A young woman, who was struggling with intense suicidal feelings, told me recently about a visit she paid to her GP following an incident where she had taken an overdose. The doctor's suggestion was that the next time she felt suicidal she might try going out for a pizza to cheer herself up.
Now, I appreciate that such a response is not typical of how the medical profession engages with suicidal people. But the story exemplifies how challenging and even overwhelming it can be when somebody reveals that they want to take their own lives. Even if you're a 'professional', there is something deeply disturbing and disorientating about such a disclosure. It's perhaps no wonder that, more frequently than you might imagine, trite responses are all that spring to mind.
I am convinced that it's the fact that suicide is so highly stigmatised that underlies the unhelpful response that suicidal individuals often evoke from others. After centuries of being branded as sinful, the shame and guilt attached to suicidal thoughts, feelings and actions have a powerful persistence. More than 50 years after suicide ceased to be illegal in the UK we continue describing those who take their own lives as having 'committed' suicide, as if it were still a criminal act.
It's little wonder therefore that those who fall victim to this distressing and life threatening mental health issue tend to keep their darkest thoughts and feelings to themselves. Nine out of 10 of the 6,000 people who die by suicide in the UK every year have had not sought help from mental health services. And research at the University of Exeter has demonstrated that most people in suicidal crisis ... and the friends and family members around them ... are rarely able to acknowledge let alone address the issue openly. For too many, suicidal feelings are a 'dirty secret' that they take with them to the grave. This explains why, following the death by suicide of a celebrity, the media is so often full of quotes by those who knew them expressing shock and surprise. The torment of such individuals remained hidden to the end.
For more than a decade now, a small charity called Maytree has been pioneering a unique non-medical approach to challenging the deadly silence over suicide. The organisation runs the UK's only residential respite centre that specialises in offering support and understanding to people in suicidal crisis. It's a place where people can have a short break from the pressures of their everyday situation and find some respite from the exhaustion that so often accompanies intense suicidal feelings.
But Maytree is much more than a place to rest. The heart of the service it offers is called 'befriending'; guests are offered a round-the-clock opportunity to share their pain and distress with a team of staff and trained volunteers who they know will not judge them or anything they say. In a safe and confidential space, these most vulnerable of people are able to explore and reflect on their suicidal thoughts and feelings knowing that they will be heard with warmth, empathy and respect.
Maytree does not pretend to have a cure or quick fix for suicidal feelings. But many guests find that the hours that are devoted to hearing them, the conversations shared and the connections made within its calm and supportive environment, has a powerful therapeutic effect. Most guests feel less suicidal after staying at Maytree, and research suggests that this positive effect is maintained over time. What's more, for a significant proportion of guests their stay has an impact researchers describe as 'transformative'.
For the past couple of years it has been my privilege to work at Maytree as a volunteer befriender. I say privilege because our guests frequently share their most difficult thoughts and feelings with us. It takes a lot of courage to do that in a world where almost everyone works so damn hard to conceal their vulnerability. Yet it's this honesty and courage that opens the door to befriending, a process in which emotional burdens are shared and greater insight emerges. It can be often be a first step to discovering new hope and reconnecting with life.
Maytree makes no charge for its services. But raising funds to continue and develop its work is a real struggle. I suspect that Maytree is not an easy 'sell' because the negative connotations and stigma attached to suicide make it challenging for many donors and funders. Nonetheless, it would be a tragedy if the vital lifeline it represents was lost because allowing suicide to be shrouded by secrecy makes the rets of us more comfortable.
More information about Maytree is available by visiting maytree.org.uk