I’ve been volunteering at the suicide respite charity Maytree since April 2015. Maytree offers a non-clinical space for guests to stay four nights and five days, with time generously donated by over 100 volunteers. A large house in north London, they provide befriending support for those affected by emotional crises and those feeling suicidal. Fundraising and donations to Maytree enable them to continue to support those in need by providing email, telephone and one-to-one befriending in the comfortable and welcoming Maytree house.
I came across the unique organisation on a mental health podcast. After a blip in my own mental health in 2014 got in touch with them. The response I received was so warm and supportive that it reminded me to turn to my existing support network and let people know that I was struggling. Slowly I started to feel better.
Later on I saw an advertisement for the charity on the underground and it reminded me of how positive the experience had been to feel heard and not judged. It also took me back to my first hospitalisation in 2004 when I was living in Brighton as a student.
When I began to think about volunteering at Maytree there were two things that told me it was the right place for me. Its emphasis on listening instead of rescuing people and its non-clinical environment (it’s a large normal and cosy house). I’ve met some incredible guests and volunteers and have shared such deeply moving stories and experiences with both alike. Meeting and talking to so many people experiencing diverse difficulties often highlights how non-discriminatory mental health issues can be. We are all affected by our upbringing, our relationships, work etc, at any time and we all need and deserve support when things have become that bad. Please donate towards my run to support Maytree’s mission to save lives.
Learning to listen, resisting rescuing
After a series of difficult events in 2004 I found myself in chaotic and dire circumstances, then subsequently in a short term stay at a psychiatric hospital after my first suicide attempt. As I first looked around the unit I was filled with fear. I hid in my room, slept underneath my bed and in the bathroom and couldn’t see how this stay would help me get through things. Whilst I talked to other patients and wrote in my diary, I didn’t feel that I was being listened to, but rather spoken at by any of the professionals there.
Then one evening a mental health nurse came into my room after my partner at the time had just left. I was feeling lonely, confused and frustrated. As he sat at the end of my bed and began to ask me about what I was thinking and feeling it was the first time that someone had asked me questions with the space to answer, instead of telling me how to feel or what to do. He let me talk freely, helping me to unravel the jumbled thoughts in my mind, until things became clearer for myself and on my own terms. As he said goodnight I felt overwhelmed by kindness and burst into tears. I slept well that night and felt a little lighter. This experience has stayed with me and reminds me of the importance of listening to how others describe their difficulties, instead of prescribing them solutions. Giving constant solutions may make us feel better about ourselves, but it can often leave others feeling disempowered.
People often ask if I have any shame or embarrassment around my mental health difficulties. The short answer is: no. In the past I felt confused about what the difficulties were but not shame. Now I feel comfortable being open and honest about my experiences. As a mixed race gay man raised in a homophobic and racist area of Essex I was taught by my parents not to be ashamed of who I was and I was supported in the decisions I made. At the onset of my difficulties I was also listened to and never had to cover up what was happening.
Living with a mental health condition is no walk in the park but it can lead to immensely enriching moments. Without the difficult experiences I’ve had I wouldn’t be able to work with people affected by traumatic hair loss, design & deliver community arts workshops for emotional wellbeing or use my insight for my recent Inside commission for FORMAT 2017.
In my continued effort to be well and give back to others I’m running the Royal Parks half marathon for Maytree on October 9th. Please do donate to this incredible and unique charity that provides respite and support to thousands of people experiencing suicidal feelings.