Ferron Gray, Founder of Grae Matta
“No one was prioritising student mental health, so I decided to do it myself.
"I'm someone who can't walk past adversity. I like helping people, sometimes to my own determinant, but that is the reason why I am doing what I am doing," says Ferron.
Ferron is making it his life mission to improve access to mental health services in higher education and within the workplace. He founded the Grae Matta Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation, in 2016 after his nineteen-year-old god-daughter had taken her own life the year before.
He says: "What made it worse was the note she left. She stated she had asked the university for help and they told her to either: 'Overcome the stress or leave and give the spot to someone more deserving.' She also said that she didn’t want to tell any of us what was going on as she didn’t want to burden us with her worries. The only option she saw was to take her own life. I couldn't believe what I read.
“It really cut me up, and seeing my friend bury her was very difficult. We were all heartbroken. Her father couldn't cope without his daughter, and then three months later, he took his own life."
The number of students in the UK seeking mental health services has more than doubled in the past five years. In 2015, 163 students died by suicide and this number rose to 183 in 2016, according to figures from the Office of National Statistics.
Ferron who was working as a Forensic Psychologist at the time, began investigating why more and more students were taking their own lives.
“I began to question why no one was dealing with this problem. The most common answer I got was that no one knows how to deal with it. So I began digging and discovered this was the tip of the iceberg. I thought instead of me wondering why this issue isn’t being fixed, I thought screw it, I’ll do it myself.”
The Grae Matta Foundation is working with the British Standards Institute to write the UK's first national standard, which Ferron believes will "change the game for everything."
"Instead of me wondering why this issue isn’t being fixed, I thought screw it, I’ll do it myself."
“Mental health services at universities are not good enough because they are not sustainable, and incompatible with the social health care system that we have. I have developed a system so if your kids ever become ill at university and they can’t talk to you, there is something in place for them to go and talk to someone to get the help they need so they can stay at university. I like helping people, I always have, which is why I’m doing what I’m doing.
Ferron, who himself struggled with severe depression while at university, said he was shocked that things had not improved within the last 15-20 years.
“There was no support at my university and the NHS waiting lists were ridiculous. I tried to re-engage with friends and family but it was difficult to try and explain what was going on, what I was experiencing and I couldn’t understand why I was feeling low and why I couldn’t get out of it. A close friend helped me and pushed me through the darkness.”
After a year of intensive research and going to mental health seminars, Ferron decided to quit his job and dedicate his time launching Grae Matta.
Preventing more students from slipping through gaps in the health service is what keeps Ferron awake at night. He admits that the business has not been without its difficulties.
“There have been times where I have felt like giving up on this journey, a couple times a week. I would be contacting universities and they would be saying to me ‘no, we don’t need help, we have sufficient services in place. It is very frustrating but things are looking up.
“Losing my goddaughter and friend really hurt. In a way, the foundation is a bit like a legacy to honour them. They fuel and drive me to keep on going.
"It's been an on-going struggle, but my desire to help people burns brightly."
"The thought of someone losing a friend, child, or family to suicide…I just don't want anybody else to have to go through that. "
Ferron credits his mother for his hard work ethic: "She is my role model, a very strong individual who has never given up and just gets on with it."
Born in Cuba, life was hard. “One part of the family was content living within the regime and the other side wanted more of what the west could offer. I was part of the latter.”
Raised in south London, Ferron was a “very intelligent child” who excelled at school. “I always knew the answers to the questions the teachers would ask me, but I would never be able to explain how to do the working out. I later found out that I rated on the autistic spectrum.
“I didn't really know what it autism was, but I knew it was a form of mental health.”
The Grae Matta Foundation also aims to create a series of standards for the workplace to minimise staff absentees. The goal is to introduce mental health policy and build, test and challenge viable mental health initiatives. This would involve arranging workshops to train employers and employees on how to support their colleagues and peers in regard to mental health.
“We want to write individual and specific standards and policies for different industries in regards to mental health. We want to advise how employers can look after their employees because if you look at statistics, people are calling in sick saying they have the flu, but it's not the flu, it's stress.
“The standards are going to set the blueprint of what good mental health services look like and how to access it, which doesn’t exist at the moment. Again, this is a national standard, something businesses have to adhere to and if they don't they will have to pay the price for it.”
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