An autistic schoolboy who hanged himself had not had his voice heard, his father said this week.
Stephen Mortimer, 14, was found dead at his home in Calder Vale, near Garstang, on January 4.
The “intelligent and funny” teenager struggled to cope with anxiety and expressed it through talk of guns and death, health experts said during a two-day inquest at Lancaster Magistrates’ Court this week.
Coroner Richard Taylor returned a narrative conclusion, saying he could not be sure “beyond reasonable doubt” that Stephen had intended to take his own life.
Stephen’s dad Andrew told the inquest that his son could be as mentally intelligent as an adult, with a “remarkable” ability to process information, yet emotionally he was “like talking to a pre-pubescent child.”
Stephen had started at a new school shortly before Christmas following a series of incidents at his previous school, Ripley St Thomas in Lancaster.
Ripley principal Liz Nicholls said that although Stephen had initially settled in well at the school, by Year 9 he was becoming increasingly disturbed in lessons, and began talking about killing other people.
Mrs Nicholls said that in January 2016 she stated that Stephen’s mental health concerns needed to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.
“He said his mind was in a state of hatred which couldn’t be repaired,” she said.
Mrs Nicholls recommended that he was referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) by his GP.
“Stephen found it very hard to talk about his concerns,” she said. “We felt we needed some expert help beyond the school.”
Mrs Nicholls said Stephen increasingly talked about suicide, told staff he was going to kill them and became less co-operative and more defiant.
He became fascinated by school massacres and would write about them in his journals.
“We were very alarmed by his behaviour,” Mrs Nicholls said. “We took him very seriously.”
That April the autism teacher in school said Stephen was an “immediate safeguarding issue” due to his obsession with the “dark web”.
Following a playground altercation with other pupils last May, which involved Stephen holding a sharp piece of wood, along with a corridor incident on the same day during which Stephen told a teacher he wanted to jump out of the window to kill himself, Stephen was given a five-day exclusion from school.
“We decided a short fixed-term exclusion was the best thing,” Mrs Nicholls said. “My first duty as headteacher is to keep the children safe and we were really wondering how we could keep Stephen and other children safe.”
Stephen’s parents later allowed the school to make a referral to the CAMHS team. It was also decided he could not return to mainstream school until there was more support, so he was put into ‘learning support’ at Ripley, where he remained until the end of the summer term.
Over the summer Stephen’s parents informed Ripley their son would not be returning to the school.
Specialist autism consultant Lynn McCann told the inquest Stephen was “intelligent and funny and had lots of interests he liked to talk about.”
She said Stephen struggled to express his anxiety and would talk about guns and death as a way of doing that.
He also used song lyrics as a way of expressing how he felt and described himself to Mrs McCann as feeling “on the edge.”
“He talked a lot about things he seemed to despair of, such as his future and the point of education,” she said. “He said he didn’t mean it when he said he was going to kill other people. He didn’t understand the effect that it might have on them. Part of autism is not understanding other people’s thoughts.”
Mrs McCann said she became concerned about the frequency and intensity of Stephen’s outbursts.
“I was concerned about his underlying mental health,” she said. “I do believe Stephen was trying to make sense of it all. He did a lot of thinking out loud and he didn’t understand the effect that it could have on others.
“He struggled a lot to cope with emotions. He felt them very clearly and they influenced his thinking a lot. He wasn’t able to self-regulate.”
Mrs McCann described Stephen as having the emotional development of a teenager with the understanding of a much younger child.
Julie Price from the CAMHS team said Stephen was initially “overwhelmed and distrustful of professionals” but she saw a noted improvement by November.
“He was happy in his new school,” she said. “He was learning to play the guitar and was quite jovial. It was nice to see that change in behaviour.
“He was a very articulate young man. He had felt like his voice wasn’t being heard before.”
Ms Price said Stephen was “very vocal” that he would not cause himself or others any harm.
“There were no concerns around suicide,” she said. “When I asked him if he had a plan to end his life he would say no. There was no suicide intent.”
Ms Price said Stephen used this particular language as a way of vocalising his distress rather than as a realistic plan.
“He felt he didn’t fit in and he wanted to fit in,” she said. “He was a little bit lost I think.
“At times I didn’t feel like Stephen felt supported. I was trying to be his voice. I felt very much like it was lost.”
Consultant psychiatrist Dr Olajide Ajetunmobi said he could tell “very quickly” that Stephen was not a “psychopathic young man looking to attack people.”
“The issue with autism is that they do not have the internal resources to cope with the frustration,” he said.
“They get very frustrated easily and it remains at that level for much longer than a child without autism.”
Dr Ajetunmobi prescribed Stephen with a low dose of Sertraline, an anti-depressant commonly used to reduce levels of agitation in autistic children.
“I didn’t find any evidence of suicidal intent,” he added. “My impression of Stephen wasn’t so much of an impulsive child but one that got intensely agitated and angry about situations.
“Stephen was an intelligent young man and had a good mental understanding. Emotionally though he was a few years younger.”
Educational psychologist Liz Eddington said Stephen told her he felt “very stressed” thinking about school.
“He made it very clear to me that he found school very stressful,” she said.
However, later in the year and following the medical intervention, Stephen began looking more positively at life, his father said.
He appeared to have settled at his new school and had talked to his sister Helen about the future and choosing a career path.
Despite this, as the new term approached in January Stephen became increasingly agitated again.
His body was found after Andrew and his wife Caroline reported him missing to police on January 4, the day before his new school term began.
Returning his narrative conclusion, Mr Taylor said he didn’t believe Stephen’s family could have done any more for him.
“The evidence indicates that you were trying to do the very best for your son during very difficult times,” he told Stephen’s parents.
“The heathcare professionals agreed that he was emotionally immature but had never had any suicidal intent.
“I cannot possibly in my opinion return a conclusion of suicide.
“Stephen died due to self-inflicted suspension with a rope but I cannot reach a conclusion about his intentions beyond reasonable doubt.”
After the inquest, Stephen’s family said in a statement: “We are all very grateful for the support we have received from the authorities, family, friends and the community of Calder Vale following the tragic loss of Stephen.
“He is always in our thoughts.”