From teaching suicide prevention to being on suicide watch

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A suicide prevention tutor who experienced suicidal thoughts himself was inspired to set up a website to help others in the same position.

James Withey created 'Recovery Letters' from those who have been ill before, aimed at helping others in the depths of depression.

In 2011 he was working for an addiction charity in Glasgow teaching social care workers about suicide prevention, in particular how to spot and provide immediate help to people feeling suicidal that they might meet in their working day.

But in November that year he fell very ill with depression.

James suddenly found himself calling on the services of the suicidal crisis centre he had been teaching his clients about only months earlier.

"I used to say to people this is something that can happen to us all but saying that and it happening to you is a very different thing," he says.

His depression was made worse by a series of very stressful events. The main one was a false accusation from a student he had been teaching which, he says, "finally broke me completely."

That was the trigger for him to attempt suicide. James says "I went from teaching suicide prevention to ultimately being on suicide watch, which was just extraordinary."

No 'soft option'

James' source of help was The Maytree, a charity-run suicide respite centre in North London. Maytree offers a free, one-off, four-day stay to people, who are feeling suicidal. The idea is that people are given the opportunity to be heard in confidence, without judgement but with compassion and warmth.

He says: "It's like no other care I've had before for my mental health problems. The taboo there is gone. It's so hard to talk to people that love you about suicide and wanting to kill yourself."

And his stay at Maytree changed his life. "One night I felt very suicidal and wanted to leave; a volunteer sat with me for hours, sometimes we talked sometimes we didn't but he saved my life that night.

Recovery Letters

Lisa's letter says : "From my experience of the Big-D the special things that make you who you are will come back. It is just that the strength, patience and hope you need to wait for them to come back is exactly what depression takes away from you. So right now everything may feel impossible. I truly know that feeling."

In another, Paul says; "The future is brighter than it looks. How do I know this? Well, I have the luxury of writing this from nearly three years into your future. Trust me, it's a better place."

BBC Broadcaster Iain Lee has also submitted a letter to the site. It says: " I'm doing this to show that you're not alone. Although, I bet you feel very much like you are, whatever anyone says."

"The stay was not a break from my thoughts, they were still there, it wasn't an opportunity to forget them; it was by no means a 'soft option'.

"It was a chance to tackle the causes of them, which the NHS crisis team that I was with weren't able to provide. This was hard and distressing but ultimately I gained insight into the causes of my depression and crucially a way to go on living."

Maytree opened its doors in 2002 after Paddy Bazeley, then a consultant director for the Samaritans, and businessman and psychotherapist Michael Knight, realised there was a gap in services for people who were feeling suicidal.

They wanted to provide a sanctuary, in a non-medical setting, where people could be befriended by volunteers, where they could talk about their suicidal thoughts, be listened to and offered non-judgemental interest and care.

Ten years after its founding, researchers from the University of East London and the Tavistock clinic found that a majority of guests felt less suicidal during their stay and still felt that way months afterwards, with a significant number of people describing their Maytree experience as "transformational".

Paul Farmer, chief executive of the mental health charity, Mind, says: "Crisis houses like Maytree provide alternatives and - crucially - offer someone in crisis a choice and some control over how and where they are treated.

"It proves that good crisis care does exist and the difference it can make to people's lives and recovery."

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Image caption James Withey experienced feelings he had been training others to deal with

It was while recovering at Maytree that James had the idea to create what he's now called the Recovery Letters.

"During my depression. I was guided to read lots of books about depression but they were huge, tombstone size books and I was so unwell I could barely pick up a book.

"What I needed was something small and personal and that told me I could recover. I needed to know it was possible and I realised that what I wanted, I needed to create."

'Bank of hope'

The letters are written by people recovering, or who have recovered from depression and written to people who may be feeling at their worst.

They are very personal letters with real examples of the lows felt by the writer, but include the reassurance that they got better, and so the reader could too.

The idea, says James, is they "try and alleviate some of the pain of depression, to make the loneliness slightly more bearable and above all to give hope that you can recover."

James is always looking for more letters. He says "New letters are really positive. A lot of people use the website on a really regular basis so new letters adds to their bank of hope."

The site has nearly 50 000 hits a year, and James regularly gets both new letters and messages from people who have said how much the site has helped them.

Paul Farmer of Mind said: "Sharing experiences of living with mental health problems can be incredibly empowering.

"As well as breaking down the stigma that surrounds mental ill health, it can help others to feel they aren't alone and can encourage people to speak up and seek help themselves."

James nominated Maytree for the BBC Radio 4 All in the Mind Awards, and it was one of the shortlisted entries in 2014. The awards for 2016 are now open. If you would like to nominate an individual, professional or group who has gone above and beyond to help you with your mental health problems you can find out how to enter them for the 2016 awards here.

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