Founder of group for survivors of attempted suicide on finding life's purpose

Twice a month on a Thursday a group of people meet in a quiet room in the City of Edinburgh Methodist Church on Nicholson Square. At first no-one came and organiser Nicola waited patiently alone but eventually people started passing through the doors.

Nicola Saunders runs Living Warriors Project for people who have survived attempted suicide.
Nicola Saunders runs Living Warriors Project for people who have survived attempted suicide.

Nicola Saunders, 29, runs The Living Warriors project, a peer support group for people who have attempted suicide and who live with suicidal thoughts. She started the group last February after becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of support offered to her and others like her.

Nicola is a survivor. She attempted suicide on May 6 2014, a day she now calls her “rebirth day”. She was found by a flatmate who called an ambulance. She said: “Everything I had been holding in for most of my life emerged. I just didn’t know what to do and had no-one to speak to. I didn’t really know how bad I was actually doing.”

She thought she was doing everything right – she worked, had hobbies, jogged and had friends but a break up, a house move and a career change meant that emotionally things soon rose to a crescendo. She said: “I thought to myself, I can’t keep going on with this internal struggle – I was either feeling everything and my mind was racing or I was feeling nothing and life was so grey and flat. I would reach despair at least five times every day. The only thing keeping me going was that I had a way out.”

Nicola had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety in the past but is wary of the “rigid” labels that doctors and psychiatrists attach to people, believing that they can be unhelpful. She said: “I can only speak from my own experience but some people were very rigid in their approach.”

She went to the doctor two weeks before her suicide attempt but wasn’t offered any help. She said: “I told them I was struggling but I didn’t tell them I was suicidal. I didn’t really know what was happening.”

Still desperately trying to help herself she self-referred to the mental health assessment service at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital. She waited for three hours alone in the waiting room before a nurse told her she should go back to her GP. She said: “I was going to her for an emergency and she turned me away. I went to seek help and I didn’t get any.”

A child of divorce, Nicola lives with complex trauma from her childhood. She moved to Edinburgh from Glasgow in 2013.

Following her suicide attempt she spent three days in hospital before being transferred to a psychiatric unit at the Royal Edinburgh for three weeks. She was frightened and alone, without any family to visit her. She said: “I remember everything even though I was taking meds. I just kept myself to myself. I felt very, very vulnerable and I didn’t know how to talk to anybody. There were some really nice nurses in there. They would sit and just chat. It didn’t alleviate the emotional pain though.”

When it came to being discharged Nicola was asked if she had anywhere to go. She didn’t, and she was given the details of a homeless hostel in the city. Thankfully a friend put her up until she found her feet again.

Nicola was adept at hiding how she really felt from medical professionals, so when she saw the community psychiatric nurse who was assigned to her, she didn’t get much out of the experience. She said: “I felt she didn’t understand me. Lots of people that go through this have a way of making things seem okay. I don’t know any other way and that meant what was really happening was overlooked.”

Used to fending for herself, within a few months Nicola was working again part time and had a flat – she had no choice but to do it all alone. She said: “Not everybody has parents and a home they can go back to. That was a big difficulty. I didn’t have a mum I could go to or a dad I felt safe with.

“After six months of doing it myself I went to counselling for a year. I wanted to get myself well again and find my independence. I’ve had to be that way since I was very young.”

Since starting The Living Warrior Project she has found her purpose and a way to channel her anger over what she sees as being let down by the system. She said: “I realised very early on in my recovery that this was meant to happen. My suicide attempt was inevitable – it was too difficult to go on without it. But I was going to use that experience for good and refused to brush it under the carpet.”

After a friend shared with her that she could only understand so much of what Nicola had been through, never having experienced it, Nicola decided to start the project. She left leaflets in community centres and posted about it online but it was six weeks before the first person joined her. She said: “Sitting in that room waiting was my time too. I would never have left early.” When she had the first participant she was excited. She said: “It was the best experience. It was amazing just being there and me explaining what the group is about and how it started and asking them questions. To have them open up and to just sit and listen. They felt much better. The people that come have grown massively. This is why I do it, when they come and benefit. That is my major reason to live now, because people are getting better just by being listened to.”

At first attendance was slow, one person came back a few times, then another, and then more, but in the beginning it could be just Nicola and one other there, but she never missed a week, no matter what. She said: “Everyone has given me encouragement and good advice. The fact that they get something from it, I get something as a byproduct. Every time I leave the sessions, I am so happy. The light that comes from everyone makes me so warm.”

Nicola is now friends with everyone who attends and is always on call if they need her. She said: “Sometimes the sessions are hard and emotional but we try to see the growth in them and the reason for it. I say to them, let’s keep going through what’s bothering you and what would help. A lot of the time it’s just about talking and encouraging each other – for them to see how much they have grown and that they have the strength to keep going. To really see what they have achieved.

“I try to show them they have qualities that they might not be able to see.”

Nicola funds the project herself, the room she rents costs £20 every session. The non-denominational original group, The Origins Tribe, has welcomed the addition of a Christian group run by one of Nicola’s earliest attendees. He explained to her that many Christians he knew struggled with suicidal thoughts and had attempted suicide but had nowhere to go for fear of being ostracised from the church.

Aside from the talking, Nicola has recently introduced activities to the groups. The group have enjoyed leaf printing on postcards on which they wrote their biggest achievements. She said: “They thought about it and asked if they could put more than one down – yes, definitely, I said!” Next was making paperchains with words the group wanted to send out to the world on them such as peace, love, respect and kindness. Another favourite was making origami cranes and hanging them outside to remind everyone that you can get shaken around but you can weather any storm. She said: “It’s just little things like that. You learn a new skill and you’ve got a purpose. I tell them you don’t have to do something massive even if you just smile at someone you can make their day. It’s about targeting the humanity in people.”

Nicola has big ambitions for The Living Warriors Project. She hopes to create an organisation that offers more groups and workshops and have members hold their own workshops to promote confidence and independence. She said: “I’d love to link up with other organisations and hopefully be part of a bigger change doing work on the ground so that people know this works and there’s somewhere for them to go. I just want to reach as many people as I can.”

She also wants to play a part in putting care plans in place for people being discharged from psychiatric units and maybe even one day help change government policy on treatment. She said: “I’d really love to see stickers put in GP practices that tell people they are mental-health friendly so people would know they were dealing with trained professionals who will understand.”

She wants anyone struggling to know that there is a place for them. She said: “I just want to say it’s okay how you feel. I know you’re strong. Just try to get through another day and get in touch. They’re fighting a courageous fight.”