A few days after the Daily Record story about Moristoun was published, I was contacted by Anne Rowan, the founder of Chris’s House, a charity set up to help people who are feeling suicidal or those who have been affected by suicide.
Anne invited me down to their base in Airdrie to talk about the work they do and I spent four hours talking to her, fellow volunteers and a couple of people who have got their lives back on track after spending time at Chris’s House.
It was a humbling experience to hear how Anne and her volunteers, who have all been affected by suicide themselves in some way, devote their time free of charge to help people piece their lives back together in the darkest of times. In Moristoun, the characters of Buchan and Miss Sanderson act as guardian angels as they try to prevent Scots from pushing ahead with the act of suicide. Anne and her volunteers are the real-life embodiment of this and it’s another sad indictment of our society that they are constantly having to battle for funding and receive little help from local and national government.
Anne lost her son Christopher to suicide in 2011 and after two years of deep grief decided it was time to help others avoid the same fate. She contacted the Irish charity Pieta, a crisis centre for self-harm and suicide, to see if they would consider starting a similar venture across the Irish Sea. They declined but Anne did manage to persuade them to bring their Darkness Into Light events, 5km walks that take place during sunrise, to Scotland in 2015.
The success of that helped drive Anne and her committee to establish Chris’s House and the doors of their Airdrie base opened for the first time just a few months later. Below is the story I wrote for the Daily Record about their wonderful work. It was published on May 18, 2016...
No judgments, no labels, no blame. Just love. Those eight words perfectly sum up Chris’s House, a charity set up to help those feeling suicidal or those affected by suicide, and that feeling of love becomes clear the moment you walk through the doors of their Airdrie base.
The first thing that greets every guest to this house is a hug, a small but significant gesture to those who have reached out in their darkest hour. In Scotland, an average of two people take their own lives every day yet there remains a stigma around suicide that makes it subject few people want to talk about. At Chris’s House, though, guests can unburden all their worries and speak openly to people who know exactly how they are feeling.
The service they provide can often be the difference between life and death, something that becomes clear as I sit down to speak with one of their guests. “I would say that Chris’s House has helped me to stay alive over the last couple of months,” she says. “A lot of the time you need to hold yourself together, in my own circumstances for the sake of my own family, my children.
“But the minute you walk in the door here, you can fall apart. If you need help they get you in straight away. There’s no, ‘Wait until I assess your risk or wait until you fill in these referral forms or tick the box for this service.’
"Places like this are absolutely crucial. Everybody knows that mental health services are stretched beyond their capacity just now and realistically you will wait between 4-16 weeks to see a health professional you really need to see whenever you are in a place of great despair and contemplating suicide. When you are in that place you don’t have that time, you really don’t.”
Nobody knows that more than Anne Rowan, the founder of Chris’s House, who lost her son five years ago. As she sits across the table listening to her guest speak, Anne can’t help but wonder what might have happened if a place such as Chris’s House was around when her son was struggling to cope with a desperately dark chain of events.
“Christopher’s friend died by suicide then his cousin died in a car crash,” Anne recalls. “It was shocking, a grenade into our family. Within 16 weeks, we had lost Christopher as well.”
Christopher sought help from the doctor as he struggled to come to terms with things but he was merely prescribed medication and told to return in three months’ time, an appointment he would never keep.
Anne says: “I remember Christopher coming home and saying, ‘What do I need to do? Do I need to cut my wrists in front of him to get him to realise how bad I feel? I can’t sleep, I keep getting flashbacks.’ We then lost Christopher to suicide, probably about a month after he started taking the tablets.”
Anne admits she became a “complete wreck” for about two years after Christopher’s death before her life started to turn around when she made contact with the Irish charity Pieta, a crisis centre for self-harm and suicide. She learned about their Darkness Into Light events, 5k walks that take place during sunrise, and managed to bring the event to Scotland for the first time last year.
“We only had from about February to May to get it organised but that’s what brought me out of the house,” Anne says. “I was totally focused. What a success the walk was. It was so cathartic. Nobody felt alone, everyone was talking to each other.”
Within a few months, the doors to Chris’s House were open and an army of volunteers now provide an invaluable service. Although Anne is the founder and driving force, she is the first to admit it’s very much a team effort and there’s no way the charity could function without those who offer their time free of charge.
Patricia Spencer, a retired mental health nurse who spent 33 years in the NHS, is one of those volunteers and she is proud of the work Chris’s House does to help everyone across a broad spectrum of society.
“You get people from all walks of life,” says Patricia. “Somebody said to me: ‘Why would somebody from an affluent family experience that?’ In their mind, they linked it to poverty and social depravation, alcohol and drugs. But one of the most outstanding doctors I ever worked with, who was full of compassion and would sit with patients beyond the call of duty, died of suicide and what a loss he was to the service. It was traumatic for everyone because he was outstanding. People say he gave too much and he absorbed everybody’s problems and challenges.
