Impeccably dressed, well made-up and with a successful career as a financial journalist, you’d be forgiven for thinking life has been straightforward for Clare Francis.
But in fact, she has faced one of the most gruelling tragedies imaginable.
Last year, Clare’s husband Mark Hanson committed suicide after fighting depression and anxiety for 13 years. Since then, she has thrown herself into fundraising for the mental health charity Mind in a bid to help others avoid her pain.
In a year where many women would have struggled to function, Clare helped raise more than £20,000 in her husband’s memory. Last week was the first anniversary of Mark’s death yet, far from hiding away, she was giving this interview. Here’s her sad but inspirational story.
“The person you love”
The couple met in 1999 through work – he was in PR and Clare was working as a journalist. After a couple of years, they started dating and things got serious.
The couple got engaged in September 2005 and moved to the north-west where Mark became deputy MD at a social media PR agency and Clare became an editor. But, despite a phenomenally successful career and happy marriage, Mark was fighting an illness few people even knew he had.
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Clare explained: “Mark had been battling with depression and anxiety for 13 years; although like so many others crippled by this illness he fought it behind closed doors. I knew about it but none of his friends or family did and that made it incredibly difficult.”
Living with Mark’s illness was challenging for both of them: “The best way I think I can describe it, is that it was like walking on egg shells because his state of mind could change so quickly. He could switch from being his lovely chatty, witty, affectionate self to someone who would barely talk and even turn his head away if you went to give him a kiss. That was hard, but you cope because it’s the person you love."
“Unknown and unexpected”
There are nearly 6,000 suicides every year in the UK and Ireland, according to the Samaritans. That shocking figure represents one death every 90 minutes, and each one leaves family, friends and sometimes passersby in shock. Mark’s death was no different.
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On Wednesday 2nd March, 2011, he said his usual goodbye and set out for work. After a seemingly normal morning, he left the office at lunchtime and ended his life. Clare’s description of that day is nightmarish. “He sent me a text message before he died but because I was in a meeting I didn’t pick it up for an hour. By then it was too late... It was horrific, absolutely horrific.
“It’s weird how you react in situations that are totally unknown and unexpected. I didn’t go into meltdown, nor did I become hysterical.” Fortunately, Clare’s friend Tony was there to help. He remained with her as they confirmed Mark’s death, and travelled with her back to the couple’s home.
In the immediate aftermath of Mark’s death, Clare asked anyone wishing to donate to make a payment to Mind or to Mayhew Animal Home, where the couple had found their much-loved cat, Queenie.
Clare explained: “I wanted to give money to a charity that could help others like Mark. If I could do something that meant one person changed their mind about ending their life, something positive would have come out of Mark’s death.”
Within weeks, they had smashed their initial fundraising target of £2,000, but they were only just beginning. Friends, family and her colleagues threw themselves into fundraising – perhaps seeing it as a way of showing their support for Clare herself. They trained together for sponsored runs, as well as office fundraisers like cake sales.
Ruth Richards, head of communications at Mind, said: “It’s so sad to hear of someone like Mark, who was so popular and respected, who has taken their own life. It’s inspirational to see Clare channel her commitment and energy into making a positive change for others.”
Despite raising over £20,000, fundraising efforts are not slowing and many people will be running a half marathon in Mark’s name again this year.
Clare’s family has a history of strong women, which goes some way to explain her poise and resolve in the face of adversity: “My mum died of leukaemia when I was 12, my brother 11 and my sister 6. Her strength and positivity was amazing and she shielded us from any pain or fear on her part. My grandma is also an immensely strong person – she’s buried two of her children and her husband. That would have broken many people.”
Clare has also been inspired by those strong enough to talk about their own depression in order to break down the stigma that’s so often attached. It's also why she continues to raise awareness of mental illness. “I believed people should know what he’d been battling. That was massively important to me. There’s still a huge stigma around suicide. Mark didn’t kill himself because he’d had a bad day or an argument with me. He killed himself because he felt it was the only way he could be at peace and rid his mind of the thoughts that plagued him every minute of every day.
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“Unfortunately it’s too late for Mark, but if I can in some way help others suffering with depression either by raising money or working to increase awareness and understanding of mental illness it will mean something positive has come out of his death.”
If you’ve been inspired by Clare’s story and would like to make a donation to Mind, you can visit the dedicated Mark Hanson JustGiving page. If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised by Clare’s experiences, Mind has advice and information on its website, as well as a dedicated phone line - 0300 123 3393. You can also contact the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90.