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Catherine Simpson: What I learned from my sister's hidden diaries after her suicide

After Tricia Simpson took her own life in her childhood home, author Catherine Simpson struggled to address the death of her 46-year-old sister - and couldn't bear to read the diaries she left behind.

For two-and-a-half years she refused to read her younger sister's inner thoughts, fearing she'd find blame and anger at the rest of the family.

But to Catherine's surprise the journals Tricia had kept since she was 14 were not all full of despair and dark thoughts.

She told ITV News how uncovering 30 years' worth of hidden entries shed some light on her sibling's suicide and the mental health struggles she lived with in an isolated community.

The diaries Catherine found pieced together their childhood memories and taught her about her sister's struggles with mental health. Credit: Catherine Simpson

Catherine took the books on a writing retreat where she learned about her sister's private thoughts.

Initially struggling to open the books, she found she couldn't put them down and each entry replaced guilty thoughts and her unanswered questions.

"To find that her diaries had moments of joy in them was an enormous relief," Catherine says.

After revisiting the shared childhood memories, as well as the moments she missed, she was able to piece them together for a memoir, When I Had a Little Sister.

"The diaries showed me a side of Tricia that I didn't really know about because we'd gotten so used to her being withdrawn, quiet, moody as we thought of it," she adds.

Tricia was withdrawn and quiet growing up which wasn't talked about in the family home. Credit: Catherine Simpson

The youngest of three girls, Tricia's passion for animals drew her into the Lancashire family's farming business while her sisters both moved away.

Tricia's struggle with depression started in her early teens but went unrecognised until she was much older.

It wasn't until the year before her death that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and psychotic episodes, for which the family sought help in vain.

Catherine said she now wishes they had talked openly about Tricia's problems decades earlier.

"Growing up in the farming community was a bit like nobody had mental health," she remembers.

"We wouldn't have had the language to talk about it. If people were depressed, which of course they were, we didn't know or I certainly didn't know that word at that time."

Growing up on the family farm, Tricia had a passion for animals - pictured with their horse Skiffle. Credit: Catherine Simpson

Catherine found Tricia's depression was put on pause when her sister grabbed at the chance to travel at 19.

But she saw it resurface when Tricia returned to the family farm after attending agricultural college, an environment Catherine says remained "a very difficult place to be mentally ill".

It is estimated more than one person a week takes their own life in the farming and agriculture community.

Stress and tiredness are common among farmers with the average work week at 65 hours, according to Farmers Weekly.

Last year the UK's largest farming charity, The Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution (RABI), supported farming families with £2.2 million of grants after the summer droughts and 'the beast from the east'.

The charity says more and more people are reaching out to them, with 13% of new referrals in 2018 being linked to mental health issues.

The girls lived on their family farm in Lancashire. Credit: Catherine Simpson

Catherine says she hopes more people living rurally can be encouraged to open up.

"I think all communities need to learn to talk about these issues," she says.

"There is a stigma to mental health that is people are made to feel ashamed for being who they are and we've got to do something about that.

"We've got to ensure that people feel they can talk about their mental health without it being some kind of an embarrassment, a shaming subject."

Catherine says she wished she had given Tricia more space during her life. Credit: Catherine Simpson

Catherine says, after reading her sister's inner thoughts on her struggles, she would have taken a different approach to caring for Tricia.

"There was a great urge to fix things, I had this urge to do something, to make everything alright which was obviously impossible," she says.

"I wish that I had just been there for her ... to let her know that she was good enough, that we loved her for who she was as opposed to constantly giving advice.

"I wish I'd created more space for her to be her."

What to do if you or someone you know needs help:

If you are in distress or need some support, the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day on 116 123 or through their website.