MHAW 2024: Hearing the voice behind the story

Posted by Devon Partnership Trust in News on 1st May, 2024

This Mental Health Awareness Week 2024, Catherine Courtney, Senior Training Coordinator, shares the voices of those affected by suicide, shedding light on the power of storytelling and highlighting the transformative power of human connection in healing and recovery. Through tales from individuals like Samantics, Jonny Benjamin, and Philip Pirie, Catherine reveals the profound impact of acknowledging life's simple joys during difficult times.

Catherine Courtney headshotHearing the voice behind the story – by Catherine Courtney:

Stronger by Sharing is an online community that encourages the sharing of stories and how, in the telling, we can inspire others, gain hope for ourselves and allow ourselves to see a different future. In preparation for this piece, I received a lot of support from a range of people, and I am just the author who put their stories into written words.

“Got to focus on the little things in life to get by,

When it gets too much they’re all you’ve got,

To remind you why you love life”

These are the opening lyrics to one of Sam’s songs called ‘The Little Things’, where he begins to think about how it’s the little things that can help us through tough times. Sam, who has depression and dark thoughts, is a survivor and now a performance poet called Samantics. He tells me these can come from himself: paying attention to the flavour of a cup of tea, appreciating a video of his son, Sulli, blossoms on the trees and the feeling of sun on his face. Sam also tries to make his bed every morning so that even if that is his only achievement of the day, he has a made bed to get into at the end of the day. Sam also told me these little things can come from other people: a smile, a kind word or someone picking up something you dropped.

In 'The Little Things in Relationships That Matter the Most' article, they said: “Small acts of kindness as simple as making a cup of tea for one’s partner, were highly valued. Gifts like flowers and chocolates were considered less important.”

Mother Teresa once said: “Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” Desmond Tutu carried on this theme by saying: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

Jonny Benjamin, survivor and a passionate campaigner for suicide prevention, told me that the thing that really sparked his recovery journey was meeting Neil Laybourn on a bridge the day he was planning to end his life. Neil bothered to stop and talk to him, a complete stranger with no experience. Initially, Jonny was angry and tried to rebuff Neil, but he persisted in hearing Jonny’s story and persuaded him down. Jonny was absent without leave (AWOL) at this point from the hospital, but says this was the first time anyone had really tried to hear his story.

Philip Pirie, father of Tom and petitioning for an overhaul of the risk assessment policy nationally, carried on this theme when I spoke to him about his son. Tom took his life the day after having a risk assessment completed that scored him as low risk. The assessment comprised three questions, and Tom said yes to thoughts but no to intent or plans. The assessor didn’t try to explore this any further. Philip says it would have been really hard to admit those feelings, and he feels if it had been explored further there may have been a different outcome. Philip wants everyone to take the time like Neil to get alongside others and really hear their story and take time to ask about suicide, then ask again and ask again. NICE guidance, which should be followed by both the NHS and private sectors, tells us that suicide risk should not be stratified into low, medium or high, and that you should not try and predict suicide risk at all. Remember, you won’t make someone suicidal by asking about it.

My son was kind enough to proofread this for me, and he tells me that when he had a risk assessment done post a suicide attempt, he said what he thought would get him out of hospital quickly, so this does need a thorough exploration.

Joe Haward, Hospital Chaplain Service and twin to his brother who has lived experience, talked to me about his experience with his brother when he became depressed and attempted suicide. He felt impotent in the situation because all he could do at times was to call his brother up and listen to him cry. Since his recovery, his brother has said that the fact Joe reached out and was alongside him made a difference, as well as allowing himself to self-care as the depression robbed him of that.

My colleague, Debbie Love, Senior Training Co-Ordinator in Safe from Suicide and passionate promotor of compassion and self-compassion, told me I would go on a journey in my new role in Safe from Suicide. I feel this is certainly true, but I also believe that each time we meet someone thinking about suicide, we should be prepared to go on a journey with them, starting by really hearing their story and planning the route to recovery together. Everyone is unique, so every journey will be different.

It certainly is the little things that count: a smile, a copy of the Letter of Hope, passing someone tearful a tissue and giving some of our time.

In the words of F Scott Fitzgerald:

“It was only a sunny smile

and it cost little in the giving,

But like the morning light,

It shattered the night

and made the day worth living”

As Debbie often tells me, “Desmond Tutu says compassion is putting things into action”, we need to be active in the process of helping people find a way to tell their story to help them reconnect with hope, begin to heal and allow themselves to dream again.

I extend my heartfelt gratitude to the contributors for their time and for the privilege of allowing me to hear and share their stories.