Monday morning before dawn, early April. As my car weaves through the quiet south London streets, I tune into the calming strains of Classic FM – appropriate, I feel, for what lies ahead. Poor sleepers, early-risers, workaholics and shift workers are already hurrying towards tube and train stations. That used to be me, in another life – one that ended three years ago.
As I turn into a sleepy side road, I’m hit by the sweet smell of spring blossom unleashed by the early morning dew. A fox freezes in the car headlights, then turns and leaps onto a wall before disappearing into thick foliage.
A few minutes later I purr through iron gates into a small business park. I pass my key fob over a sensor pad; the door clicks open. I close it behind me, and go up the stairs into the hushed but welcoming offices of Samaritans – the charity offering a 24/7 listening service for people who are struggling – for my first ever shift.
‘I have no idea what to expect’
I’m apprehensive, but remind myself that I’ve been trained for this moment, and anyway I’ll be working alongside an experienced Samaritan – Kate, my assigned mentor. Nevertheless, I have no idea what lies ahead in the next three hours, nor what to expect from this first shift.
For the 35 years of my working life I’d worked in the cut and thrust of newspaper journalism. My senior level job required (among other things) thinking on my feet, staying calm in a crisis (there were many), and finding instant solutions for any and every problem that crossed my desk in an average working day. Back then, I was expected to hold an opinion on just about everything – and people were keen to know what that opinion was.
My new challenge: To listen
The qualities required of me now – as a listening volunteer for Samaritans – are exactly the opposite. Chiefly among them is that much-underrated skill: the ability to listen. And not just listen: actively listen. To properly hear what the caller is saying, to seek to understand their position, to support and empathise with their distress, to emotionally ‘hold’ them while they unburden, and to stay alongside them until they are ready to end the call.
That’s all. It doesn’t sound like much, does it? But it’s important to be able to support the caller in the right way, to say appropriate things to encourage trust between you, to demonstrate empathy, to give plenty of ‘verbal cuddles’, to allow silences where necessary, resist the temptation to interrupt, to judge, or to offer advice or solutions, or even to give your own opinion no matter how much you might wish to. These are very different ‘skills’ from those most of us use every day; they’re muscles we’re not used to flexing – and learning to do so effectively takes practice.
Volunteering: For less selfish souls than me
If you’d told me four years ago that I’d be volunteering as a Samaritan today, I’d have laughed. The thought had never crossed my mind. Of course I knew about Samaritans, and was aware of the valuable work they do, but I was one of those fortunate people who was never likely to need to call upon their services, and I didn’t have either the time or the inclination to volunteer. Volunteering was for other – far less selfish – souls than me.
Optimistic and buoyant by nature, I was fortunate to have no personal experience of what it feels like to suffer from anxiety or depression. And as for suicide, I couldn’t even comprehend what sort of mindset a person would need to be in to contemplate such a thing.
When anxiety hit me
Then, in 2018, everything changed. My job as a newspaper magazine editor – which had absorbed my every waking hour – came to an abrupt end. Unable to process the turmoil of difficult emotions that overwhelmed me, I succumbed first to chronic anxiety and then panic attacks. I was consumed by a nameless terror and sense of dread, suddenly unable to function as a normal human being, rapidly becoming a prisoner in my own home.
My GP prescribed Valium (which I refused, aware of its addictive properties. Instead I was given anti-depressants) and CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). I signed up for acupuncture and clinical hypnotherapy. Needing this extent of medication and therapy was incredible to me, who had rarely bothered the doctor in the last 30 years, and refused even to take paracetomol for a headache.
My dark night of the soul
During the day, friends and family were fantastically supportive, but night-time was another matter. For weeks, sleep was out of the question. I tried everything: meditation tapes, listening to the radio, pacing up and down the bedroom floor – but my heart pounded in panic, blood raced through my veins, and the tangle of thoughts endlessly tumbled round in my head. For me, the talking therapies have always worked best, but friends willing to lend an ear during the day were all asleep now.
