A bridge too far?

Helen Clifton reports on suicides and overdoses among the young people of picturesque Hebden Bridge

“Everybody does drugs. There is no one in this town who doesn’t do drugs,” says Liam Jones. “I am trying not to do hard drugs but it’s hard work.”

It is three years since Liam lost his 25-year-old brother Sam, who died alone in a Hebden Bridge street after overdosing on drugs and drink. His grief is poignantly captured in the documentary Shed Your Tears And Walk Away.

“I said at the funeral a good thing will come of this. And it will,” he tells director Jez Lewis. “None of that smack sh*t. It’s over. I’ve got our kid’s strength in me. I know he’s watching me. If I could swap places I’d swap places now.”

Liam didn’t know it but tragically he was to get his wish. In November 2009, just over a year after being filmed, Liam died from a heroin overdose. He was 29.

Lewis returned to his hometown in 2008 to investigate why so many of his childhood friends were dying young

During the year and half it took Lewis to make his film, 11 young people died in Hebden Bridge.

Lewis returned to his hometown in 2008 to investigate why so many of his childhood friends were dying young. The resulting film is a shocking document of the impact of early death, booze and drugs on Hebden Bridge, seen through the eyes of the charismatic Cass, an alcoholic and former junkie, as he attempts rehab.

The national media soon pounced on the story and Hebden became the new Bridgend, a suicide hotspot, the area’s physical beauty heightening a powerful narrative of pain and tragedy. The liberal, quirky town was portrayed as a divided community actively ignoring its deep-rooted problems.

Joblessness, sky-high property prices, an influx of permissive hippy ideals – and drugs – are all highlighted in the film as reasons for the increasing isolation of some community members.

A year on from the film’s release and Cass is still doing well in rehab in London. A local march – organised by the Jones family to raise awareness of the issue – is becoming a memory. Local headlines are slowly returning to the normal topics of eco-arts festivals and recycling drives.

And Lewis remains deeply concerned that nothing has really changed.

“Maybe there are more groups doing outreach in Hebden Bridge than there were before,” he says. “But there is certainly a lot of denial.

“All I wanted to do was build bridges in Hebden but I am increasingly frustrated by people taking potshots, saying I am making it up and sensationalising it. And bit by bit I am becoming more candid. That film is a candy-coated version of reality. If I put all the footage in, this town would go berserk.”

Yet many community members are still urging restraint. They say Hebden is no different from other towns across the UK and the film distorts the truth.

Such arguments have seized on official statistics. According to Calderdale Primary Care Trust, the number of suicides in the borough has halved from a high of 14 per 100,000 between 1995 and 1997 to 6.8 between 2006 and 2008 – a figure lower than neighbouring Kirklees, with 8.44, and the national average of 7.85. And in 2009 there was just one official drug-related death in Calderdale.

Hebden Bridge deaths
Jez Lewis's film has split opinion in Hebden Bridge

Jovial Methodist minister Tony Buglass is one of those sceptical about the film’s conclusions.

“It seems to be an overly brash analysis. Sometimes people come to conclusions that are not really valid,” he says. “The fact that there are so many youngsters feeling alienated, that’s part of growing up.

“You can still ask the question about why they are living lives of high-risk escapism. But you also have to ask whether the yobs outside of the Spar drinking umpteen cans of Special Brew in one night are interested in being helped.”

He adds that nobody in the town is in denial. “If you have got kids of your own, it doesn’t matter where you work. You are going to be interested in the environment where they live.”

Yet Lewis calls the official statistics misrepresentative. “It just infuriates everybody who knows the reality,” he says.

Elsa Fairbanks of Calderdale Samaritans agrees. She has been working hard to keep the issues firmly in the limelight. In September, she organised the third local screening of the film.

“Quoting statistics is not really relevant,” she says. “It’s about trying to look to the future.”

“Suicide is a verdict of last resort for a lot of reasons. It is only recorded when there is absolutely no doubt. But it represents one of the leading causes of death for young men in this country.”

