London, United Kingdom – In the north London neighbourhood of Finsbury Park, a four-storey terraced, brick house sits on a quiet street around the corner from a row of bridal shops.
Inside, it is calm and tidy, with cacti and jade plants dotting the windowsills. The pastel walls are lined with drawings of rainbows, animals and other works by residents.
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Call buttons next to the beds are the only sign that the Maytree house is the United Kingdom’s only residential respite centre for people who are considering taking their own lives.
“It’s a haven, a break from their lives where they can talk,” explained John Mason, a coordinator at Maytree where people feeling suicidal can stay for four days, get counselling, eat healthy meals and try to find hope.
The house has been open for 19 years and no one has died on their watch.
“The ultimate aim is to prevent loss of life, said Sadia Ahmad, Maytree’s outreach officer.
“In Britain, we have a stiff upper lip. We don’t always find it so easy to talk about how we are feeling,” Ahmad said.
“It makes us think about death. It makes us think about hopelessness, despair and bad endings … But in spaces like this, because we are very open about it, the more open you can be about it, the less scary it is to talk about and the more likely people are to seek help and the less likely they are to take suicidal action act and act on their thoughts.”
Every year nearly 800,000 people globally take their own lives; the annual figure for the UK is 6,000.
Those numbers were predicted to spike during the coronavirus pandemic. Charities reported record numbers of calls, increased anxiety, loneliness and fear.
But early statistics show that in a number of countries, including the UK, that is not the case.
Social scientists warn the numbers could change, particularly if the pandemic is followed by any economic downturn.
But mental health experts say increased protections like a greater sense of community – we all faced the same pandemic; plus family, friends and neighbours were more alert to warning signs, checking in to keep people safe.
And while Britain’s National Health Service has been overwhelmed by mental-health needs, charities have stepped in.
Jake Mills, 32, founded Chasing the Stigma after he tried to take his own life in 2013.
In the charity’s offices in Liverpool, Rachel Coogan trains Ambassadors of Hope so they can go out into the community and teach people how to talk about mental illness and spot signs of suicide.
Coogan takes a short break from the 30-minute session after a particularly chilling slide: “Eighty-four men a week (or 12 per day; one every two hours) die by suicide in the UK. Suicide is the single biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK.”
“We aren’t the experts but we know where the experts are. Because we are just like regular people who have experience of mental health issues we are much more approachable,” explained Coogan, whose husband has suffered from depression.
Mills has also launched the Hub of Hope, an app to find mental health services by neighbourhood. It has been hugely successful: More than 50,000 people have downloaded the app which lists 3,500 services working on suicide reduction and mental health.
“We realised quite quickly just how many people were … creating charities, through their own lived experience, through their experience of them or their loved ones from a place of pain or suffering or loss and who were saying ‘well, let’s try and fill that gap’,” Mills explained.
The lack of an increase in suicides during the pandemic is welcome but those working in suicide prevention emphasise there is much more work to be done.
“It’s encouraging that things haven’t spiked as people possibly predicted but there are still a lot of people who are struggling and still a lot of people who are ending their own lives and that’s something that we can never celebrate,” Mills said.
If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, these organisations may be able to help.
Also, in the UK and Irish Republic, contact Samaritans on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For those bereaved by suicide in the UK, contact Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide.
In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14.
Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org