On Monday 24th October, my friend died by suicide. Sam Beckenham, affectionately called Sammy B by many who knew and loved him, took his own life.
I heard news of the ‘naked man’ on the Tuesday evening – a friend anxiously rang me, referring to the Bristol Post’s article which fit Sam’s description worryingly well. I cycled to the Bearpit to find friends who might know more. None did, but all shared my anguish. “Just gotta wait”, said one.
Sam’s mother had to undergo the pain of verifying CCTV footage of Sam. The meantime has been a confusing haze for many of his friends; I myself have half-hoped to glance Sam striding through the Bearpit. His absence began to feel real. The permanence of this tragedy has now been confirmed by his recovery from the Avon on Monday 31st.
Sam Beckenham’s penchant for nakedness is well-known by his friends. The Bristol Post have reported his various frolics in a joking tone, from performing naked handstands on College Green to naked raving on a police car. And in some ways it should be seen jokingly. Sam was free-spirited and hilarious, showing at times a daft playfulness and a passionate charisma that was contagious. My favourite memory with him was skinny dipping in a lake in the early hours of the morning, followed nervously by our friend’s dog, Spiel. Sam loved being naked, but it is easy to see in hindsight how some of his escapades indicate a troubled soul. Not many people were fully aware of the severity of Sam’s mental health issues, myself included. Some close friends have expressed the sentiment that he was failed by mental health services. However, one friend suggested he lacked the necessary self-esteem and motivation to seek help, and another reasoned that “it depends how you see yourself, as a homeless bum or a travelling musician” – if you do not identify as someone in need of society’s services, it is unlikely you will go through the necessary bureaucratic hoops to attain professional support. It seems Sam demonstrated his need for help rather than requested it.
Sam used to refer to himself as ‘houseless’ rather than homeless. Home for Sam was wherever there were people playing music. He lived in supported accommodation well over a year ago, but since I knew him he resided in a succession of squats (sometimes facing illegal evictions). Sam spent most of the time singing his heart out and jamming with friends in the Bearpit tunnels, more for themselves than the public. To some, the Bearpit remains an intimidating place, but to many it is a home, a meeting point, a place to make music and feel secure among one’s Bearpit family. I have been taken aback again and again at the level of love and loyalty between people in the Bearpit, amidst the messy shouting, drug-taking, and barking of dogs.
However, the strain that such precarious living can put on mental health should not be underestimated. Sam’s close friend Greg Whalen, who trained as a mental health nurse, believed Sam suffered from bipolar disorder. He fondly referred to Sam’s highs as ‘rockstar mode’, where he would be at his most charismatic and energised, and more than likely shed his clothes. Many friends lament Sam’s lifestyle choice of drug-taking, which is easily socially reinforced and common over Bristol’s summers. The intersecting factors of drug abuse and poor mental health is worth emphasising, as the two can form a vicious cycle, and thus require well-integrated and well-funded services. At a time when homelessness is evidently a huge problem, services are experiencing a 40% council cut from January 2016 over the next 4 years, and mental health services are similarly slashed. Sam’s death clearly demonstrates how vital accessible services are.
Sam’s death could also act as a wake-up call for many young people for whom successions of heavy summer festivals is normal, and a reminder to be caring towards our friends and ourselves, and to be aware of the services available (see below).
In memory of Sammy B, a truly talented musician and inspirational friend who touched the hearts of all who were lucky enough to know him. We have lost a kind, passionate and wonderful soul who is greatly missed by many.
Food not Bombs Bristol dedicated their event on Saturday 25th October to Sam, and Help the Homeless held a memorial event for Sam on Sunday 6th November in the Bearpit.
The Samaritans – 24 hours a day to provide emotional support for people who are struggling to cope, including those who have had thoughts of suicide.
Call: 116 123
Assertive Contact and Engagement Service – supporting people to access mental health services.
Call: 0117 239 8969 (Mon-Fri, 8am-8pm).
Bristol Men’s Crisis House – for men experiencing mental health problems where hospital admission might be the only other alternative available.
Call: 0117 934 9848
St Mungo’s, The Compass Centre, 1 Jamaica St, Bristol BS2 8JP Phone: 0117 944 0581
Bristol Drugs Project, 11 Brunswick Square, BS2 8PE
Call: 0117 987 6000