Suicide charity founder has saved countless lives in Larne
Inspirational Carlee Letson has saved thousands of lives through a suicide prevention charity she set up in her home town of Larne.
The winner of the Unsung Hero Award, sponsored by The Boulevard, in this year’s Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards with Ulster Bank, Carlee has dedicated her life to helping people in despair after suffering the tragic loss of her brother Arthur to suicide in 2006.
Unable to recover from the shock of the 34-year-old’s sudden loss, Carlee decided more needed to be done to improve mental health services in her home town of Larne.
The 59-year-old gathered a petition which successfully secured a new mental health team for the area.
Determined that even more needed to be done, she went on to study to become a professional counsellor and launched Every Life Matters NI (ELM) Suicide Prevention charity.
Since then, she has been at the end of a phone day and night to help people in distress and will travel miles at any hour to intervene when someone in despair needs help.
And although she has helped thousands of people and saved countless lives over the years, for Carlee the pain of not being able to help her own brother is something she says never goes away.
“It was September 19, 2006, and Arthur had sat with me and had sandwiches and a mug of tea and talked for two hours. It was just 15 minutes later that he went home across the road and took his own life,” she recalls.
“I was on my way to Belfast when my sister rang to tell me and I heard screaming and then realised it was me screaming.”
One of 11 children reared by their single mother, Carlee is close to all her siblings and the loss of Arthur, a father-of-four, hit her very hard.
Known for her good nature, she was uncharacteristically angry for months afterwards.
A turning point came a year later when her sister persuaded her to attend an event being held by the local Elim Church to raise awareness of what was a rising rate of suicide in the town.
She recalls: “I hadn’t realised I was angry and that’s not me. I was totally lost and felt very alone with my thoughts.
“When my sister called to get me to go to the awareness event I initially said, ‘No, we had been through enough’.
“Then she said, ‘We might find out why Arthur did what he did,’ and that did it, I just washed my face quickly and was out the door with her.
“There were a lot of Belfast suicide charities at the event talking about donations and money.
“I just let rip and said, ‘What about the people of Larne, where do we go?’
“A policewoman who was sitting behind me said, ‘Why don’t you do something about it and start a petition’ and I did.”
Carlee stood for hours outside Iceland in the town in the freezing cold asking people to sign her petition for better mental health services in the area.
It was the start of what has become a crusade to provide support for people with mental illness.
A year later she handed over a petition with 1,900 signatures to the local council and even though it was successful in securing a new team for the area, she realised more needed to be done.
In 2008 she established her charity ELM and in 2015 went back to college to study for her counselling qualifications.
Now working with a team of eight at ELM, it has become the go-to place for anyone suffering from mental health or suicidal thoughts throughout the East Antrim area.
Carlee specialises in intervention counselling — speaking to people when they are at their lowest and haven’t yet sought medical support.
She says: “I prefer intervention work. Usually when I speak to people they are completely raw. I know that when someone is heard, they feel valued and if a person feels valued they will open up and give you their life story.
“If someone is suicidal, they can phone me and I will go straightaway and see them.”
Helping bring others back from the brink does make her think about her brother and what might have been if he had reached out for help.
She says: “Hindsight is a wonderful thing. If I had known then what I know now Arthur might still be here. Ignorance is not bliss; my brother is dead because of ignorance.
“But because of him other people who were sinking have been saved and helped back onto solid ground.
“It has changed my life and I feel it has made me become the person I was meant to be. This is what I was meant to be doing.”
Carlee is concerned about the rise in suicide rates and mental health issues as a result of lockdown.
During the pandemic she became a lifeline for many struggling to cope.
One of the many grateful people she helped during the health crisis is full of praise for Carlee.
The girl, who was one of 300 people Carlee supported during the first lockdown alone, said of her: “She has inspired me a lot and she has kept me wanting to live when I had wanted to give up and didn’t want to go on anymore.
“She is an inspiration not only to me but to loads of other people and she is a great counsellor, I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for Carlee.”
Overwhelmed to be nominated, Carlee admits: “I was absolutely knocked off my feet when I heard and I cried.
“I keep myself to myself and to be included in these awards is just amazing.”
And for anyone who is in despair she adds: “If anyone is feeling that they can’t cope anymore, talk to someone and come forward. Your pain might end (if you take your own life) but your family’s won’t and it will walk beside them every day. I know because I live with it.”
You can contact ELM at 07530797716.