At those times – when things were at their darkest – I would lie with my phone on the bedside table next to me, Samaritans’ number on the screen, primed and ready for me simply to press the green button. I realised then how important it was to know that – at whatever time of day or night (and let’s face it, things often seem much worse in the dead of night) – there was someone I could speak to, someone who would listen and understand and not judge. Someone who would simply be there.
I never called Samaritans’ number, but neither did I forget how reassuring it was to know they were there if I had needed them at that time.
The year passed by, and ended with a funeral – my mother’s. Her health had been deteriorating for several months, and her death brought another shocking – and grief-filled – full stop in my life. I started to wonder how I might fill the gap left by my close relationship with my mother, the lively discussions I used to have with my ‘tribe’ at work, and most of all the access to people’s most deeply personal stories that my job had afforded me.
Could volunteering provide a new sense of purpose?
More than anything, I wanted to find a sense of purpose again. For a year, I’d been tossed like flotsam on a sea of emotions, trying to sort out my life, trying to support my mother as best I could, trying to find some equilibrium. I’ve always been a worker, and wasn’t yet ready to hang up my boots. Throughout my working life, I’d woken up every morning with a spring in my step – eager to get on with the day, full of that rocket fuel that drives us: purpose.
I needed to find a new tribe, an office to go to, a sense of belonging, a feeling of pride. It wasn’t about power or riches; it was about contributing something worthwhile, no matter how small, to make me feel useful again. It was time to give something back.
Samaritans to the rescue…in a new way
That’s when I thought about Samaritans. I suddenly knew that – quite apart from the support this charity offers to anyone who might be struggling, it might also give me what I needed: a sense of purpose. Googling the website one evening, I discovered there was a branch close to my home. They were holding an information evening in a few weeks’ time. I put my name down.
‘I’ll take it step by step,’ I thought. ‘If at any point I feel this isn’t for me, I’ll simply withdraw.’
How you become a Samaritan
That never happened. I was impressed by the information evening, and liked the look of my fellow volunteers. I filled in the forms, went through the necessary security/criminal checks, and was called for interview. After that, I was invited to a full day of workshops and role-play with other potential volunteers and trained Samaritans. Shortly afterwards, I was told I’d made it onto the training course – 10 three-hour modules spread over three months, each of them compulsory.
Once out of the classroom, I did 20 three-hour shifts alongside mentors, spread over four months. And then, finally, I ‘flew solo’ – carrying out shifts without a mentor (but always at the branch, with at least one other trained listening volunteer on duty). Four more training modules followed (plus several online training sessions), before I finally achieved my number – a unique group of digits showing that you are now a fully-fledged Samaritans’ listening volunteer. The whole process takes the best part of a year, and the sense of pride at achieving your number is considerable.
Outreach that inspired me
I’ve also done outreach – handing out leaflets on station platforms, encouraging donations and spinning a tombola to raise funds for the charity at various country shows. All in the name of spreading the word about Samaritans and getting the message out there.
At one of these events, a man popped a £2 donation into my bucket. He told me he’d spent 19 years living on the streets before being moved into council accommodation last year. He was now a Big Issue seller. £2 was a generous chunk of his income. ‘Your lot talked my mate down from a bridge,’ he said. ‘I’ll always be grateful for that.’
And let’s not forget, the statistics are chilling. Every day in the UK an average of 16 people take their own life. The number of younger people suffering from mental health issues, self-harming, and taking their lives is rising at an alarming rate. The pandemic has only exacerbated these figures, magnifying existing issues until they become unbearable. If Samaritans can do anything to help reduce these figures, that has to be a good thing.
What is Samaritans, exactly?
Samaritans is not therapy; it’s a confidential listening service. A port of call for anyone in distress (particularly in demand while NHS waiting times for group and one-on-one therapy are so long). If you’d told me that simply listening – truly listening – to someone unburdening their problems might actually help them, I’d never have believed you.
But it does. It really does. Samaritans are trained to ‘go towards the pain’ – gently encourage callers to express their feelings and their deepest fears – and not to recoil from difficult, unpleasant or shocking revelations.
