“I will speak for someone who can’t speak out,” says Donna Paterson-Harvie. And she is speaking as a mother who has lost her son to suicide, knows an ocean of pain and is now running a charity to support people touched by suicide in West Lothian.
The above comment was in the context of reducing the stigma surrounding suicide. Something Donna comes across a lot is that for many people who have lost a loved one to suicide, talking about it is made all the more difficult by the stigma surrounding it.
I’m catching up with Donna over coffee at West Lothian College where she can be found most of the time as the students and lecturers, she explains, has been phenomenal in raising awareness of the charity, which is called Neil’s Hugs Foundation in memory of her son. Neil’s Hugs runs a twice- monthly support group here at the college (as well as at other places), and Donna also works with student support services to provide group or one to one support where it is requested. I first heard about Neil’s Hugs from one of the students at the college, Yvonne Beveridge, via the Konect charity distribution scheme. It is Yvonne’s nominated charity for the scheme, and I was keen to find out more.
Donna’s story that led her to this point is heartbreaking and inspiring. She wants all the focus to be on the work Neil’s Hugs is doing now, but a short extract from her words on the charity’s website gives a glimpse of the driving force behind it:
“I am lucky to be Neil's Mum. That does not change because he is no longer on earth. He is always safe in my heart. I have founded this charity because I shared his journey, I believe I should do something in his memory to help families in similar circumstances to ours...
I brought my son back to life on two occasions, I had to listen to him as he asked me why I had saved him as he did not want to live. I heard how he planned to take his life and was never sure when I left him if it would be the last time I saw him alive. He called me the morning he died and he knew I was working and could not get to him in time to save him.”
That was seven years ago. One can only imagine the journey Donna has been on, but when she emerged it led to her going on a counselling course at West Lothian College, and setting up Neil’s Hugs. She started it in December 2016, and launched officially in September 2017 - on Neil’s birthday.
“I wanted to help others going through what I went through. If I have a roof, a kettle and a biscuit, I can look after someone,” she says. So Neil’s Hugs is a counselling and support organisation infused with Donna’s deeply caring nature. “You never get over your grief”, says Donna, “but it changes you as a person and you learn to live with it. It changes your priorities. I am a very different person to the one I was before; I’m much less bothered about the housework now and less able to multi-task than I did when I had a career as a casino manager. I live in a house that is perhaps not ideal for us, but it is where I spent most time with Neil, so it’s where I want to be.”
A huge benefit can be gained from talking with others who are going through the same pain, and this applies to people who may be at risk of suicide too. While many suicides are related to mental health issues, it’s not always the case. “Life is a really tough place, and some people are just not as resilient as others,” says Donna. Some people come to the support groups who have not spoken about suicide of a loved one for 30 years or more. Everyone grieves in their own way, there is no right or wrong. “And it can be a vicious cycle; a proportion of suicides are a result of another one in the close family. Neil’s Hugs wants to be there for those people too, and suicide prevention is a large part of what we do.” Donna is also a member of a Scottish Government group called the Lived Experience Panel that is looking at priorities for suicide prevention strategy. “As a charity we encourage people to talk, but there needs to be comprehensive government support. We’re working on it in the strategy group.”
Since starting out, Neil’s Hugs has seen a huge demand for the counselling and support services. There is a kind of silent cry in the community, as there is little support available within the health services, with long waiting lists and so on.
Donna’s ultimate dream is that every school, college and university in Scotland will have a peer support group for suicide prevention. It is still early days for the charity, but she has been asked to speak at high schools where there have been recent tragic losses. Students have been deeply engaged with Neil’s Hugs, and when they ask what they can do to help, Donna says, “This charity is your charity, what would you like it to do?”
Donna leaves me with a hug. I was deeply moved by this interview. Let me sum her up for you: diamonds are formed through intense pressure.
Neil’s Hugs support groups for people who have lost someone to suicide. See the details below - just turn up, or feel free to contact Donna first.
Open to everyone, general support group: Every 1st and 3rd Wednesday of the month 6.30pm – 8.30pm at Strathbrock Partnership Centre, Broxburn
Men’s Peer Support Group: 2nd Wednesday of the month 6.30pm – 8.30pm, Strathbrock Parthership Centre, Broxburn
For West Lothian College students and staff. 2nd and 4th Thursday of the month, 12-2pm, college campus.
Neil’s Hugs is also available for one to one and group counselling, please contact Donna on the details below.
If you can help raise funds to support the work Neil’s Hugs is doing, please contact them! They benefited hugely from people doing the Kiltwalk in September 2018. World Suicide Prevention day is in September, so why not consider doing the Kiltwalk this September for Neil’s Hugs?
Or consider them for your organisation’s Charity of the Year, sponsorship opportunities or any other fundraising ideas you have : every piece of support is hugely appreciated.
Donna’s mobile: 07446 717501
Neil’s Hugs is a charity registered in Scotland, number SC047055
Article published in Konect February 2019
Author: Helen-Jane Shearer