Three bereaved fathers say honours for suicide prevention walks ‘bittersweet’

Three bereaved fathers say honours for suicide prevention walks ‘bittersweet’

Three fathers made MBEs for walking campaigns to raise money for suicide prevention after losing their own daughters have said the honours were “bittersweet”.

Andy Airey, Mike Palmer and Tim Owen started Three Dads Walking in memory of their daughters who took their own lives – 17-year-old Beth Palmer, 19-year-old Emily Owen and Sophie Airey, 29.

They completed a 500-mile walk from Stirling to Norwich in May to bring in money for the young suicide prevention charity, Papyrus, for which they have raised more than £1.4 million.

The three fathers have each been made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the King’s Birthday Honours list.

Mr Owen, from Shouldham, Norfolk, told the PA news agency: “For all of us, it’s bittersweet because the only reason we’re getting this honour is because of the work we’ve done after we’ve all lost our daughters to suicide.

“All three of us in a heartbeat would swap this award, this honour, to get our girls back.”

He added: “We’re humbled but all three of us would rather not be in this position. But now we are in this position, we’re very grateful.”

Mr Airey, who is from the Eden Valley in Cumbria, said: “Because we’re talking about the girls it’s like they’re with us all the time.

“We never let them go.”

Mr Palmer said the grief from losing Beth “never goes away”, adding: “I think you get maybe a little bit stronger to bear the weight as time goes on.”

Mr Owen said peer support was “important” for parents who have lost their children to suicide because of “an unspoken bond between you”.

“To know the other two – Mike and Andy – know how you feel about losing your daughter – that’s so powerful,” he added.

The Three Dads fundraising efforts helped Papyrus extend the hours of its suicide prevention helpline to a 24-hour service and open more offices.

The charity said suicide is the main cause of death in young people under the age of 35 in the UK.

Mr Palmer, who has worked as a firefighter in Sale, Greater Manchester, said: “We’ve met people that have said they haven’t taken their own life because we’ve raised awareness and we talk about it, but sometimes it’s a knife edge between life and death.

“And just a few little things or one thing can make a difference.”

The three fathers spoke to political leaders during their walks including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.

Mr Palmer said: “Both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer – when they spoke to us – spoke as fathers. And that really came through – this sort of thing does not discriminate.”

The Three Dads have campaigned for suicide prevention lessons – currently optionally taught to age-appropriate children – to become a statutory part of the curriculum.

Mr Owen described a public consultation, published in May, as a “massive step”.

However, he added that the fathers were concerned that direct references to suicide were not being made to Year 7s and that they wanted to ensure suicide prevention was compulsory in schools rather than optional.

Mr Owen said: “We’ve met so many suicide bereaved parents of 11-year-olds – that is the big hurdle going from primary school to high school.”

He added that some of the risks could be “mitigated” by teaching suicide prevention to Year 7s.

Mr Palmer said the Three Dads “haven’t finished yet” and “there’s so much more to do”, with Mr Owen adding: “If we can stop one other family going through this, then that’s all been worth it.”

Chief executive of Papyrus Ged Flynn said the fathers were “rightly honoured as our heroes” and had helped to start “conversations in homes and communities where families were unable or unwilling to discuss suicide”.

Mr Flynn added: “We are delighted that the Three Dads Walking have been honoured by their country for the remarkable impact they have had and the young lives they have undeniably helped to save.

“Brought together by the tragedy and trauma of suicide – which shattered their lives and the lives of those around them – Andy, Mike and Tim set out to achieve something positive following the loss of their daughters Sophie, Beth and Emily.

“In so doing they created something extraordinary, which captured the nation’s hearts.”

For confidential suicide prevention help and advice, the Papyrus 24/7 helpline can be contacted on 0800 068 4141, by texting 88247 or emailing