“Some people actually believe the person has a choice. Where we are coming from is that they are not in the right state of mind to make that choice.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Anne. “We had a boy in Chris’s House whose mum brought him in at 18,” she says. “He wasn’t on drugs, drink or anything but he had absolutely no recall of what had happened to him. His friends found him on a tree, ready to jump. His friends actually held him in the tree, or he would have been dead, but the laddie can’t remember a thing about it.”
Of equal importance is the work Chris’s House does to help those who have been affected by the death of a family member or friend from suicide. Another guest, who first encountered Anne on last year’s Darkness Into Light walk, insists his visits to the house have helped him come to terms with the death of his brother.
“As soon as you come in that door, you know everyone here has been through something similar or they know what pain you are going through,” he says. “It’s all about the person who comes through that door. It’s very personal. They are interested in how you are and how you are coping. You don’t get that in some of the big organisations.”
Weekly sessions of Reiki, a Japanese energy therapy that aligns your mind and body, have helped with his grieving process and Annie-Marie Gallacher, the volunteer who administers Reiki at Chris’s House, takes great pride from helping those affected by suicide.
“When people get Reiki it’s not just for relaxation, it’s for completely changing the way they live,” she says. “They are feeling something inside them, love, and it nurtures them.”
Anne’s ultimate dream is to have a Chris’s House in every Scottish town and Anne Marie feels that would make a massive difference to the mental health of the entire nation. “There’s a ripple effect after suicide and it affects the whole family,” she says. “If they had places like this all over Scotland then the ripple would stop.”
For that dream to become a reality, funding would have to increase significantly, with Anne and her team constantly looking for new sources of revenue. For now though, they can take comfort from the fact they have already made a massive difference to the lives of so many people, all completely free of charge.
“Chris’s House really is somebody’s hope in their darkest day, the fact they can call here and instantly get to speak to somebody,” says the guest who credits the centre with saving her life. “It’s a desperately dark, hopeless and despairing place to be but there are people who truly care and will help. So reach out and ask for it.”
The second Scottish Darkness Into Light walk was held in Glasgow on May 7, 2016 and Kevin was proud to take part alongside his mum, brother Danny and sister-in-law Elaine, who sadly lost her nephew Sean to suicide. The early rise for a 4pm start was a bit of a challenge, particularly as it preceded a 12-hour shift at the Sunday Mail, but it was so rewarding to see so many people come together to remember those who have died by suicide.
Kevin raised almost £100 for Pieta, the Irish charity which organises the walks, and hope this money can help others from taking their own lives. Here are some pictures Kevin took on the walk, where he met Phil Boswell MP, the patron of Chris's House, plus Anne's grandson and other committee members.
Chris's House held their first charity ball at the Alana Hotel inside Strathclyde Park on Friday September 9. Kevin was honoured attend alongside his wife Thanyalak, his brother Danny and his sister-in-law Elaine.
It was great to see so many people come together to help raise much-needed funds for Anne and her team, who put in so much work free of charge and never ask for anything in return. There were plenty of touching and poignant moments throughout the night, especially the marriage proposal that brought a tear to many eyes (thankfully the lady in question said yes).
Kevin really enjoyed catching up with everyone he had met at Chris's House and those who had turned up to support him at the Moristoun book launch. It was also an honour to sit beside comedian Patrick Rolink, who had so many great stories. Hopefully this is just the start of many memorable charity balls for Chris's House and they will continue to do such courageous and life-saving work.
Thanks to the website Positively Scottish for publishing Kevin's feature about Chris's House on November 25, 2016. Here's the article in full:
It’s Book Week Scotland, and new Scottish author Kevin McAllion profiles a charity tackling an issue at the heart of his first novel, Moristoun
In the time it takes you to blink, three people will have attempted suicide somewhere in the world. By the time 40 seconds have elapsed, one of them will have succeeded.
It’s a quite staggering statistic but one that perfectly illustrates the scale of a problem that has blighted humanity for centuries.
Even when you limit the figures to Scotland, it still seems incredible that two people every day find themselves so consumed by darkness and despair that they see no option but to take their own lives.
The figure might be far lower, though, if there were more places like Chris’s House around the country. The Scottish charity, which offers support for those feeling suicidal and people who have been affected by suicide, was founded by Anne Rowan last year.
Anne lost her son, Christopher to suicide in 2011 and after two years of deep grief she set out to stop others from suffering the same fate. Aided by a dedicated team of volunteers, she has already made a huge difference to so many lives.
Anne invited me down to Chris’s House after reading about my novel, Moristoun, which speculates about the afterlife for Scottish suicide victims. In Moristoun, the lead character Buchan acts as a guardian angel of sorts and is handed the task of stopping Scots from pushing ahead with suicide. Anne and her team are the real-life manifestation of this and it’s no exaggeration to say their work is truly life-saving.
