Eight years ago Sarah* walked through the front doors of Maytree – the UK’s first “sanctuary for the suicidal”.
She spent four nights and five days talking through her darkest thoughts with the volunteers, at a time when she couldn’t see the point of living any more.
That short stay turned her life around.
After leaving the house she met the love of her life, moved to New York and got a new job. She has recently given birth to her first child.
Maytree director Natalie Howarth says, with tears in her eyes: “I think to go on to bring life into the world when a few years ago you were thinking of ending your own life is pretty powerful.”
From the outside, Maytree is just an ordinary house on an ordinary north London street. In fact, when I arrived I walked right past it. But as I hear Howarth recount more stories like Sarah’s, I soon learn the people in this unassuming building are doing extraordinary things.
Since it opened its doors to men and women on the brink of suicide 14 years ago, Maytree has welcomed more than 1,300 guests. Since then, as far as Howarth knows, only seven past visitors have gone on to take their own lives.
“While they’re here, guests are provided with the space to rest, reflect and talk freely about those difficult feelings and emotions that they’re sat with,” she explains as we’re sat in one of the house’s living rooms.
“We don’t advise people and we don’t try and ‘fix’ things, so people often ask me ‘well what the hell do you do?’
“We do what I think is quite difficult for one human being to give to another and that is to sit with an individual who really is in a dark place, not judge them, and to show empathy and care.”
The house has been a temporary home for people from all walks of life, including probation officers, teachers, doctors and the unemployed. Anyone having suicidal thoughts can contact the Maytree team by telephone or email and arrange to come in for an initial meeting. After that, they’ll be invited for a one-off stay of five days. There is no charge for guests.
“People always say ‘what does somebody who is suicidal look like?’ and I say ‘you, me, your neighbour, your friend.’ Suicide affects everybody,” Howarth says.
Howarth became director of Maytree in 2011 after years of working in the voluntary sector, but the concept was the brainchild of Paddy Bazeley and Michael Knight, who she describes as “two brave rebels” who previously worked with the Samaritans.
The pair recognised the need for something to fill the void between telephone helplines and hospital admission for people having suicidal thoughts, and when the Samaritans said they were unable to open a safe house, the pair decided to create one of their own.
Maytree is a far cry from a clinical hospital ward. Aside from the sense of peace and calm, there’s the familiar sound of a washing machine whirring away in the background. Fluffy towels sit on crisp white bedsheets in each of the four guest bedrooms and a small, yet tranquil garden is situated at the back of the house.
“We have alarm buttons in every room so if a guest is really struggling at night time, whether they’re having flashbacks, not being able to sleep or are feeling particularly vulnerable, they can just press the alarm button and one of the volunteers that’s on duty can just come down and check on how they’re doing,” Howarth explains.
“If need be, the volunteer will sit with them in the kitchen, make a cup of tea and stay up with them talking until two in the morning – or whatever time they feel safe enough to go back up to bed.”
All scissors, knives and cleaning products are locked away when members of staff aren’t using them and each of the windows is fitted with a lock so it can only open so high.
There’s also no TV, radio or internet allowed, to give the guests the chance to truly reflect without distraction. Entertainment mainly consists of good old fashioned board games and puzzles.
“It was a balance between creating a warm safe homely environment – the less clinical the better – but also having to reduce access to tools and things people could harm themselves with,” Howarth says.
The concept may sound simple but it’s clearly effective. Dr Pooky Knightsmith stayed at Maytee in February 2016 and says she left the house with a renewed sense of hope.
“I was terrified of going but I felt I had no other options,” she says.
“I no longer felt confident about getting from one day to the next safely and I wanted to go somewhere where I could feel safe for a little while and give my family some respite.”
Knightsmith says the break from daily life along with the “unconditional kindness” of staff helped her to see a different choice for herself.
“Nothing was expected of me so the guilt of not being the wife, mother, friend or employee that I felt I should be able to be was relieved for a few days,” she says.
“There were so many little things [that helped]. I could bore you for hours, but the key thing was that it wasn’t like I walked in ill and walked out fine.
“I walked in hopeless and I walked out holding on to a little nugget of hope and an understanding that, with a lot of hard work and by allowing myself to be supported, I could find a way forwards.”
One of the most remarkable things about Maytree is that it’s largely staffed by volunteers, who complete an in-depth six-week training course before interacting with the guests. Some have lost loved ones to suicide or previously stayed at the house as guests themselves.
“The fact that many of the volunteers had their own experiences of feeling suicidal and were now managing day to day was hugely inspiring,” Knightsmith says.
“They weren’t perfect, airbrushed role models of amazing lives, they were normal honest people with slightly tedious jobs and houses that needed tidying and a boiler on the blink.
“Normal people who had wanted to die more than they wanted to live and now the balance had tipped. It made me believe that I could tip the balance too.”
