It’s Book Week Scotland, and new Scottish author Kevin McAllion profiles a charity tackling an issue at the heart of his first novel, Moristoun
In the time it takes you to blink, three people will have attempted suicide somewhere in the world. By the time 40 seconds have elapsed, one of them will have succeeded.
It’s a quite staggering statistic but one that perfectly illustrates the scale of a problem that has blighted humanity for centuries.
Even when you limit the figures to Scotland, it still seems incredible that two people every day find themselves so consumed by darkness and despair that they see no option but to take their own lives.
The figure might be far lower, though, if there were more places like Chris’s House around the country. TheScottish charity, which offers support for those feeling suicidal and people who have been affected by suicide, was founded by Anne Rowan (below) last year.
Anne lost her son, Christopher (above), to suicide in 2011 and after two years of deep grief she set out to stop others from suffering the same fate. Aided by a dedicated team of volunteers, she has already made a huge difference to so many lives.
Anne invited me down to Chris’s House after reading about my novel, Moristoun, which speculates about the afterlife for Scottish suicide victims. In Moristoun, the lead character Buchan acts as a guardian angel of sorts and is handed the task of stopping Scots from pushing ahead with suicide. Anne and her team are the real-life manifestation of this and it’s no exaggeration to say their work is truly life-saving.
That much becomes clear as I sit down to talk with one of the many guests who have stepped through the doors of their base in Airdrie. “I would say that Chris’s House has helped me to stay alive over the last couple of months,” the woman tells me.
“Places like this are absolutely crucial. Mental health services are stretched beyond their capacity just now and realistically you will wait between 4-16 weeks to see a health professional you really need to see whenever you are in a place of great despair and contemplating suicide. When you are in that place you don’t have that time, you really don’t. So places like this are so important.”
The motto of Chris’s House is ‘Let’s talk’ and such a simple concept can often be the first step towards finding a solution to such a complex problem.
“It really is somebody’s hope in their darkest day, the fact they can call here and instantly get to speak to somebody,” says the guest. “There’s no referral process. You can walk through the door, you can pick up the phone, you can message on Facebook and there’s always someone there you can speak to immediately. And it’s somebody who doesn’t treat you as a patient, people here are treated as guests and treated with the utmost dignity and respect.”
That’s down to Anne and her volunteers who devote their time, free of charge, towards stopping suicide from impacting on so many families. Anne, who was named North Lanarkshire Volunteer of the Year for 2016, modestly describes herself as “just a mammy” and from the moment people contact Chris’s House they’re made to feel as if they are joining a family.
There’s a genuine sense of warmth from the moment you enter Chris’s House and the first thing that welcomes you is a hug, a small but significant gesture for those who feel they are fighting their demons alone. Guests can then unburden all their worries while they talk with the volunteers, while the use of relaxation therapies such as reiki further helps to ease their anxieties. “People always drop down and relax when they are here,” Anne says. “There are no judgments here or labels, no religion or anything. It’s just love.
“People phone us up and say: ‘I want to die.’ We’ve got about a 1% window to get in there and turn that around. It can be draining but it’s nothing to what I’ve come through after Christopher’s death. There’s nothing that can touch me now.
“My work here has helped me and the other volunteers will say the same. I’ve been in tears here, tears of frustration, tears at seeing somebody so broken, but I tell you what, see watching people get better…”
It’s a sentiment echoed by volunteer Patricia Spencer, a retired mental health nurse who works at Chris’s House once a week.
She says: “It makes me feel fantastic when people say we have saved their lives. That’s what it’s all about. From the outset you let them know you are there for them, that you want to be there to help them negotiate their way out of that dark place.
“So many people who come here have been affected by suicide. It’s a ripple effect. It includes those who knew the person who died very well. They end up with that guilt and it’s also a traumatic event. It impacts on people.”
It certainly impacted on the second guest I spoke to, who visited Chris’s House after struggling to come to terms with his brother’s suicide.
“When people die by suicide it’s so sudden,” he says. “You try to put it into perspective and wonder, ‘Would it be any different if my brother was killed in an accident?’ But I don’t think it would. It’s a very hard thing to understand and come to terms with. It’s terrible.
“You get there though and I’m glad this wee place exists. Here, you are all that matters. It’s all about the person who comes through that door. It’s very personal. They are interested in how you are and how you are coping. You don’t get that in some of the big organisations. If there was one in every town in Scotland then it would make a massive difference.”
That’s Anne’s ultimate aim, but finding the funds just to keep Chris’s House in operation is a massive challenge in itself. With little financial help from local and national government, they are forced to rely on their own fundraising and the generosity of benefactors.
The Darkness Into Light charity walks are a major source of revenue, working in tandem with the Irish suicide prevention charity Pieta, who held their first walk in Dublin back in 2009.
Anne and her team successfully brought the event to Glasgow in 2015 and these symbolic walks, where those affected by suicide tread the streets together during sunrise, look set to become an annual event, along with the Chris’s House charity ball, which was held for the first time in September.
“We didn’t know what we were doing in the first year, but what a success the walk was,” says Anne. “It was so cathartic and brought everyone together. Everyone said: ‘Look at the amount of people here.’ Nobody felt alone, everyone was talking to each other going round.”
I took part in this year’s walk and that sense of community shone through. Suicide affects so many people and it has touched me personally, with both a friend and member of my extended family taking their own lives in the past five years. But nobody needs to face it alone.
“It’s important we get the word out about places like this because so many people don’t know about it,” says the guest who credits Chris’s House with saving her life. “You can be in a desperately dark, hopeless and despairing place but there are people who truly care and will help. So reach out and ask for it.”
Kevin McAllion has waived any fee for this article. To buy his book, go here