TW: this article contains reference to suicide, alcoholism and suicide attempts.
Will Young captured the nation’s hearts with his smiley persona and sweet voice during the inaugural series of ITV’s Pop Idol. But off stage, he spent 20 years trying to help his brother overcome alcoholism.
His twin, Rupert, had struggled with mental illness for years, with suicide attempts that began from the age of 18. But his drinking began to spiral around 2002, just as Will’s career took off.
In July 2020, the singer received the devastating news that Rupert had taken his own life.
In a new documentary, Will Young: Losing My Twin Rupert, the singer shares what it’s like to be the family member of somebody who’s alcohol dependent – and learns more about the condition that impacted all their lives.
Here are seven things we learned.
Alcoholism and mental illness are intertwined
“I think the important thing to note is that the anxiety and depression that Rupert felt was there before the alcohol,” Will notes early in the programme.
His family are unable to pinpoint where Rupert’s unhappiness began, but Will notes that both brothers faced abusive behaviour by teachers at their boarding school, where smacking with slippers and hiding emotion was considered normal.
On one occasion, Will says a teacher threw Rupert against the library bookshelf by his throat, but at the time they didn’t feel able to complain or tell their parents.
You never know what’s going on at home
The idea that “you never know what’s going on behind closed doors” is so often repeated, it can feel a little tired. But Will’s account of going on stage during the first Pop Idol live show really brings it home.
Rupert was watching in the wings and right before Will went on to sing, the stitches he had on his wrist from a recent suicide attempt burst open. Their mother recalls Rupert holding his bleeding wrist and refusing to go to the ambulance until he’d watched Will perform.
“I just thought: ‘I just have to get on with it,’” Will says.
Access to treatment is dire
In England, it’s estimated that there are around 1.6 million people who are alcohol dependent. And of those that need specialist treatment, just 18% are getting it.
Will admits: “I’ve had over 20 years of dealing with my brother being an alcoholic and I still could not tell you what the policy is within the national health.”
He meets Julia Sinclair, Professor of Addiction Psychiatry within Medicine at the University of Southampton, who tells him “many things in the system are now broken”. For example, she knows of some areas with 18-month waiting lists and says some psychological services won’t even take on the patient until they’re in recovery.
“There are so few places now available,” she says. “I think we have five inpatient units now in the country – that is it. ”
The number of people impacted by alcoholism is actually closer to 8 million
Although an estimated 1.6 million people in England are alcohol dependent, we hear in the programme that for every one person struggling with this addiction, five others are impacted.
So, when you consider the impact on close friends and family, it’s actually more accurate to say 8 million people in England are impacted by alcoholism.
Planning after rehab is vitally important
During the show Will meets Melissa Rice, an author and podcast host who’s been sober for four years.
“Alcohol for me was a solution, until the solution was then the problem,” she explains. “I developed a dependency to it because I couldn’t cope with how I felt about myself.”
Rice takes Will back to the rehab centre where her recovery began and speaks about the difficulty of returning home after a six-week stay.
“Wherever you’re going back to – say for instance you’re going back to your family – they haven’t gone through this process, they haven’t had all of these lessons and they haven’t had the therapy,” she says. “So you can potentially be going back to somewhere that’s quite vulnerable. Planning before you leave is really important.”
There’s huge health inequality surrounding alcoholism
Will talks openly about the amount of money he spent trying to “save” his brother, revealing that at one point he was paying for regular rehab stays that were £50,000 a time.
“I’m very aware that myself and my family, because of our earning capacity, were at least able to give Rupert the chance,” he says. “But I worry about the people who can’t even get that chance.”
Of course, access to the best healthcare sometimes is not enough. During the show, Will visits a rehab centre and after meeting staff, regrets never trying that particular one for his brother.
“Rupert did go to good rehabs, so I think there’s a sadness that it just didn’t work,” he says.
Families face impossible decisions
Will’s brother moved in with him in 2016 and the singer quickly became his carer, having to clean and feed him, and deal with sick and urine mess around the house on a daily basis. When this became too much to bear – and Will worried he was “enabling” his brother’s behaviour – he asked him to leave. In July 2020, two police officers arrived at his door to tell him Rupert had taken his own life.
During the show, he meets other family members who’ve made impossible decisions, including Natalie Needham, the founder of the ‘Stitch Away the Stigma’ art project, who called the police to get her drunk father removed from her grandmother’s house, affectively making him homeless.
“I did that, and now I’ve got to live with that,” she says. “But it was the right thing. It’s taken me a long time to get there, but it was the right thing to do…”
Throughout the programme, Will comes back to the idea that he did everything he could for his brother, but it still doesn’t feel like enough.
“It bought a whole load of grief,” he says, “the fact that I couldn’t save him.”
Will Young: Losing My Twin Rupert is on Channel 4 at 10.05pm, then available on All4.
Help and support:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).
- CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0808 801 0525 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on rethink.org.