The house currently has 103 volunteers who work alongside the nine paid staff, which may sound like a lot, but as Maytree runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, Howarth is always looking for more help.
While there’s no average day at Maytree, volunteers will split their day between completing household chores such as cooking and cleaning, answering phone calls and emails from potential guests and “befriending” current visitors.
Someone who has dedicated hours of time to helping at the house is Dave Bain, who started volunteering when he was training to become a psychotherapist. Five years on, he’s still here.
“To be able to watch somebody go through that change in just five days, it’s humbling and it’s quite a privilege,” he says.
“It can be difficult working here, but that’s the flip-side of it being so rewarding.”
Bain insists that life in the house isn’t all doom and gloom. In fact, conversations with guests are often about something as superficial as the football.
“A lot of the people who come here have been really isolated. They’ve not seen anyone for sometimes for three to four to six months,” he explains.
“You’re just meeting someone at a very human level and acknowledging each other’s humanity, and I think that is something very powerful.”
For Bain and the other volunteers, looking after their own mental health is just as important as helping improve the mental wellbeing of volunteers.
They’ll regularly ask each other how they’re feeling and they work as a team so they can more easily recognise when someone needs a break.
“We’re working very much in the present moment here,” he explains.
“When I walk through that door my own life and everything else is outside and everything becomes very focussed.
“And it’s really important that when you leave at the end of the day you’re not leaving carrying whatever it is that you’ve been listening to.”
It’s clear that volunteers like Bain are making a huge difference to people’s lives. Dotted around the house are pieces of art that past guests have created to say thank you and Howarth has a hoard of letters from grateful family members.
“One we received was from a little boy whose dad came and stayed. It was this little letter in crayon writing – he was only about five or six,” Howarth says.
“It just said: ‘Dear Maytree, thank you for making my Daddy well, he now plays with me’.”
Hearing such wonderful anecdotes throughout my visit is bittersweet – I can’t help but feel outraged that Maytree is the only house of its kind in the entire country.
As the house has become more and more well-known through its involvement with documentaries including ‘Professor Green: Suicide and Me’, the team has become inundated with phone calls from prospective guests.
And the demand for spaces is hardly likely to slow down any time soon. The latest figures show that suicide remains the biggest killer of men under 45 in Britain, with 2,997 men taking their own lives in 2015. Sadly, the amount of women taking their own lives in the UK is also steadily increasing, with 902 women dying from suicide in 2015, compared to 832 in 2014.
It’s blindingly obvious that we have a national need for more support around mental health services, yet there’s a serious lack of funding in the sector.
Mental illness accounts for 28% of the total burden of disease in the UK every year, but despite this, it gets just 13% of the NHS’s budget.
Maytree relies on funding from organisations such as the National Lottery and Comic Relief as well as public donations. Howarth hopes a second Maytree will be opening in South London within the next couple of years, but as the plan has fallen through due to lack of funding before, there are no guarantees.
Of course, one way to reduce the strain on Maytree would be to reduce the amount of people, particularly men, reaching a point where they become suicidal.
Howarth believes men’s reluctance to open up about mental health is one of the contributing factors to the worrying figures.
“It’s a sweeping statement, but men in general find it very difficult to talk about their feelings because they’re often more logic-based. They’re also less likely to reach out for support. Women are more likely to talk to their friends about how they’re feeling and go to their GP,” she says.
“I think a lot of that is to do with upbringing and society – this expectation that men should have broad shoulders and be able to take anything on the chin.”
With mental health awareness campaigns such as Time To Change and Heads Together taking centre stage, Howarth is hopeful that the next generation of young men and women will be equipped will the skills to talk openly about their mental health, before they reach crisis point.
But, for now, it’s clear more work needs to be done to end stigma around mental health and break down the wall of silence that surrounds suicide.
“There are still people in society who see suicide as a very selfish act and there are people who see it as a sin – that it’s not your life and you have no right to take it,” Howarth says.
“So if you imagine that you’re in a place where you’re feeling isolated and feeling suicidal, but your community are that judgemental about it, where the hell are you going to go? Who are you going to talk to?”
The staff and volunteers at Maytree can provide a safe haven for four people at any one time, for whom the experience can be life-changing.
Considering the sheer number of people who have walked into Maytree on the brink of suicide and walked out with hope for the future, the house is clearly a model that works.
With suicide statics increasing, it’s imperative that the powers that be, whether that’s the government, health services or local councils, follow Maytree’s lead in looking at alternative ways to improve mental health services.
The staff and volunteers at Maytree have been able to help a fortunate few, but they can’t help everyone.
You can learn more about Maytree on its website or contact staff via email on firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone on 020 7263 7070. Below are some links and telephone numbers you may also find useful: