‘I didn’t want to die but I wanted to shut down this awful terrifying place I was in'
Caroline McGuigan's personal journey led her to her job as chief executive of Suicide or Survive
Caroline McGuigan, founder and chief executive of Suicide or Survive: ‘We remind people that recovery isn’t an end position. It’s about learning as you go along how to manage your mental health and understand that it’s messy at times.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne
My story happens to be central to the story of Suicide or Survive (SOS), the charity I set up in 2003 to break down the stigma of mental health and suicide.
I was working as a legal secretary in London when – without realising it – my mental health began to take a dip. When I came back to Dublin, I remember standing in front of a man and thinking I needed to get out of there. I felt something horrendous was going to happen. I can say now that it was a panic attack. It got progressively worse.
I didn’t tell people because I was worried they would think I was mad. I wasn’t feeling right and I didn’t have the words to describe it. When I told my husband, he said I needed to go to a doctor.
I ended up going to a psychiatric hospital for a number of years as a day patient. I started taking medication. I had to pull back from work and I got into a space that was very dark.
I had thoughts of suicide, which frightened me at first. But, after a while, the fear lessened. I didn’t want to die but I wanted to shut down this awful terrifying place I was in. I felt I was a burden on people and I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt. I remember the night I attempted suicide.
The hospital had to get my heart going. I died and was brought back. This was never my intention in life but that’s what happened.
After that, for the first time, I was offered talk therapy. It worked for me – questioning what the triggers were for my depression and suicide attempt. I needed the support but I felt that there were no experts.
I was the expert. I wondered why I was given 16 tablets a day without any choice of treatment. I was angry but alive.
I started to study the medical model and the pharmaceutical industry and it frightened me more. I realised I had gone through the system but that nobody had listened to me.Why was that?
Naively, I went to a psychiatrist and suggested we could work together. I learned quickly, however, that the system was going to shut me out.
So I studied therapy at Trinity College Dublin and became a therapist. After that, the Eden Programme was started.
I co-facilitate it with two therapists. It’s a six-month programme for people who have attempted suicide or are suicidal. We ask people whether it’s possible for them to look at the idea of living rather than dying.
The programme has been evaluated by Dublin City University. It is now expanding to Mayo and Galway.
Over the years, Suicide or Survive (SOS) was built up. It’s different to other approaches because we support and encourage people to save their own lives. That’s really significant. We make sure the service user’s voice is heard and we take on board what they say. I share my story in a constructive way.
SOS is unique in that it was initiated and continues to be informed and led by experts with lived experience and upholds a recovery ethos – fitting with best practice in mental health policy.
We all have to work together for the greater good. Every one of us has something we can bring to the pot and it’s important that nobody is disempowered.
There are five of us in full-time positions in SOS. Every time we run the 26-week Eden Programme, we employ therapists and psychologists on contract. We have a programme manager and an administrative team. I’ve got to keep myself on the ground, otherwise I’d be sitting in a big ivory tower.
We have ideas about chief executives but I’m hands on, in an appropriate way. I try to be a mirror to my team, to show them what a good working environment looks like and to show what self-care in relation to your work looks like.
In the programme, we remind people that recovery isn’t an end position. It’s about learning as you go along how to manage your mental health and understand that it’s messy at times. It’s going to take a number of generations to change things.
We go to Wheatfield Prison at least once a month where we deliver wellness workshops. We also deliver a Wellness Recovery Action Plan in the prison and mentor a number of the men there.
Our ethos is that the student should surpass the teacher so, in time, the men become facilitators. At the workshops, we look at how anxiety, depression and, for some, suicide attempts can come into our lives.
We look at how we managed all this in the past and how we might manage it in the future. We look at our thoughts and how powerful they can be.
We also work in the corporate sector and in the community. The big thing for us is collaboration and partnership. We collaborate with the HSE and the National Office for Suicide Prevention.
We’re one spoke on the wheel. What’s really important to understand is that there isn’t one “right” way to treat people. We’re all individuals.
The stigma of mental health is very much alive. But I believe we’re on the road to getting rid of it.
When every door was closed to me, Social Entrepreneurs Ireland and the Iris O’Brien Foundation (established by businessman Denis O’Brien) opened their doors to me. They believed in me.
Through the foundation, over the years, I have been mentored. I learned about the business element, and the foundation helped me to run and manage the organisation. I’m extremely blessed with our fundraisers.
I was in the most awful place, but if you survive that, you can survive anything.
I guess I’m a hard worker. I’m passionate about what I do. I used to work 24/7 but that doesn’t turn out well. You crash and burn, you get low in yourself. There has to be a life outside work.
I’m trying to manage my work better. I meditate for 20 minutes morning and night. The practice I use is transcendental meditation. It helps me to live my life more mindfully.
What’s important in our office (in Shankill) is that we practise mindfulness. Every day, we stop what we’re doing to practise it. And we get out for a cup of coffee. We are very conscious about what we do to look after our mental health.
A lot of organisations say they get someone in to talk to them for half an hour. But that’s not enough. It should be about all of us taking responsibility for our mental health.
I also do Qigong, which is meditative and gets you to move in a way that’s just beautiful. I’ve got everyone in the office doing it. It helps to take away stress.
The Eden Programme was established by Suicide or Survive (SOS) to provide a safe space for people who have attempted suicide or have had suicidal thoughts. It involves weekly group meetings over a six-month period in which up to 10-12 participants per programme examine their own psychological states and are facilitated to develop tools to manage their wellness.
Out of hours
I love films such as ‘Dirty Dancing’ and anything that has a bit of music in it. I also love ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ and ‘Only Fools and Horses’. I love being with my husband on a Friday night having tapas, a gin and tonic and a good old chat. My husband is my soulmate and I feel blessed to have my son Conor (18) and my daughter, Amy (15).
I do hairdressing once a week to keep me sane. It’s for laughter and fun and is something I’ve always wanted to do.