“My background is in engineering and research. I quite enjoy, now, reflecting on how I became mad and that process of where the brain takes you. That I find fascinating. I think it’s quite difficult to become suicidal really. You need trigger points, some people need just need one, I needed quite a few. But once you’re there…
“The first time that I had heard the word Maytree I had been sectioned. I was in Chase Farm, Enfield, in the hospital unit. There were 4 people around the table chit chatting and 2 of those had both been guests at Maytree. It was 2005. It was coming up to the Christmas period and I didn’t think I’d get through it. One of the women said maybe you could go and stay at Maytree.
“Maytree was a wonderful safe place. I remember I was in a bad place. It really was quite bad. I couldn’t cook or do anything for myself. I used to love porridge. On the first morning Michael made me porridge and I thought… that little thing, making the porridge, was good.
“When I got better I thought maybe I should volunteer at Maytree. I think I have a sense of loyalty to Maytree. I find it therapeutic going there. It’s sometimes very challenging but I’ve never really thought it’s too overpowering, but when you walk through that door you never know…” – Michael
Maytree is a house in Finsbury Park, London. It has four bedrooms, and its inhabitants change all the time. As a suicide respite center, it serves as a temporary home to people in crisis. Guests stay for four days and five nights only; during that time, they can speak openly with volunteers and peers. They can talk about anything and everything, or they can talk about nothing. There is no judgement, and the environment is decidedly non-clinical.
There are about 150 volunteers currently working at Maytree. The photographer Daniel Regan is one of them. His book and exhibition project I Want to Live tells the story of this unusual house and the people who walk through its doors.
Regan had his first encounter with Maytree in 2014, when he was going through a difficult time himself and reached out for support. He did not end up staying at Maytree as a guest, but the kindness he experienced over email remained with him. A year later, he contacted them again in hopes of becoming a volunteer. His situation is not unusual; many volunteers have had personal experiences with suicide and suicidal thoughts.
For more than fifteen years, Regan has used his camera to process his own journey with mental health. We’ve featured his work both here and here. In this case, he was a volunteer first and a photographer second; one year after he started at Maytree and two years after that initial email, he and Natalie Howarth, the director at Maytree, embarked on the project together.
A primary goal of both Maytree and the exhibition project is to eliminate the harmful taboo surrounding suicide. “I think it’s important for people to understand that there is a difference between having suicidal thoughts and the secondary stage of making a plan to kill yourself,” Regan explains. “We need to create safe and supportive spaces for people to talk about suicidal thoughts before they turn into action. It is so difficult to hear anyone talking about having suicidal thoughts, but by hearing them out and removing the stigma of it, we can begin to address the underlying issues that are causing the thoughts.”
I Want to Live includes photographs from the house itself as well as portraits and interviews with volunteers. “For confidentiality and ethical reasons, I never photographed in the house when there were guests, but after they had left,” the photographer tells me. As a volunteer, one of his duties is to clean the rooms and make them up for the next guest.
“It is such a deeply personal moment of transition to be parting with one person with the hopes that they’ll continue to live, as the next person comes in and the cycle repeats,” he says. “I always take pride in making the room as nice as possible because I want people to feel that it is their safe place during their stay.” While he did not photograph the individuals he’s met and who have left a permanent mark on him, he was able to tell their stories through their belongings and the items they’ve touched.
Without the photographs of the volunteers, the Maytree in the pages of Regan’s book would look like just another family home. In times of acute crisis, there’s poetry to be found in the mundane. The rituals of daily life become our anchors. I was hospitalized for OCD ten years ago; what I remember most is not any particular psychiatry session but the graham crackers and peanut butter I shared with my best friend over long chats each and every evening after the doctors had left. I Want to Live puts moments like that at the fore.
“Something that I’ll take from Maytree into the rest of my life is to never feel ashamed to talk about my difficulties,” Regan admits. “At Maytree we’re not there to fix someone; we’re there to allow people to speak openly about their crises. It can be uncomfortable, but we want people to live because they want to live, not because we want them to. I think the motivation for me is that it is such an incredible privilege to be able to help people in suicidal crisis, particularly because I have been there myself. ”
I Want to Live has just opened at the Free Space Project. The work will be on view through October 12th. Find the book here. I Want to Live was made possible with funding from the National Lottery in England.
“I was studying social work when I started volunteering at Maytree. I enjoyed my time there so I continued even after I’d finished my studies.
“There are so many people out there that try to commit suicide. I’m not trying to save them but I am trying to support them. I try to offer them different perspectives that help them recognise their difficulties. I do feel that I’m contributing in some way, even if it’s just helping them on to the path of recovery. The fact that people can make a phone call to Maytree is a sign of strength, to recognise where they are and what they need.
