Out of the ashes

Mike was bereaved by the loss of his father from suicide... "I have worked in the social health care area for over 30 years. My experience has been predominantly in adult services and mental health work. At the age of 15 my Mother died of cancer, 3 years later my Father took his life. At that time there was no help or support from the statutory services or from anywhere else. My sister and I were simply left to support each other as best we could. It was incredibly hard and no one seemed to know what to say or how to relate to us...

Years later, while working as a psychiatric social worker in Leeds, I saw a letter on the office notice board relating to the formation of a Group to help people bereaved through suicide. I immediately thought what a great idea, and have been heavily involved in the Loss Group (Leeds Organisation for Survivors of Suicide) ever since. Developing on from this, I suggested the need for a suicide prevention/ bereavement forum which I set up and facilitated in Leeds I am a member of the Dept of Health National Suicide Prevention Strategy Working Party focusing on suicide bereavement issues, and also a member of the Leeds Mental Health Trust Standard 7 Suicide Prevention Group. I am also a member of the Yorkshire and Humberside Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention Forum.

I contributed my observations to the Draft National Suicide Prevention Strategy and was invited onto the National Suicide Prevention Strategy Group, focusing on the needs of those left behind by the personal holocaust that is bereavement through suicide. I believe passionately that there is a need for a national suicide bereavement strategy and organisation. Suicide prevention and bereavement through suicide are opposite sides of the same coin. Research shows that people bereaved through suicide are more likely to develop mental health problems and are at increased risk of suicide. It is therefore vital that they are well supported.

In November 2000 I suffered a severe mental breakdown due to a combination of work related stresses and became suicidal depressed myself. I cannot put into words how horrendous this experience was, however, with the fantastic support of my wife, psychiatrist, church and some great friends I eventually recovered. I attended a day hospital 5 days a week for approximately one year and learnt in every way what it was to be a service user with severe clinical depression I found it a totally humbling experience I felt stripped right down to my very core of everything status, self esteem, my personhood even my sense of taste all obliterated. Emotionally I was totally flat worst of all amongst the many terrible effects I experienced was the inability to take any sense of comfort from another human being. I felt a walking dead man the body machine was some how still working but there was no one at the controls anymore. It had been a very abrupt change - one moment I had been a service provider, a senior psychiatric social worker - the next I was designated a mental health service user. From being a very busy, "together" professional, I now felt utterly useless, extremely vulnerable, powerless, and terrified. As a result of this experience, I feel I have travelled light years in my mind in terms of understanding what a hell clinical depression is and how stigmatisation and discrimination is so often the lot of a mental health service user, many people are still so very ignorant of issues around mental distress. I was brought very quickly to my knees. By my suffering I learnt true humility, I learnt understanding, compassion and kindness from other service users people who despite the weight of their own suffering would reach out to offer a word of support or encouragement to others around them on the same painful path. I learnt that severe mental distress can bring out the worst and the best in people and that in my own case I discovered an awful lot about myself some of it good some not so good! I learnt that God's love is encountered at its strongest through other people in what seems impossibly an weak situation as in the common bond of suffering I shared with others at the Day Hospital. I learnt that what can kill you can also make you strong.

As a social worker, I used to visit people with depression. I had my training, had read books on the subject and thought I had a good understanding of it. I realise now that I had not the first idea about how indescribably awful the whole experience is. Experience is the hardest teacher but it is the most effective one; in mental distress you really get the whole picture as a result of it. Having gained this service-user experience and perspective it has contributed very greatly to my understanding of mental distress and has informed my practice as a social worker no end.

A mental breakdown can lead to a mental breakthrough, which it clearly did in my case, and concurrent with this, I also experienced a spiritual breakthrough. I was previously a life long devoted atheist but ironically my best friend happened to be a Vicar who once said to me, "Come in and join us, the waters warm." These words, his smile and his love were going round and round in my terrified mind as I walked in suicidal desperation past my church, something (God, as I later realised) was telling me to go and see the Vicar I thought, 'God, I must be completely desperate, I am turning to the church!' Past my wits end, I summoned up what I had which was next to nothing and I knocked on the Vicar's front door. He invited me in a raving suicidal stranger. He was really good with me and checked out my personal circumstances and that I was getting help from my GP. He told me of God's love for me and that he acknowledged what a terrible state I was in but that he felt a re-birth was going on in me. At that particular time, I thought, what's he doing going on about re-birth - I'm fearing and fighting an overpowering desire to end it all and what little resolve I had not to give in to the promise of this oblivion was slipping away at a fast rate of knots.

However, as time and my recovery developed I came to fully understand and appreciate the points he was making. John, the Vicar, told me about something called the Alpha Course and that it was just about to start and that I could join it if I wished. I said that I would and later persuaded my wife to do the same. Due to my severe depression and agitation intellectually, I was not up to anything much at all. Decisions like - should I go right or left, have tea or coffee or nothing, seemed altogether monumentally too difficult to make.

However, what I did pick up was the unmistakeable love and concern for me by other members of our group in particular, a lovely lady called Ali, who herself had suffered bad depression in the past. What she said to me her kind words of hope and reassurance some how pierced the all-embracing realm of my depression and gave me the hope of hope that in time, things could and would get better. This was my first conscious awareness and experience of the love of God and there were many more to come constantly from Marilyn, my wife, and other members of my church, people who would come up to me, hug me, lay hands on me, pray for me and through these actions, transmit to me God's love and healing power. Once aware of this love, the whole edifice of my former atheistic personal empire just crumbled and melted away like the effect of a red-hot knife through butter. It is unstoppably powerful and resolute but infinitely gentle at the same time. My life has not been the same since - it has been inordinately better in all respects, personally, emotionally, and professionally Thanks be to God, who is Love.

Mike Bush, 01/09/2007