters, poets, military veterans, students, educators, politicians, councillors, campaigners, religious leaders, sports clubs, the emergency services, our partner charities, and many, many more – and the impact it has had on millions of people, including the 1,000 people who carried the Baton the length and breadth of the country and their families.
It was extremely beneficial in terms of shining a spotlight on the issue and having the government address it.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced when running your charity and how have you overcome it?
One of the biggest challenges, specifically of the tour, was co-ordinating large groups of people across 12 cities. We had no precedent to work from and no template, so we were working largely from a blank canvas. But the project attracted huge support around the UK and without the army of volunteers who came on board, it would not have been possible.
How important are suicide prevention initiatives in the workplace?
As one of the places where we spend most of our lives, the workplace is a crucial area where we can address suicide prevention. More and more organisations are recognising the need and importance of supporting the mental well-being of their employees but guidance around the subject of suicide is severely lacking.
That could be raising awareness of the issues people may be facing, addressing stigmas and societal attitudes to mental ill health, teaching people to recognise the signs of struggle in others, or providing support to those bereaved to suicide.
Doing so makes business sense. It is estimated that the cost to UK businesses of days lost to mental ill health is north of £12 billion, but studies have consistently shown a correlation between a happy and contented workforce and a productive workforce.
More than that, though, by creating a healthier workplace for all, we can save lives.
What is the Workplace Charter and how can other businesses implement it?
The Workplace Charter is a guidance document being made available to all businesses – small and large – that will help them embed suicide awareness, support and prevention across their organisation. It contains six key principles that will help make suicide prevention a workplace priority, improve communications and training around the subject, develop the capabilities of management in recognising those at risk, and ensure that those who need support receive it.
The Charter can be adapted according to different companies’ operational procedures, while resources and reference materials can be branded and used in individual organisational styles. It will be hosted on the Baton of Hope website and will be regularly updated by the charity’s clinical and expert partners, according to new guidance in the area.
How did you go through the process of attaining full charity status? Do you have any tips for someone who wishes to go through this process?
We achieved full charity status in May 2022 after detailed scrutiny by the Charity Commission over several months. One of the keys to registration, we found, was clarity about our mission and our purpose. It was a demanding process and it gave us a few sleepless nights, but we completely understand the need for rigorous checks by the Commission.
What are the future plans for the Baton of Hope?
As a result of the impact of the tour and the support it garnered, we have been invited by Maria Caulfield, Minister for Mental Health, who met us at 10 Downing St, to contribute to the government’s new suicide prevention policies. We are delighted to be able to lend our expertise to this crucial legislation that will save lives.
And in March our first annual conference will feature the likes of Alastair Campbell, former political strategist to Tony Blair-turned mental health campaigner, and Professor Rory O’Connor, President of the International Association for Suicide Prevention, speaking about how we can achieve our vision of a zero suicide society. Don’t miss it!