Responding to tragedy: The story of the Sam West Foundation


Chris West


Most people will have read the statistics. One in eight children has a diagnosable mental health disorder, equating to about three children in every classroom. One in six young people aged 16-24 have symptoms of a common mental health disorder. Half of all mental health problems manifest by the age of 14. In 2017, suicide was the most common cause of death for both boys and girls aged between 5 and 19.

But statistics cease being numbers when they become very personal. Our son, Sam, was part of a close and loving family, comprising his two brothers (Ben and Tom) and his parents (myself and Michelle). Sam first started showing signs of depression and anxiety when aged 14. Tragically, only four months after he started being treated for clinical depression, he took his own life shortly before his 16th birthday.

We set up the Sam West Foundation in 2018 both as a legacy to Sam but also as a commitment to try and help other children, young adults and their families affected by mental health issues. While registering the Foundation and establishing independent governance was aided by my own professional background in the charitable sector, our initial challenge as Trustees was to decide ‘how’ we could best achieve our philanthropic objectives.

Answering this question was in part framed by understanding the activities and approaches of other family-led organisations with similar philanthropic objectives – such as The Charlie Waller Trust, The Matthew Elvidge Trust and The Molly Rose Foundation (to name but a very few) – whose names bear sad testament to shared responses to shared tragedies.

Rather than keep our own wounds raw, engaging in the work of the Foundation has helped us cope as parents.

We decided that as a relatively small foundation (with annual income from grants and donations expected to average £75k) we would focus our efforts on implementing a few activities ourselves, as well as funding activities undertaken by a few partners proactively chosen by us. Three key considerations for us in this selection process were: ensuring that any activity was based upon proven evidence of sound clinical design and evaluation; ensuring partners had appropriate training and safeguarding practices, and; seeking to ensure activities could be sustained beyond any grant funding we provided. Given our size, we also felt it sensible to draw on our local networks and focus our efforts on the Mid-Kent area. So what have we done and learned so far?

Michelle trained to deliver Youth Mental Health First Aid courses. These evidence-based courses are licenced by MHFA England and are designed specifically for people who teach, work, live with or care for young people aged 8-18. There has been no shortage of demand to undertake these courses, and to date, the Foundation has trained over 180 adults as Youth Mental Health First Aiders. But we quickly learned that there was a lack of people trained to deliver these courses in the Mid-Kent area, and so the Foundation helped a suitably experienced person to qualify as an accredited trainer.

We were keen to promote a ‘whole school approach’ towards mental health. To that end, we have supported Place2Be to deliver Mental Health Champions courses for senior leaders from schools in the Mid-Kent area, as well as the provision of trained Place2Be counsellors in primary and secondary schools in this area. We then realised the efficiencies to be gained by building capacity within Multi-Academy Trusts, and are now supporting one MAT to develop and implement a mental health and well-being strategy across 47 schools. From this we hope to learn – and share – ‘what works’ best with regards to responding to the needs of children, teachers and parents/carers.

While much help is rightly directed at children suffering from mental ill health, parenthood can be a very tough, lonely, confusing and frightening place when your own child is affected. Drawing on the support of a trained professional and facilitator, Michelle has established a local parent/carers group. For many people, this has provided a valuable, safe place where they can share their anxieties in confidence, as well as access support and guidance.

Evaluating the ‘impact’ of the Foundation will always be difficult. But over the past four years, we have received unsolicited feedback that other children and adults have benefitted from the activities supported by the Foundation. And rather than keep our own wounds raw, engaging in the work of the Foundation has helped us cope as parents – particularly Michelle who has been able to deploy her own talents and energies in new ways. Of course, there is not a day that goes by without me wishing we had no reason to set up the Foundation. But the essence of all philanthropy is to use one’s own experiences in ways that hopefully benefit others and to play a small role in reversing these appalling statistics.

Chris West is a founder of the Sam West Foundation.

Upcoming issue: Mental health philanthropy

This issue of Alliance will explore the present state of philanthropy for mental health (who is doing what and where the gaps are), the intersections with other issues, the factors which have limited mental health philanthropy and the steps that are needed to bring philanthropists together to make common cause in the area. Guest edited by Krystian Seibert, Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne University Australia and chair, Mental Health First Aid, Australia.

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