Lesley Jones, who was brought up in Hebden Bridge and is one of only two Hebden Royd councillors to actually come from the town, sees it differently. Busy organising an extension to the local skate park, she says youngsters need more to do and become more engaged with issues that affect them .

“The press coverage was outrageous,” she says. “I know there are drugs amongst the young people in the town. What I’m unsure about is whether it is any higher than any similar sized town in Britain, given the same demographic and the same mix of people.

She claims the newcomers make her feel inferior and intimidated

“I know that the families who are affected don’t feel that way. But I am not trying to play it down at all. I’m just trying to be realistic.”

In the film, Liam and Sam’s mother Michelle refers to the “colonisation” of the town by generations of hippies and city refugees who commute to well-paid jobs in Leeds and Manchester. She claims the newcomers make her feel inferior and intimidated. Have they taken over?

“I couldn’t say really,” Jones says diplomatically. “But I really want to encourage those who have always lived here to get involved.

“It is all very well people coming into a place because it is a nice place to live – but they can sometimes try to make it into the place they have just left.”

Michelle Foster is less diplomatic. Also a parish councillor, Foster runs a drugs and alcohol support service, the Basement Project, in Halifax.

“I took two clients to the screening, both of whom were recovering from long-term heroin addictions. They were fine throughout the film, but afterwards they walked out because they were infuriated by the responses,” she says.

“If you are going to do something it has got to connect with the people who it is meant to connect with.

“After the first showing of the film, the silence spoke volumes. And months later, they decide to do something about it. It’s hypocrisy. I struggle to make meetings, but when I do go I feel a lot of what is said is irrelevant.”

The Basement Project receives about 5 per cent of Calderdale’s £3 million drugs misuse budget, and runs a drop-in and breakfast club and a pilot 12-week recovery programme. In Hebden itself, Calderdale Council also runs a GP service linking addicts with a key worker. Drugs charity Lifeline has an office in the town, offering support to 16 to 24-year-olds.

Last August, Foster started a four-week, twice weekly course in Hebden, designed to get addicts to admit they have a problem and stop using. But, she says, she has seen very little take-up.

“I don’t know why – perhaps because there is a culture of people still seeing it as a clinical problem, when we see it as a social problem,” she says.

Foster doesn’t do outreach in Hebden, but, along with Fairbanks, says it’s crucial that services that do – like the Street Angels – operate in a more integrated way.

But despite the plethora of help on offer locally, Foster reckons that Hebden Bridge’s permissive attitude towards drugs and booze has normalised the problem.

“Hebden doesn’t have more of a drugs problem than anywhere else. The difference between Hebden Bridge and other towns is visibility. There is a greater level of tolerance towards the kids drinking on the park, so it has become a problem,” she says.

“It is quite acceptable in Hebden Bridge to get stoned in public. Where else would that be tolerated?”

Lewis agrees that a culture of excess – heightened by grief – has become embedded in the town.

“I don’t like the expression ‘slippery slope’ but in this case it is a totally appropriate. And it is totally normal in Hebden Bridge.”

Wander on to the park where most of Shed Your Tears And Walk Away was filmed, and it doesn’t take long to find a group of youngish men smoking joints. The smell of skunk marijuana hangs heavy in the air.

What drugs do they take? “Nothing too heavy,” says one. “Just ketamine and cocaine. And weed.” Another says: “There’s a certain group of people that do things to excess. But it is accepted that everyone does it, so it becomes socially normal.”

One says he knew Liam. “The people who have watched this film, they don’t take a blind bit of notice,” he says. “They just shrug it off.”

“In other places, this is hidden away,” says Lewis. “But all I did was walk on to the park with a camera. And this was happening next to pensioners having fish and chips. And that is what the people of Hebden Bridge haven’t picked up.

“But most people are on my side. I did what I did out of love for the town. This is what motivated me. And it still does.”

Photo: Hebden Bridge, subject of Shed Your Tears And Walk Away, about deaths among young people. Rodney Burton

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