A FORMER soldier who lost his teenage son to suicide has spoken about how he is using the outdoors as therapy to deal with the heartbreak while fundraising to create a way of preventing other parents from going through the same grief.
Exactly two years to the day since the tragedy, 43-year-old John Bell today embarked upon the third in a series of gruelling challenges in honour of 15-year-old Jake.
He recently completed the National Three Peaks before setting off on a huge ‘Walk for Hope’ from his home to the Derbyshire village of Hope – all while raising awareness of youth suicide, as well as funds for a dream project he’s lining up.
This morning, he is making the first steps from the West coast of northern England, heading East as he walks and wild camps his way to Yorkshire’s Robin Hood’s Bay on an epic coast-to-coast hike.
“I love the challenge of it all – I need to do things like this, mentally, if you know what I mean? I can’t not do them,” he smiles.
His tone is somewhat jovial, yet determined with an assertive air of someone who clearly excels at getting things done.
The bounding enthusiasm for life in this ex-Royal Engineer from Mansfield isn’t perhaps what you would expect in father whose grief for his beloved son must have a rawness that very few could possibly understand. There’s a warmth and infectious energy to his every sentence. Each quick-fired thought that he articulates offers a small hint of ambition to create a lasting legacy of hope and help in a bid to prevent others from going through the unimaginable pain he and his family suffer.
“I’ve felt the grief, I’ve felt the agony, but I’ve come to understand that grief is just a reflection of your love for that person,” he explains.
“And I want to do something with it. I want to help other people because helping people is what helps me.”
It’s not that desperation and despair haven’t left their scars on John. He was dragged into the murky depths of depression after his son’s suicide and, in some of his darkest moments, came within a whisker of succumbing to numbing his pain forever.
“I know exactly what my son was going through. I reached a point last year when you’re pushed to that limit when you want to take your own life.
“I had the belt around my neck. I wanted to be with him. I desperately wanted to be with him, but something stopped me, something inside told me not to give up like that and, instead, utilise my time on this earth to do something positive.
“It wasn’t my time. I just realised that I have a purpose in life. Someone needs to get suicide talked about – and I’ll do it. I’ll do whatever it takes to get people talking about it.”
It was a moment of revelation that saved John from his own demons. His mental health was on the floor, his will to carry on had evaporated, yet he slowly pulled himself away from the edge.
“I went days without food,” he says.
“I was very, very close to the end, but it was my love for Jake that got me through and just told me it wasn’t time to join him. I will join him one day but I chose to live, and live for him.
“I’m seeing things a whole lot differently now – it’s not all about you, it’s about what you can do, what you can be and who you can be.”
John’s already set his heart on one thing he wants to do to help others. He’s raising money to buy some land – ‘Camp Elysium’ – where families can immerse themselves in nature and the outdoors and find ways of reconnecting.
“I want to get a good few acres somewhere around the Midlands to create a retreat,” he beams.
“We’re going to build a basecamp, and a cabin made of pallet wood.”
He’s even pledged to be the caretaker of the retreat, maintaining and running it as a resource where the outdoors can be used as therapy.
“It’s to bring families together – especially families with children in that difficult age bracket,” he added.
“We’ll try to get something with a bit of woodland, using natural resources to do things like bushcraft and bring everyone together as a family with the aim of helping everyone’s mental health.”
Only two years have passed since the day John lost Jake. Yet he can talk about what happened in a way that few grieving parents ever could. His voice doesn’t crack, and his face does not betray the torrent of emotion just under the surface.
And that, remarkably, is just how he wants it to be. He wants to talk about suicide, and he wants others to discuss it out in the open. He even has friends who have barely spoken a word to him over the last two years. The reason, he believes, is down to a fear of the subject of suicide coming up in conversation – something people don’t know how to discuss.
‘People are afraid to talk about suicide’
“Suicide is a word that creates anxiety,” John explains.
“People are afraid to talk about it. It’s not until you go back to basics and realise that you can be free from that anxiety.
“We have to talk about it more, and in a way that doesn’t let your grief or emotion come to the front of that conversation – talking about it in a normal way is how we can make it something that we can talk about and help us to help other people and prevent them from going through something like I’m going through.
“Mental health is something that people talk about a lot. But, for whatever reason, we don’t talk about suicide in the same way. It still seems like a taboo subject, but it needs people to talk about it.”
John says Jake had offered no clues, or given any visible signals leading up to the tragedy in July 2020.
“He’d had a bit of a problem with some bullies, but apart from that there were no signs at all,” John recalls.
“He was very similar to me – emotional and impulsive, and he was one of these kids who would do anything to stand up for others. His heart was in the right place.
“He’d been for a bike ride, and then got banned off his X-Box for doing something wrong, went upstairs, got called down for his tea, but he didn’t come down. What he’d done… it was an impulsive decision.”
From the darkest days, when the ex-soldier found himself on the brink of ending his own life, came a light in the form of being in the outdoors.
“I’ve always been outdoorsy, but I didn’t do it so much. It wasn’t until losing Jake that I disappeared into the mountains,” he explained.
“I just ran up Scafell Pike with a big pack. Just pushing myself through so many barriers because my physical fitness is not the best. It’s my mental fitness that carries me through.”
He’s since set himself three huge challenges – all to help raise funds for Camp Elysium.
Two of them have already been completed. The first was the National Three Peaks, climbing the three highest mountains of Scotland, England and Wales – Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon – within 24 hours.
He then did the ‘Walk For Hope’ – a full-on hike to the village of Hope in Derbyshire’s Peak District. He set off walking from his house 35 miles away, and got to Hope in one day. Next morning, he simply got up and walked back.
This morning, he set off on the final of his trio of physical challenges. He’ll be covering 192-miles from St Bee’s in the Lake District, across the Yorkshire Dales, then the Yorkshire Moors to Robin Hood’s Bay.
It’s a route that, at best, takes most people about a fortnight. John being John, he’s going to attempt it in seven and a half days.
“I haven’t even planned where I’m camping, so I’ll be wild camping the whole way. I’ll be camping wherever I please, and I’ll be using a water filter and purifiers,” he laughs.
“And I’ll be arriving at the pub in Robin Hood’s Bay between noon and 2pm on Saturday July 23, if anyone wants to join me for a pint.”
It will be a remarkable feat of endurance by a remarkable man who was the father to a remarkable boy – a son who will not be far from his thoughts on the route.
“I would have Jake back in a heartbeat over doing all this,” he says.
“I just don’t want anyone to feel the pain and suffer the way I feel when I miss Jake.”
If you want to support John’s fundraising for Camp Elysium you can do so through the Go Fund Me page.
For more information on Camp Elysium, you can click on the Jake’s Legacy website.