What happens when you call the Samaritans?

Credit: Samaritans

You’ve probably spotted the posters, or seen the number written at the bottom of articles talking about suicide and other difficult subjects

The Samaritans, a listening charity running throughout the UK, aims to reduce suicide and help people in distress by being there to listen, in complete confidentiality, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

But what actually happens when you call Samaritans, and can they help you?

As a listening volunteer at the charity, I know it can be daunting to pick up the phone and talk to a total stranger, so I wanted to try and remove some of the mystery around it.

Here, I’ve answered some of the questions Hannah suggested might help anyone wondering if the charity might be able to help them.

For some people, we’ll be the first person they can tell that they’ve been thinking about ending their life.

Do you have to be suicidal to call?

Absolutely not. Samaritans’ main aim is that fewer people die by suicide, but you know what? We think one of the best ways to achieve that aim is to give everyone somewhere they can turn when they need it. For some people, that means helping them before they get to that point. Other people might be at no risk of suicide at all, but they still deserve a confidential place to turn.

We are absolutely here for people who are experiencing suicidal thoughts, people who are seriously considering ending their lives, and even people who’ve already decided to end their lives and simply want to talk to someone who will listen. For some people, we’ll be the first person they can tell that they’ve been thinking about ending their life: just saying those words can be a huge relief – and can even be lifesaving.

But it’s not just that. I’ve been a listening volunteer with the Samaritans for about a year and a half. In that time I’ve spoken to people of all ages, classes, parts of the country – and no conversation is the same.
I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve said “oh, you’ve probably got people who need to talk to you more than me.” But if you’re talking to me about something that’s troubling you – whatever it is – you’ll be my focus and I’ll be glad you called.

I know it can be scary to call and a lot people are nervous. It might take a while to start talking.

READ MORE: Why I went to the bridge

What happens when you make your first call?

The first thing you’ll hear is something like “Hello, Samaritans, can I help you?” We’ll often ask for a first name to call you – this is just to make things a bit more personal, we don’t know who you are and we can’t find out. You can give us a name if you want, but you don’t have to. The volunteer will probably tell you their name too.

I know it can be scary to call and a lot people are nervous. It might take a while to start talking. We’ll wait, but if we don’t hear anything at all on the other end of the line we’ll end a call eventually, so if you’re not ready to say what you need to say, it can help to just let the volunteer know that your are there so they’ll know to wait for you to start taking.
Then, you tell us what’s on your mind.

This is what happens on your first call – but it’ll also be what happens any other time you call. We don’t keep details about our callers, so each time will be new and you’ll probably get a completely different volunteer (but don’t worry, we all get the same training and, hopefully, are very nice!)

Does my GP find out I’ve called?

No. This is a confidential service – we don’t know who you are unless you tell us, so we wouldn’t be able to tell your GP.

In some very specific circumstances, when we think a child or vulnerable person is at risk of harm, what’s called our safeguarding policy is triggered. This means we have a duty to try and get help or protection for that person, so we may contact other services. But the key thing is that, honestly, we can’t track your number or find out who you are, so we’ll only be able to do that if you freely choose to give us a name and address.
If this happened, the volunteer you’re talking to would let you know, and explain in more detail.

Will my family be informed I’ve called?

Absolutely not – see above.

We also won’t chat about our own lives – calls are about the callers, not the listeners.

What do you talk about?

You can tell us as much or as little as you want to. We’ll ask questions, and we may try to help you explore options to improve your situation or move forward. But we won’t tell you what to do – we might ask, say, “have you thought about going to the doctor?” Or “what would happen if you told him how you feel?” But that doesn’t mean we’re telling you to do those things, we just want to talk through what’s going on.

