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'Mary slept under a bush by her husband's grave': Rosie Waterhouse looks at the harrowing case of a woman living rough and threatening suicide, and the efforts of Saneline to help her

THERE was no such thing as care in the community for Mary. Last Thursday, on the first anniversary of her husband's death, after repeated warnings that she would kill herself on that day, the grief- stricken woman began swallowing her stockpile of pills.

She took the first lot at 10am, as she said she would, and then rang Saneline, the London helpline for people and families of people who are mentally ill. She had been calling it all week.

The lament was the same. Everyone was fed up with her: the social services, the community psychiatric nurse, the police, her daughters. Nobody took her suicidal thoughts seriously; they said she was just playing games. She hated herself and blamed herself for the accident which killed her husband, John. He was crushed under the wheels of a lorry, before her eyes, after he ran out of the house in the heat of a family row. He died three weeks later. Coming up to the anniversary she had been living rough in the cemetery, sleeping under a bush by her husband's grave.

On Thursday morning at 10, calling from a telephone box in a village in the north of England, she just wanted to hear a sympathetic voice and quietly go to sleep. No, she would not let James, a Saneline volunteer, call an ambulance or the police. She would set fire to herself if he did. She called again at 2pm. The pills had not worked. She would try later.

She called again at 6pm. This time she talked to Judith, one of the most experienced Saneline advisers. She had taken another fistful of pills in the afternoon. She was violently sick, three times, during the call. That night, she said, she would take a liquid tranquiliser as well because she couldn't keep the pills down. After swallowing the lot she would ring again at 10. But she did not call back. Judith rang the telephone box Mary had been calling from all day. She kept ringing until after midnight. No reply. She went home not knowing if Mary was alive or dead.

On Friday, Saneline workers contacted the police and social services who went in search. Late in the afternoon, still distraught and rambling, Mary rang social services. She wanted to know why the pills had not worked. She said she would be taking more and rang off. Saneline has not heard from her since.

Throughout the week, James and Judith had been in touch with the social services staff. Mary was well known to them and to the police. She made previous threats and attempts to kill herself. They had tried to get her into hospital but she refused.

Mary is one of the most distressing callers Judith Wilson has had since she started working for Saneline last April, soon after it launched. 'It's a terrible grief I have never encountered before. She is looking for some excuse to live and she cannot find one. She can find no way out. She just wants someone to be kind and to care for her and nobody is.'

More than half of the 50,000 people who rang Saneline in its first year were seriously mentally ill - 37 per cent were suffering from schizophrenia or manic depression and 17 per cent were clinically depressed. About 7 per cent of the schizophrenics were suicidal.

Most of the thousand or so calls a week are cries for help. Last week was fairly typical. A mother is frightened that her son may be schizophrenic; he is beoming depressive, aggressive and violent.

A sister is worried about her brother who rants and raves that he hears voices in his head and believes he is Jesus. A young woman whose boyfriend committed suicide last November cannot cope with feelings of guilt and depression.

Saneline was launched last year by the charity Sane - Schizophrenia A National Emergency - set up in 1989 to campaign for greater awareness and better care for schizophrenics. Apart from providing a sympathetic ear, the Saneline volunteers are trained to give practical help. Each has access to a computer data base with 10,000 items of information on national and local services available throughout the United Kingdom for the mentally ill and their families.

The data base has contacts for health, counselling and social services, information on various forms of mental illness, drugs and side effects. It also finds emergency hostels for the homeless, hospitals with emergency and specialist facilities and support groups and legal advice for sufferers and families.

Marjorie Wallace, a campaigning journalist who set up Sane, says the emptying of the psychiatric hospitals has gone too far too fast - with up to 100,000 mentally ill people discharged from hospital in the last 20 years and only 11,000 new beds provided by local authorities.

Saneline is on 071 724 8000 from 4pm to midnight from Monday to Thursday and 2pm to midnight from Friday to Sunday