Grieving Wakefield parents set up mental health charity to help young people after loss of beloved daughter

Emma Kirk
Emma Kirk

A few minutes in Emma Kirk's company was always enough to make people realise that here was a special person, both inside and out.

The 20-year-old student had a winning personality, a brilliant smile and a deeply-held sense of right and wrong.

Emma's mum, Theresa Kirk.

Emma's mum, Theresa Kirk.

Heartbreakingly, the light that Emma brought to the world dimmed forever in the early hours of October 27 last year, when she took her own life.

Her death left her parents, Paul and Theresa Kirk, from Wrenthorpe in Wakefield, shattered and struggling to comprehend the tragedy that had befallen them.

But, instead of shutting themselves off from the world, drowning in their grief, they are working to try to stop others suffering the same fate as Emma.

The couple, with the support of other family members and their daughter's friends, have set up a charity called Emma's Embrace.

Emma taking part in an anti-racism demonstration.

Emma taking part in an anti-racism demonstration.

They want to ensure that the voices of young people are heard so there is a better understanding of the pressures they face in our modern, social media-dominated society.

The Kirks are also campaigning for nationwide improvements to the services on offer to those in need of help, with a shift in emphasis from crisis point 'firefighting' to more preventative strategies.

And as part of Mental Health Awareness Week, they spoke about both their loss and their hopes for the future.

Theresa, a 57-year-old adult social care manager, said: "Me and Emma's dad cry ourselves to sleep every night, the pain is unbearable.

Emma Kirk aged 10 with her mum Theresa.

Emma Kirk aged 10 with her mum Theresa.

"Emma was a force to be reckoned with. She had a huge personality, she was funny, witty, she had a smile that would melt your heart.

"She was an inspiration to many people and all who knew her could not fail to be impressed by her values.

"We will never know why she did what she did and it would seem, right now, that too many parents are going through the same agony and devastation and too many young people are telling us they are struggling with their mental health.

"We have got to ask, what on earth is going on? That is why we have set up Emma's Embrace."

Theresa Kirk with Emma's Embrace trustees Hannah Marsh and Zack Conner Baines.

Theresa Kirk with Emma's Embrace trustees Hannah Marsh and Zack Conner Baines.

At the time of her death, former Outwood Grange pupil Emma, was a student at Leeds Beckett University, in the second year of a humanities and peace studies course – a subject that chimed perfectly with her outlook on life.

A keen volunteer on behalf of refugees, she had taken part in two separate aid convoys to Calais during her teenage years.

She also spent time each year over Christmas organising packed lunches for distribution to the homeless.

But, like many people who care deeply for others, Emma struggled with anxiety and in February last year suffered a nervous breakdown.

Her mum says it was caused by a "culmination of things" but also stresses that her daughter then got back on her feet and was "doing great".

"Emma did struggle with anxiety and was overwhelmed at times, but she wasn't a tortured soul that gave up the fight," said Theresa.

"What I know, is that Emma did not want to kill herself. [On the night it happened], she was drunk and angry and I know she did not intend for the outcome of her stupid, stupid acting out to be her death."

Emma's family say she repeatedly raised concerns with a number of organisations and MPs about a lack of effective mental health services for young people.

The responses she received invariably focused on resources and the efforts being made to reduce waiting times which, the Kirks say, are welcome but not the be all and end all.

"More resources do nothing to address the reasons for increased demand on services in the first place," said Theresa.

"We would argue that if an individual becomes aware of a prevention strategy for the first time in a GP surgery, then that strategy has failed or is at least flawed.

"Provision of information to raise awareness on how to achieve good mental health is paramount so that individuals can make informed choices."

Theresa added: "The lack of understanding surrounding the pressures and challenges that young people face extends to the professions that are charged to support them in times of crisis, as their expertise is underpinned by theories that evolved in a world where social media and the internet did not exist, so at best the theories are flawed and at worst they are not fit for purpose."

Although it is still in its infancy, Emma's Embrace has already drawn up a wide-ranging set of plans to try to bring about a sea change which it says is long overdue. They include:

* Working in partnership with Leeds Beckett on a piece of research looking at what needs to be done to halt the rise in the number of young people suffering with poor mental health;

* Exploring the possibility of running breakfast and supper clubs for students who might be feeling lonely or homesick;

* Calling for an overhaul of the national suicide prevention strategy, which the charity says is "outdated and out of touch" with regard to young people;

* Putting pressure on the Government to impose tougher rules on social media while also promoting ways to encourage healthier use of the internet, such as apps that remind people to take a break from their screens.

The charity has pulled together a board of trustees that includes one of Emma's closest friends, qualified solicitor Zack Conner Baines, and her cousin, Hannah Marsh.

It says it wants smart, driven young people like Zack and Hannah to provide its "dominant voice" and "strategic direction of travel" in the months and years to come.

The charity also wants to hear from potential volunteers or anyone who simply has a story to tell. For further information, e-mail emma20@tiscali.co.uk.

People wishing to make a donation to support its work, meanwhile, are asked to visit the JustGiving website and search for 'emmakirk'.