“I know family and friends that have been affected by depression so that’s impacted my decision to stay there. It’s very simple at Maytree, it’s just talking and allowing people to express their emotions, but it’s also very effective. Whenever I do a shift it always feels like the first week that I’ve been there because the situation is so fresh and different. We form really short but meaningful connections with guests. Because the connection is so temporary it’s easy to say how you feel with someone, which I think helps to get things out and be honest.” – Kwabena
“I was born in Birmingham. I was there until I was about 10 and then my family moved. Six months into us being there my Mum and younger siblings died. Our house exploded from a gas explosion. We hadn’t been there long. I stayed for a bit but then moved back to Birmingham and stayed with relatives. My whole life changed from one moment to the next. Death for me wasn’t scary. There was something really appealing about it. I really thought that if I was dead then I could be with my Mum and siblings again. I was never scared by the thoughts I started to have.
“I found out about Maytree at university. One of my friend’s sisters volunteered there and when she said suicide respite centre I remember thinking at some point I’m going to need that place. I remember thinking at the time I’ll either go there as a guest or volunteer one day. I never remember looking at the website or anything, I just kept it in the back of my mind.
“I feel like I’m suited to Maytree because I am comfortable hearing people’s dark stories. I feel like, for me, it’s rare that I get to have those kinds of conversations. They’re the ones that I find really stimulating. I don’t find it distressing being at Maytree — I find it really calming in a way. The house has been a consistent part of my life. I’ve been visiting there for ten years and there’s a real comfort in that. Even when you’re talking to someone that is distressed Maytree brings a calmness to it. It feels like the most human place that I know.
“What you offer as a volunteer is essentially available to anyone. You’re being a human being and listening. You don’t have to say the right thing or fix anything, be interesting or funny. You’re present and listening. It sounds so simple and yet people find it so hard. When you go into that house you are having a real human experience. That’s what I like about it. I really like listening to people’s stories. I really like going into the kitchen and meeting a guest and sometimes you don’t know who a guest or a volunteer is. I never go in with any intention of hearing anything in particular — you start where you start and the conversation goes where it goes. There’s a real honesty in that.” – Val
“I found out about Maytree after I came out of a few years of working with a clinical psychologist. I was on my own recovery journey at that point, coming out of several suicide crises. I’d gone through the mental health system most of my life. My psychologist was the only person, I have to say out of services, that had ever asked me about me. Going through mental health services there was always a different diagnosis or different medication, or sections. I was kind of in and out. I’d be OK for a spell and then relapse. It was a long journey. She was the first person that had really listened.
“I started off as a volunteer at the end of 2006. It was so different back then. It wasn’t as busy. I was going to Mind at the time and was doing a computer course as part of my recovery. I said I wanted to volunteer somewhere and they actually talked about Maytree. What I liked about Maytree was that it was face-to-face and it was longer term. The fact that Maytree is about listening is key to me. I bring that from my past.
“I never in a million years thought I’d end up working at Maytree after being a volunteer. I feel very privileged to be in my role. Sometimes I pinch myself. Especially when I was asked to do the BBC documentary, when I met Trevor McDonald or when I met Kate and William. I never introduce myself as the senior co-ordinator. I introduce myself as Angela, part of Maytree. It’s never been about hierarchy for me. It’s a team: the volunteers, staff, admin.
“I never ever dreamt that I’d live past 40. Never in a million years did I think this is where I’d be. I’m very proud.” – Angela
“When I stayed at Maytree in 2013 I used it as a holding place whilst I was waiting for my referral to a psychiatrist to come through. I think without Maytree and my stay at a psychiatric hospital combined, I wouldn’t be here. Work was one of the major factors leading up to this, alongside the breakup of a relationship, health reasons and some family members also being ill. I’d also started some therapy to address the suicide of my father and I just couldn’t do anything. It was paralysing.
“When I was a guest there were two of us in the house. We arrived on the same day and left on the same day. We were six months apart, age wise. We had completely different stories but the core of it was that we were pretty depressed. To a certain extent that was as good as anything with the volunteers. We played a lot of cards, we sat out in the garden because it was roasting hot. We could just be suicidal together but also talk about football and have a laugh about cards. It didn’t mean oh you’re better now. At Maytree it was OK to have a laugh still.
“I probably get as much from conversations with the volunteers as I do the guests. There’s a real sense of camaraderie with the volunteers. You can get to a level of conversation that’s free and honest really quickly, and also really supportive. That doesn’t really exist anywhere else.” – Ben
All images © Daniel Regan