Why listening helps others
As someone more used to practicalities than emotions, I found the simple question, ‘How does that make you feel?’ an awkward one to ask during training sessions. But when I deployed it in real life, the caller would often respond with relief, having been given permission – possibly for the first time – to talk about complicated (and sometimes shameful) personal feelings. It’s something friends and family often don’t know how to handle and don’t always want to hear.
What it was like to listen to others
And what of those calls? Hearing a real voice on the phone is always a humbling moment. Someone in such a place of despair that they pick up the phone and ring Samaritans. On my first shift, we took three calls from men – different ages, different circumstances – all experiencing feelings of loneliness and despair. One of them had twice attempted to take his own life; another thought about suicide constantly.
Monday mornings can be difficult for even the most resilient of us, but if you’re suffering from depression, if your relationship has collapsed, if you’ve recently experienced bereavement, job loss, or a diagnosis that’s knocked you sideways, if you’re estranged from friends and family, or if you’ve lost all sense of hope, the challenge of getting through the week can be more than you can face.
What I’ve learned from Samaritans
Joining Samaritans opened my eyes to the incredible strength and value of Britain’s voluntary sector – the backbone of the country. Volunteers often give their time tirelessly to help those less fortunate, whether its running food banks, supporting the homeless, fund-raising for medical research, or selflessly toiling in challenging caring roles.
My fellow volunteers are a lively, interesting, highly skilled group who could just as easily be sitting in boardrooms as taking calls at two in the morning. Some of them do both, leaving me speechless with admiration. We range in age from mid-twenties to late-seventies.
People of all kinds and backgrounds are drawn to volunteering, and as well as doing regular shifts on the phone, they run the office, organise the rota, carry out outreach in prisons and schools, take on fund-raising activities, and willingly undertake extra shifts if someone falls ill. They blow my mind.
Who calls Samaritans?
Since that first shift, I’ve done many shifts. They blend into each other, but some calls will always stand out. The young woman – my daughter’s age – on the verge of adulthood, dislocated from friends and family, who could see no future worth living for. The elderly man, raped as a child by his stepfather, who had spent his entire life trying to deal with the emotional repurcussions until now – exhausted – death seemed the only way to achieve respite from the painful memories. The middle-aged woman, calling from her car where she’d been sleeping for several days, having fled her abusive partner.
When people ask me what I’m doing now, and I mention Samaritans – among other things – they’re often intrigued. They say things like ‘That’s awesome’, or ‘How amazing’. In truth, I get far more from the calls than I could ever give. I feel as if I give very little, and never fail to be humbled by the trust callers place in us.
I think of Pauline, who had recently lost her husband, who spoke about her concerns for her adult son whose mental health issues meant that he will never lead an independent life. At the end of the call Pauline said, ‘I never asked your name – what is it?’ Before I could reply, she said, ‘No, it’s OK. I’m going to call you Angel, because you’ve been an angel to me tonight.’
Or Jeremy, a man in his 70s with a stellar career behind him, now coping with an array of daunting physical and mental health challenges. As the call drew to a close, he said, ‘You know when you end a call and they ask you to rate the service you’ve received, ten being the highest? Well, if I were to give you a rating now, I’d give you a 9.999. That’s as close to a ten as you can get, did you know?’
Jeremy couldn’t have made me more proud and happy if he’d presented me with a Nobel Prize.
All names and some details have been changed to protect confidentiality.
Could I volunteer for Samaritans?
Anyone over the age of 18 can volunteer with Samaritans; you don’t need to have gone through a significant life event to be eligible. All you need is to be open-minded, non-judgemental and tolerant. If becoming a listening volunteer doesn’t sound like you, there are many other ways you can support the charity from fundraising and marketing to outreach, technical and administrative support.
Every year approximately 20,000 people volunteer with Samaritans; each of the 201 branches countrywide receives between 10 and 30k calls per year, and trained volunteers also respond to emails and SMS, and face-to-face callers.
Samaritans’ aim is to reduce the number of suicides in Britain. Every day in the UK approximately sixteen people take their own life. The highest number of suicides are among men in the 45-55 age group.
The most likely group of people to volunteer in Britain are 65-74 year-olds, from higher socio-economic groups.
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