That much becomes clear as I sit down to talk with one of the many guests who have stepped through the doors of their base in Airdrie. “I would say that Chris’s House has helped me to stay alive over the last couple of months,” the woman tells me.
“Places like this are absolutely crucial. Mental health services are stretched beyond their capacity just now and realistically you will wait between 4-16 weeks to see a health professional you really need to see whenever you are in a place of great despair and contemplating suicide. When you are in that place you don’t have that time, you really don’t. So places like this are so important.”
The motto of Chris’s House is ‘Let’s talk’ and such a simple concept can often be the first step towards finding a solution to such a complex problem.
“It really is somebody’s hope in their darkest day, the fact they can call here and instantly get to speak to somebody,” says the guest. “There’s no referral process. You can walk through the door, you can pick up the phone, you can message on Facebook and there’s always someone there you can speak to immediately. And it’s somebody who doesn’t treat you as a patient, people here are treated as guests and treated with the utmost dignity and respect.”
That’s down to Anne and her volunteers who devote their time, free of charge, towards stopping suicide from impacting on so many families. Anne, who was named North Lanarkshire Volunteer of the Year for 2016, modestly describes herself as “just a mammy” and from the moment people contact Chris’s House they’re made to feel as if they are joining a family.
There’s a genuine sense of warmth from the moment you enter Chris’s House and the first thing that welcomes you is a hug, a small but significant gesture for those who feel they are fighting their demons alone. Guests can then unburden all their worries while they talk with the volunteers, while the use of relaxation therapies such as reiki further helps to ease their anxieties. “People always drop down and relax when they are here,” Anne says. “There are no judgments here or labels, no religion or anything. It’s just love.
“People phone us up and say: ‘I want to die.’ We’ve got about a 1 per cent window to get in there and turn that around. It can be draining but it’s nothing to what I’ve come through after Christopher’s death. There’s nothing that can touch me now.
“My work here has helped me and the other volunteers will say the same. I’ve been in tears here, tears of frustration, tears at seeing somebody so broken, but I tell you what, see watching people get better…”
It’s a sentiment echoed by volunteer Patricia Spencer, a retired mental health nurse who works at Chris’s House once a week.
She says: “It makes me feel fantastic when people say we have saved their lives. That’s what it’s all about. From the outset you let them know you are there for them, that you want to be there to help them negotiate their way out of that dark place.
“So many people who come here have been affected by suicide. It’s a ripple effect. It includes those who knew the person who died very well. They end up with that guilt and it’s also a traumatic event. It impacts on people.”
It certainly impacted on the second guest I spoke to, who visited Chris’s House after struggling to come to terms with his brother’s suicide.
“When people die by suicide it’s so sudden,” he says. “You try to put it into perspective and wonder, ‘Would it be any different if my brother was killed in an accident?’ But I don’t think it would. It’s a very hard thing to understand and come to terms with. It’s terrible.
“You get there though and I’m glad this wee place exists. Here, you are all that matters. It’s all about the person who comes through that door. It’s very personal. They are interested in how you are and how you are coping. You don’t get that in some of the big organisations. If there was one in every town in Scotland then it would make a massive difference.”
That’s Anne’s ultimate aim, but finding the funds just to keep Chris’s House in operation is a massive challenge in itself. With little financial help from local and national government, they are forced to rely on their own fundraising and the generosity of benefactors.
The Darkness Into Light charity walks are a major source of revenue, working in tandem with the Irish suicide prevention charity Pieta, who held their first walk in Dublin back in 2009.
Anne and her team successfully brought the event to Glasgow in 2015 and these symbolic walks, where those affected by suicide tread the streets together during sunrise, look set to become an annual event, along with the Chris’s House charity ball, which was held for the first time in September.
“We didn’t know what we were doing in the first year, but what a success the walk was,” says Anne. “It was so cathartic and brought everyone together. Everyone said: ‘Look at the amount of people here.’ Nobody felt alone, everyone was talking to each other going round.”
I took part in this year’s walk and that sense of community shone through. Suicide affects so many people and it has touched me personally, with both a friend and member of my extended family taking their own lives in the past five years. But nobody needs to face it alone.
“It’s important we get the word out about places like this because so many people don’t know about it,” says the guest who credits Chris’s House with saving her life. “You can be in a desperately dark, hopeless and despairing place but there are people who truly care and will help. So reach out and ask for it.”
After the success of the first two Darkness Into Light walks in Glasgow, Chris's House decided to hold their own Walk of Hope event from 2017, with all the money raised now going towards Scottish suicide prevention.
Kevin is once again honoured to be taking part and has written a piece for the Glasgow Live website about the Walk of Hope.
Here is the article:
It’s hard to cling to any sliver of hope in the weeks and months after a suicide.
