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Caroline Flack and the necessity of kindness

Caroline Flack hadn’t registered much on my radar screen before the news of her suicide surfaced last Saturday. The reality TV star’s tragic death brought her to my attention in a big way, as it did to the entire country — even despite forecasts of biblical floods and gales. It’s no surprise. On the face of it, Caroline Flack had everything, especially as a celebrity in our celebrity-obsessed culture. The former Love Island presenter had talent, looks, success, love. Or so it appeared.

File photo dated 22/1/2019 of TV presenter Caroline Flack, who is expected to appear on bail at Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court.

But the shadow of her trial loomed. On December 12, 2019, Flack was arrested for assaulting her boyfriend, Lewis Burton. After that, she felt that the “whole world and future was swept from under my feet”. She pleaded not guilty and was released on bail. She talked about the stress of being in the public eye for the last ten years: “The problem with brushing things under the carpet is they are still there, and one day someone is going to lift that carpet up, and all you are going to feel is shame and embarrassment.”

Despite the red flashing warning signs, Flack slipped through the net. She said she was suicidal; she was on anti-depressants and distressed. The inquest into her death opened on Wednesday February 19, 2020.

The news of Caroline Flack’s suicide and the issues of mental health and the law knit together. These are front-page issues which even the royals can’t ignore. Prince Harry’s series on mental health with Oprah Winfrey for Apple TV will air later this year, and it comes at a prescient time. We have a long way to go: mental health is notoriously underfunded, and while great strides have been made in removing the stigma around psychiatric issues, we still underestimate how much it continues to impact our society.

When it comes to Caroline Flack, you have to ask what was the point of continuing the prosecution when she was so clearly at risk. Even the alleged victim, her boyfriend Lewis Burton, asked the Crown Prosecution Service not to press charges. Her distress seems to have increased after an order from the judge that she should not contact Burton over Christmas.

Nobody is above the law, not presidents or celebrities. Domestic violence is a crime and should always be taken seriously.  In the fourth Femicide Census, conducted by Karen Ingala Smith, more than half the women killed by men in 2018 were killed by a current or former partner. The majority of killings occurred in or around the house and with a sharp instrument or by asphyxiation. Of the 149 women murdered, 147 were killed by men — ex or current partners, sons, stepsons or sons-in-law. This is an increase of 10 per cent on the previous year. Many women in the Femicide study had expressed fear about their violent current or former partners. 

Yet of the 1.9 million people who suffer abuse, about 700,000 are men. We know that abusers bully victims into not pressing charges. So we understand why the police pressed charges against Caroline Flack. But not all cases are the same; sometimes, you have to think outside the box. As her story unfolds, we’ll learn why the CPS opted to ignore Flack’s mental state and press charges.

In the aftermath of her death, I read some of Flack’s tweets and one resonated. She posted, “If you can be anything, be kind.”

Kindness and mental health were two themes woven together in Tom Hanks’s new film, “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood”, ostensibly about the life of the much-loved American children’s TV host, Mister Rogers. Fred Rogers’s mid-century show entertained pre-schoolers for decades. You couldn’t grow up in North America in those days and not know who Mister Rogers was. He seemed an unremarkable, unthreatening, even anodyne character, with his grandfatherly cardigan and dark-rimmed spectacles. Not a personality of any significant interest.

That’s what the mostly fictional investigative journalist in the movie believed as well. Then he is given an assignment from Esquire magazine, where he is an investigative reporter, to interview the nicest man in America. Lloyd Vogel protests at writing a puff piece, but as the film rolls on Fred Rogers turns the tables on the New York writer and asks him some penetrating questions, unsettling Vogel. His unhappy relationship with his father unwinds and kindness and mental health weave together here, too. Mister Rogers is quite a remarkable man after all, we discover.

At one point, it might have seemed that Prince Harry’s interest in mental health might have come from seeing his father, the Prince of Wales, talk to trees. But, no. There is method in the madness of Prince Charles. Recently the heir to the throne asked the newly appointed ambassador for the British Asian Trust to sing to his plants. “In my own personal experience,” said Katy Perry, “he has an incredibly kind soul.” The Royal Horticultural Society agrees too. Its research proves that talking to the flora may indeed help them to grow. More importantly, it also helps your mental health.

There may be nothing good that can come out of the untimely death of a young woman such as Caroline Flack. Still, her injunction — “If you can be anything, be kind” — and the untarnished goodness that Fred Rogers lived by reminds us of something important. The essential things in life too often pass us by. Swept up as we are by the swirl of our busy lives, we often forget how important it is to be kind. We shouldn’t.