A graduate who lost her friend to suicide while studying in Dundee has described physically falling to the ground when the realisation “hit her” that he was dead.
Devastated Stephanie Carney recalls her friends helping her up from the ground after she collapsed at the sight of Conor Steel’s coffin at his funeral.
Conor was 24 and studying computer games design at Abertay University when he took his own life in February 2018, sending shockwaves through the campus.
Originally from Ayrshire, Conor had battled with mental health issues since school, however his death came as a shock to his close friends at university.
Stephanie, who graduated with a degree in psychology this month, said: “Conor was very careful of what he said to certain people, so although we knew he was struggling, we had no idea he was at the stage he was.
“It was a surprise to me. I kind of thought he was doing better, others knew he wasn’t, but no one expected that to happen.
“He had a deposit down for a new flat and plans for the future – life was starting to pick up.”
Stephanie said that for months after Conor had passed away, she and her friends stopped drinking alcohol because they would all get too emotional if they did, thinking about their lost friend.
The 23-year-old said: “It completely changed our friend group. I’m the mother figure of the group so I went into ‘mother mode’.
“I was on the phone organising to get people to the funeral, going round visiting people – if anyone needed me I’d be there.
“I was so busy making sure everyone else was ok that I didn’t take time to myself to process what had happened.”
Stephanie said that despite her composed exterior, she was struggling with her own emotions and pushed them aside because she would break down every time she thought about Conor’s tragic death.
She said: “It was the funeral when it hit me. When the car came in I broke down and I’m pretty sure I fell to the ground.
“I remember everyone helping me up. I’d been there for all of them and now they were helping me.
“I still question if I’ve really dealt with it. I struggle when we’re not all together on the anniversary of Conor’s death or on his birthday.”
Conor was one of the first friends Stephanie met at university.
They had seen each other’s faces at parties, then started chatting one day as they walked to their individual classes together.
The pair quickly developed a connection, openly discussing mental health, as Stephanie also suffered from depression at school.
She said: “The first time we spoke, Conor said to me, ‘You have a story’ – and he was right.
“He was able to see through my brave face, and he was the first person who could.
“After that we became so close and were always open about mental health. It was a soul connection, rather than a friendship.”
Stephanie said the pair both supported each other when needed and shared a frank and honest relationship.
Around the beginning of 2017, Conor’s mental health deteriorated and he tried three different types of medication for depression over the course of the year.
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Stephanie said: “He felt like they weren’t working and went back to the doctor to get higher doses.
“I remember seeing him one night and he was like a zombie – it shocked me.
“I said that he didn’t seem like himself and he said he didn’t feel right. He said the medication was making him feel numb.
“I tried to talk to him and he was listening but he wasn’t engaging. It was like looking at a window that was blocked off on the other side.”
On the morning of February 15 2018, Conor’s body was found in his bedroom, after his flatmate called security to force open his door.
He had enjoyed a night out the previous evening – friends who were there say it was the happiest they had ever seen Conor.
However, Stephanie was not there. She was in Aberdeen for the night and another close friend was in China.
Stephanie said: “I was on the Megabus coming home and I realised I hadn’t heard from Conor. We normally spoke every day so it was unusual.
“I sent him a message and he didn’t reply so I checked social media and noticed he hadn’t been active for hours.
“I sent another message and it didn’t deliver so I sent another one and said, ‘Please just send me a thumbs up so I know you’re alive’.
“As it delivered I had this awful feeling that he wasn’t.”
Stephanie contacted Conor’s flatmate who called security to open Conor’s bedroom door and Stephanie’s terrible fears were confirmed.
She went into a state of panic, bursting into tears and calling her mum and her friend in China.
She said: “I felt like my heart had done a flip and landed in my stomach.
“I was crying in public – the bus felt claustrophobic and I had a long way to go, I felt trapped.
“I didn’t know what to do. I needed to be around someone who knew Conor and was going through the same thing.”
After getting off the bus, Stephanie went straight to a friend’s flat and got all of Conor’s friends together.
She said that as well as feeling devastated about the death, her friends were also racked with guilt because police had told them not to tell any of Conor’s family.
Stephanie said: “The only nice thing about it is that we have become close with his family.
“They came up to visit us the next day and when they were leaving they said they had just adopted so many new children.
“They are like our family now.”
Stephanie has grown close to Conor’s mum, Frances Beck, through charity work they have done together for the Mental Health Foundation.
Stephanie also works with Dundee-based youth mental health organisation, Feeling Strong, and now has ASSIST suicide training – meaning she is trained to recognise signs of suicidal thoughts and work with those suffering from them to create life plans.
After Conor passed away, Stephanie started to look back for signs.
She said: “The only thing I can think that might have been a sign is that he had my boyfriend’s jacket for about a year because my boyfriend left it at his flat one night and he kept forgetting to bring it when we met up.
“He brought it about a week before he died and was determined to see me.
“We went out that night and had a great night – we were laughing and dancing all night. He seemed better.”
Conor messaged the next day saying, ‘Love you loads’ – a phrase he always said to his friends, and which they have carried on using in his honour.
Stephanie said: “We all have lots of good memories of Conor and as more time passes we clench onto them even more because we don’t want to forget him.”
Losing Conor and going through her own mental health issues at school has given Stephanie a passion to speak up for young people with similar issues.
She also urges anyone who is struggling to think of their “future self” and all the things they are yet to experience in life.
Stephanie said: “I dealt with depression in my teens and at the time I thought it was never going to end but I managed to get through it.
“One of the things I reflect on now is all the things I would have missed out on if I didn’t stay, things like seeing my favourite band live for the first time or graduating from university.
“I wasn’t enjoying the ride when I was younger but I wish I could speak to my younger self and say, ‘Hey, things are great over here, kid’.
“There’s still so many firsts I’m still yet to experience and I can see now that things do get better, I wish that Conor had been able to see that too.”
If you need someone to speak to about mental health, depression or suicidal thoughts, there are a number of organisations that can help:
- Samaritans Scotland: 116 123
- Breathing Space: 0800 83 85 87
- Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM, for men only): 0800 58 58 58
- Papyrus (for people aged under 35): 0800 068 41 41
- Childline (for children and young people aged under 19): 0800 1111
- Touched by Suicide Scotland: 01294 274273 or 01294 216895
- Friends Against Murder and Suicide (FAMS): 07736 326062 or 01698 261010