Grief takes a firm hold as darkness descends on the family and friends left behind as they struggle to come to terms with their loss.
It’s a deeply personal process and you can often feel like the loneliest person in the world, as if there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.
But it’s important to realise you’re not alone and in the early hours of Saturday May 6, hundreds of Scots will come together on the banks of the Clyde at Finnieston to take a stride back towards the light.
The Chris’s House Walk of Hope is a vital fundraiser for a Scottish charity set-up to prevent suicide and support those suffering from the loss of a loved one.
But perhaps even more importantly, it offers those who are still grieving a chance to meet the only people who truly understand the kind of pain they are going through.
Nobody knows this more than Anne Rowan, the founder of Chris’s House, who started to emerge from two years of deep grief following the death of her son Christopher when she helped to organise the first charity walk in Scotland three years ago.
“We only had from about February to May to get the first walk organised but that’s what brought me out of the house,” recalls Anne.
“We didn’t really know what we were doing but what a success the walk was. You can feel it, it’s tangible, the emotion. You can almost touch it. The absolute cathartic outpouring is a solidarity thing. It’s like: ‘Me too.’ I know it helps with the grieving process, having done it myself in the first year.
“It’s hard to describe, you’re in awe, you’re in wonder, because you feel so isolated in that grief. You meet one or two people who have been through the same thing locally but when you see the amount of people on the walk it’s quite phenomenal.”
One of the guests at Chris’s House, a drop-in centre based in Lanarkshire that offers counselling, advice and relaxation therapies, took part in that maiden walk just a few months after the death of his brother. “I found it very comforting,” he says.
“Other people there were going through the same thing. You reach out to these people and wonder how they manage to cope because I don’t think I had been coping with it well. It was very symbolic. The sun comes up while you walk and it does give you hope, darkness into light. You see there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
The walk is also a celebration of the lives of those lost to suicide and one of the most poignant parts of the event is a memorial section where friends and relatives can leave pictures and messages.
“It gives people a place to air publicly that the person they lost mattered – they weren’t cowards, they weren’t selfish. They were much loved,” says Anne.
“When people go for the first time they come in and cry then they go away smiling. There’s a camaraderie, they’re talking, exchanging numbers.”
The first two walks were held under the umbrella of the Irish charity Pieta, who have been holding their Darkness Into Light events since 2008. But this year’s walk will be totally independent, with all the money raised going towards Scottish suicide prevention.
“People are taking it more on board this year because it’s completely for Scotland,” says Anne. “For our cause, it’s one of our biggest fundraisers. We have massive suicide rates in Scotland so we don’t want to be sending the bulk of the money over to Ireland. We need that in Scotland.
“It's our own walk in Scotland, the Walk of Hope. The whole theme is hope. Hope to eradicate stigma, hope to reduce suicide, hope to raise awareness of the illness that brings people to us.”
With Chris’s House having to rely almost exclusively on self-funding since it was established three years ago, the Walk of Hope will be a key event for their work going forward.
Having started out at a small base in Airdrie, the charity will soon relocate to a bigger building in Wishaw and Anne hopes to have the funds to make Chris’s House a place where guests can live.
“The walk will make a massive difference,” she says. “It will put the project into a live-in. This walk and the funds from everything from it will help us reach that goal.
“The new building should be up and running in Wishaw in two weeks. It’s going to be jumping. There were people walking in off the street when we were decorating. It’s a landmark. We hope everyone else will aspire to it.
“Public services are being cut all over the place. There are waiting times even in the third sector to see people. With suicide, you don’t have time. As soon as I lift the phone to people and say ‘Just come in’, there’s disbelief. ‘You can see me now?’
“It’s not a counselling session they need, they just need to be heard, face to face. Yesterday we had four people in one day.”
Registration for the walk has only been open for just over a week but people from all corners of the country have already committed to taking part.
“There are buses coming from Edinburgh, Motherwell, Hamilton and Fort William so far and we only put the Facebook page up last week,” says Anne.
“There’s a family coming from Edinburgh who have a ruby wedding celebration on the Saturday night of the walk. They’re not asking for presents, they’re asking for donations to Chris’s House.”
When the walk took place, between 500-600 people took part, including Kevin and his brother Danny. It was a beautiful, if breezy, May morning and it was great to see so many people come together for such a great cause. Hopefully the event can go from strength to strength in future years.
Kevin set up a fundraising page for the walk which will remain open until August 2017. Please make a small donation or donate directly to Chris’s House via their own page.
Anne and her team gained some overdue recognition and funding when they took part in and won the STV People’s Project for 2017. It was decided by a public vote so a huge thanks to everyone who visited the STV website and picked Chris’s House out among several other worthy charities. It was great to see Chris’s House get such a big boost and Anne was even interviewed on ITV for the Lorraine Kelly programme, a clip you can watch here.