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The gifted 28-year-old could do anything - except beat depression. Now the Government's 'happiness tsar' is calling for more help for people like Charlie

By Jonathan Owen and Sophie Goodchild

Sunday, 3 September 2006

Everyone liked Charlie Waller, and everyone wanted to be like him. Not only was he a brilliant sportsman and talented actor, the handsome 28-year-old was enjoying a successful career in advertising.

Little in Charlie's behaviour gave any hint that he might be suffering from depression. At his brother's wedding, he made a typically memorable and witty best man's speech; afterwards, he went off on a relaxing holiday.

But only two weeks later, on 8 September 1997, for reasons his family still do not fully understand, the man who had everything to live for took his own life. He drove to woodlands near his parents' home and gassed himself to death in his car.

His suicide note read: "I don't think I am very well at the moment... I hope I don't make it."

Like thousands of others, Charlie was suffering from a mental illness that could have been treated with therapy if it was more widely available on the NHS, an issue highlighted today.

Lord Layard, the Government's "happiness tsar", called nearly three months ago for 10,000 extra therapists to provide help for the record numbers of people whose lives are blighted by depression. Speaking to The Independent on Sunday, he renewed his call for action, blaming cutbacks by NHS trusts for the inability of people to access treatment.

"It's a duty of the state to help people and is a typical example of an issue that the left has not addressed enough," said Lord Layard. "People are suffering extremely limited lives when they could be helped. What we are not doing is taking advantage of these life-changing therapies."

The television presenter Mark Durden-Smith knew Charlie from the age of 13. He noticed he appeared "troubled" the day before he died, but says his friend was not prepared to talk.

"If he had been able to get help and work it through he would still be with us," says Mr Durden-Smith. "There is this enormous irony and huge frustration that this fantastic human being had decided enough was enough."

Charlie's parents, Sir Mark Waller, an appeal court judge, and his wife, Rachel, have set up the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, a charity promoting awareness of depressive illness, particularly among young people.

In a newspaper interview after his son's death, Sir Mark said he would do "anything I can to ensure that other people do not have to go through what we have gone through".

The trust is backing calls by Lord Layard for more therapists to be trained. It will relaunch a website next month aimed at students, whom it believes are particularly vulnerable.

"The pressures put on people going to university are huge," says Michael Lord, a spokesman for the trust. "They are away from home for the first time in an environment where there is the pressure to conform with their peers as well as the continuous pressure of academic work."

For Mr Durden-Smith, the trust's work has had a huge personal impact: it saved the life of another friend, who had been at school with him and Charlie. "He had been on the verge of suicide but saw a booklet his mum had left lying around the house," he recalls. "He went to get help from the doctor."

Mr Durden-Smith still finds it difficult to believe that Charlie, who was the eldest of three sons, is dead. The pair attended Durham University and lived together after coming to London to find jobs.

"Charlie was the kind of person you wanted to be; he was a big man, great at sport and brilliant at acting. He could do it all," he says. "He was the kind of person everyone wanted to be with. He creased people up with laughter and was successful - you'd have thought he had everything."

The day before Charlie committed suicide, Mr Durden-Smith had asked him if everything was all right. "There was just a feeling... I thought he looked like the light had gone out of his eyes," says the presenter.

"If I'd known then what I know now I would have been much more alert to his problems."

Mr Durden-Smith thinks the pressures of work may have tipped his friend over the edge: "Perhaps the workplace took more of his focus than it should have done. And he got into that spiral of depression, when lethargy takes hold and easy tasks become difficult."

Nearly a decade on, the memory of his friend is never far from his mind.

"It really hits home when you have those pivotal moments in your life, like getting married and having children, and you wish he was there."


The Independent on Sunday began its campaign in 2002 to lobby for better treatment for the mentally ill. Since then, we have highlighted numerous injustices. These include patients languishing in secure hospitals years after they should have been released, children treated alongside addicts, and the tragic case of David "Rocky" Bennett, the young black man who died after nurses pinned him down on the floor of a psychiatric ward for 25 minutes.

This newspaper fought a four-year campaign against the Government's controversial draft Mental Health Bill. Although the Bill has now been dropped, we still believe that:

* The mentally ill should be given treatment that suits their individual needs.

* Hospital trusts should provide enough psychiatric beds that those patients who are eligible for transfer do not have to spend years locked up in high-security hospitals.

* People suffering from mental illness who are able to make their own decisions should have the right to refuse treatment, unless this poses a risk to the public.

* Psychiatrists should lock people up only as a last resort and detain only those who have committed a crime or who would personally benefit from therapy.

* Men and women suffering from mental illness who live in the community should not have treatment forced on them. They should be offered safe and comfortable sheltered accommodation and the chance to talk to mentors who can provide care and understanding.

Do you have personal experience of injustice in the mental health system? Or do you have a story to tell? If so, write to Mental Health, The Independent on Sunday Newsdesk, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS. Or email us at [email protected]