We also won’t chat about our own lives – calls are about the callers, not the listeners. It’s not that we’re being standoffish, but the aim of Samaritans is to provide listeners who’ll be neutral, who listen to, engage with and empathise with you, without enforcing our own experiences or opinions or personalities. That’s pretty rare, and we think it’s worth preserving.
There are a few other charities and services the Samaritans organisation recommends, so if you had a specific issue we thought they could help with, we might offer you a number (eg, for specific help for an addiction.)

Is this a form of therapy?

No. We all have some fairly intensive training, but not as therapists, and we certainly aren’t qualified to practice therapy, we’re literally just there to listen. If you’re going to therapy and you’re nervous about it, we can be good practice for talking about what’s on your mind before you meet a professional though!

If it’s causing you distress and you want to talk about it, we want to hear from you.

READ MORE: Facts about mental health that may shock you

Will I be judged?

If you need to talk about something that’s troubling you, we’re a safe, anonymous space where you won’t be judged. We’ll respect any decision you make and certainly won’t tell you what to do.

What do you want to hear from people?

This is actually really interesting, and I didn’t quite know how to answer it at first. We hear so many different things, there’s absolutely no one subject, or even a group of subjects, that Samaritans are there for.

But what I’d say is, we want to hear from people who want to try talking. That’s not an easy thing, and you might not be ready to pour your heart out, but I think it’s good to set realistic expectations: Samaritans can’t solve your problems, but what we can do is let you talk about them without judging. We’re not involved in whatever’s going on with you, so we won’t bring in our own perspective or values. And you don’t have to share everything with us. It’s a good place to try out talking about something that’s hard to talk about – for instance, many people use it as a confidential way to talk about abuse they’ve suffered, which can make it easier for them to talk to someone they actually know future.
But if it’s causing you distress and you want to talk about it, we want to hear from you.

The other important thing is not to worry about offending the volunteer you’re talking to

Will I feel better after making a phone call?

I can’t promise that. I’d like to hope so, and I know lots of people have told me the call has made them feel better as it ends. I know for some people it hasn’t worked so well – maybe they weren’t ready to talk or maybe they were looking for more direct help (like a mental health service.) But I hope that by hearing a friendly voice on the other end of the phone, they’ll know we’re here if that is something they want one day. The other important thing is not to worry about offending the volunteer you’re talking to: if it’s not making you feel better and you want to end the call, go for it – you’ll always be welcome to call back.

Credit: Samaritans

When can I call?

24 hours a day, any day – even on Christmas. There’s probably a branch near you you can visit if you want to talk in person – they’ll have opening hours which you can find online.

Will I ever be held in a telephone queue?

You might have to wait a bit, especially at busy times.

I don’t really like the phone – is there another way to get in touch?

Yes! We have an email service, jo@samaritans.org or if you’re feeling old-school, write a letter, to Chris
PO Box 9090

Can someone call on my behalf?

Yes, although we generally encourage people to call themselves, because that helps maintain the feeling of confidentiality. If someone did call and ask us to talk to you, we still wouldn’t tell them anything about what you told us.

Is there a limit on the amount of times I can call?

No – very rarely if someone is calling extremely regularly we might offer them more structured support over a specific time period, so we might call them a set number of times a week, for example.

Can I call if I’m feeling lonely?

Yes – sometimes a friendly voice at the end of the phone can help with isolation, and when you’re lonely it can feel like problems are piling up and you have no one to talk to about them. That’s just the sort of situation samaritans is there for.

Sometimes people who are lonely just want a chat – that’s really understandable, but because of what I’ve said above, this charity can’t really offer a sort of general conversation – we probably won’t tell you what we’ve been up to today or discuss the football.

How long do phone calls last?

There’s no set time period: I’ve had ten minute calls and two hour calls. I’d say the average is probably about 45 minutes.

Samaritans can be called free on 116 123
For more information, including to find out about volunteering (which can be an amazing experience) or donating (samaritans is a charity, and it costs a lot to keep branches open for calls every day) visit: https://www.samaritans.org

READ MORE: Helpline contact information.


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