Suicide or Survive: there is light at the end of the tunnel
‘SOS is leading the way through active collaboration which we believe will drive positive social change’
Caroline McGuigan, of Suicide or Survive (SOS), at the annual forum of the HSE’s National Office for Suicide Prevention, in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Mental health problems may not be visible to the naked eye, but more than 450,000 people are living with depression in Ireland and 45,000 with bipolar disorder.
Caroline McGuigan is very aware of how important good mental health is, as during her 20s, she reached a very low point in her life and began to think that life was not living.
“I have always been a perfectionist and worried so much about what people thought of me,” she admits. “I began to feel increasingly depressed and anxious and my thoughts became more and more negative so I knew I needed help.
“I went to the doctor, who wanted to prescribe me with medication, and although I resisted at first, I decided take them as I felt like this was the only thing that would fix me. So being, as I thought, broken, I agreed to the 16 tablets I was told to take each day as I wanted the negative thoughts to go away.
“I wasn’t offered any sort of talk therapy, but it was suggested that I went for psychiatric treatment. I declined initially as I thought I could cope on my own.”
However, as the years went by, Caroline did agree to psychiatric day care (for eight years in total). Her condition, though, didn’t improve and she sank lower and lower into despair – until she finally attempted to take her own life.
“As time went on and the negativity stayed with me, I became more and more fatigued with life,” she admits. “When I first thought of death I got such a fright that my mind would even suggest such a thing, but unfortunately it didn’t frighten me enough, as I began to think about it more frequently and eventually attempted suicide.
I knew I needed a different kind of help and decided to do some research of my own
“I was found quickly and taken to hospital where I did actually die – but doctors managed to bring me back. Initially, I was not happy to be here, as I was still in a very dark place. But I knew I needed a different kind of help and decided to do some research of my own to try and find some way of fixing myself.”
The Dublin woman, who is married to John and has two teenage children, says she felt very alone during the early years of her depression, but since taking the decision to learn more about the condition, has realised that one of the most important methods for dealing with any sort of mental health issues is communication.
“So many people go through depression but at the time I felt like I was going crazy,” she says. “Everyone has mad thoughts and dips in their mood, but no one told me that these symptoms were commonplace.
“I was only offered medication and it was only when I began to look into other treatments that I discovered firstly that I was not alone and secondly that talking was the way forward. I also realised how personal responsibility was vital, as was the right support. And one of the most important steps for my recovery was anger as it energised me.
“I was angry and frustrated at the system, the meds and the lack of services and also the feeling of helplessness and not being heard. But when I started having talk therapy, I began to open up and really understand what was happening to me and how to deal with it.
“For the first time I realised that lots of people have thoughts that are negative or even suicidal, but the most important thing is to learn how to not put those thoughts into action – instead to understand that they will pass.”
Encouraged by her findings, Caroline – who used to work for Amnesty International – decided to set up a support group for other people suffering with depression.
“I understand what it feels like to want to kill the despair that is growing inside of you, but the danger with these feelings is that if they are not dealt with properly, they can end up killing you,” she says. “I know from bitter experience how important talk therapy is to people who are suffering like this and after coming out of depression myself, I trained to be a therapist, as I wanted to be able to reassure people that these negative thoughts will pass and there is light at the end of the tunnel – and so Suicide or Survive (SOS) was developed.”
Founded at Caroline’s kitchen table, the charity is focused on breaking down the stigma associated with mental health issues and ensuring that those affected have access to the best recovery services possible.
“We are working to build a society where people embrace their mental health wellness and those with difficulties are treated with dignity and respect,” says Caroline (51). “We want them to experience a service which offers hope and a positive future. SOS is leading the way through active collaboration which we believe will drive positive social change.”
Her years of suffering now firmly behind her, the mother of two is keen to help others reach the same level of positivity and through the charity, she and her colleagues offer a number of therapies including WRAP (Wellness recovery action plan), Wellness workshop, Supporters Programme and The Eden Programme, which provides a safe place for people who have had suicidal thoughts and a weekly support group to help people ‘develop tools to manage their own wellness’.
We are very professional, very heartfelt, very informed and all have experience
“The Eden Programme is led by a group of like-minded people who have been there and understand what it feels like to be rock bottom,” says Caroline. “So the programme is driven by experience – we listen, learn and then help people to implement change.
“We are very professional, very heartfelt, very informed and all have experience so it allows us to really understand what people are going through and be the best placed to help them to step into every day.”
As well as talk therapy, Caroline also credits a number of other lifestyle changes with helping her to keep on top of her world.
“I love meditation and do at least 20 minutes, twice a day – it keeps me sane,” she laughs. “I also eat lots of protein, as it gives me the energy I need to get through the day. And I also do a lot of talking about walking, but don’t really get enough of it, so I am working on that one.
“But I’ve come to realise that I have to be mindful of my expectations and cut myself a bit of slack. If you have an issue with mental health, it’s not going to disappear overnight, instead it needs to be tackled in small steps – so, for example, if 100 the best place to be and you are currently at 20, you need to set a realistic goal of something like 22, which could be achieved by simply meeting someone for a coffee – then take it from there, moving upwards, one step at a time.
“Mental health is messy – we all need to realise that and most importantly to understand that it’s okay – everyone is here for a reason and each one of us need to remind ourselves that the world wouldn’t be the same without us.”