Shirley Ballas: Talking more might have prevented my brother from taking his own life

Shirley Ballas and a picture of her late brother David. (Harvey Aspell/PA Images)
Shirley Ballas standing with a picture of her late brother David, as part of the The Last Photo project. (Harvey Aspell/PA Images)

Shirley Ballas has urged people to "ask more questions" and really "listen" when it comes to their loved ones' mental health, as she reflects on what she sees as the preventable death of her brother.

The Strictly Come Dancing star and dancer, 61, said that at the time she didn't spot any signs that her big brother and "protector" David was experiencing suicidal thoughts, despite speaking on the phone every day.

David died by suicide in 2003 at 44 years old.

Ballas has now backed The Last Photo project, an interactive exhibition by Campaign Against Living Miserably (Calm) on London's Southbank, featuring the smiling faces of 50 people who died by suicide shortly after each photograph was taken, including David.

This is to help raise awareness that 'suicidal doesn't always look suicidal'.

She said she hopes the hard-hitting campaign will break down the taboo of suicide and help educate people about the signs to look for in someone who is struggling, something she believes would have saved her brother.

Read more: Talking mental health: What to say when someone's struggling

Shirley Ballas is best known as the head judge on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing (Guy Levy/BBC/PA)
Shirley Ballas is known for her role as head judge on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, as well as her own ballroom dancing and teaching career. (BBC/PA Images)

“Sometimes we can look at somebody with their bright, happy, smiley face, and they’re going about their business and doing their work," Ballas, also a Calm ambassador, told the PA news agency.

“So you don’t think anything of it.

“And deep down inside they’re really dying, they really need to reach out.

“For whatever reason, they don’t – this is half of the stigma, this is half of the battle.

“But just because somebody presents a front of this happy, smiley face, it doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s how they’re feeling.

“So that’s why we have to be more vigilant, we have to ask more questions, we have to listen as well.”

The Samaritans website advises that if someone does let you know that they are having suicidal thoughts, always take them seriously. While you don't have to be able to solve their problems, if you feel like you are able to, you can offer support and encourage them to talk about how they're feeling.

Read more: Duchess of Cambridge's brother shares mental health tips: 'I believe in the outdoors'

Ballas said she had "never in a million years" thought that her older brother was suicidal, but acknowledges, reflecting on their last weeks together, there were signs he was unwell.

"I would probably say there were signs," she said.

"But, being totally uneducated myself, I didn't pick those up as being that he would take his own life.

"But when I sit in the quiet in my private space and I go back over it and over it in my head, there were signs.

"There was a little bit of depression, and there was a little bit of anxiety, and there was that feeling once or twice he told me, 'Why am I here?'

"But I just said 'Come on, Dave, you're fine.'

"I had grown up with a strong, stoic human being, and was totally uneducated [on suicide] myself, so I didn't pick them up."

Ballas added, "I only wish this kind of campaign would have been around 20 years ago.

"We have no crystal ball. But I really feel if I'd have had the education, if David would have gotten more help... I truly believe that he would be with us today."

Shirley Ballas at The Last Photo exhibition on London’s Southbank (Harvey Aspell/PA)
There is help out there if you or someone you know is struggling. (Harvey Aspell/PA)

The campaign comes as a YouGov poll found 61% of respondents said they would struggle to tell if someone they knew felt suicidal, while 51% said they would not feel confident about helping someone at risk of suicide.

Calm chief executive Simon Gunning said, “We have seen again and again people’s shock when their loved ones take their own life – it’s often a bolt from the blue, it’s rarely something anyone predicted.

“We want people to come and be moved by the installation... to recognise when you look in their eyes that they are people just like us.

“We want people to feel empowered to have that conversation with loved ones, to use the word ‘suicide’ and confront it.”

The installation will be in place until the end of the week.

Read more: Men and depression: How to spot the signs and address it

Where to find help

Experiencing suicidal thoughts can be complicated, frightening and confusing, but there is someone waiting to help you. See this page on what to expect from talking with the Samaritans.

For more information on how to support someone with suicidal thoughts, including when to seek professional support, please see this Samaritans page.

If you are struggling with grief, see this page on support groups for people bereaved by suicide.

If you think someone is in immediate danger, the quickest way to get help is to call an ambulance on 999.

Whatever you're going through, you can also call the Samaritans now for free, from any phone, at any time, on 116 123 – a friendly voice will be there to listen – or email for a reply within 24 hours.

Additional reporting PA.