Tom Francis Samaritans volunteering

Join Samaritans to support the rising number of callers

Tom Francis is not my real name. My real name is the one on the front of my books. But I’ve been working as a Samaritans volunteer for the last two years.

It’s often challenging. Sometimes it’s desperately sad. Sometimes it’s uplifting. Every now and then it’s very funny. I’ve heard some extraordinary stories, none of which I can share because the Samaritans is one of the very few helplines that can offer callers complete anonymity and complete confidentiality. But I can tell you some of the reasons why they get in touch.

We listen to people who are feeling suicidal. We listen to people buried under crippling debt, to people going through bitter divorces or bruising child custody battles. We listen to people with long-term mental health problems, to people who are fighting the urge to harm themselves, to people haunted by voices and to people who believe that malign forces are controlling their lives. We listen to people who have been sexually abused and to people who are still being abused. We listen to people in prison. We listen to people who have been bereaved and people who have terminal illnesses. We listen to people whose relationships with their families, their co-workers or their employers have gone terribly wrong. We listen to people struggling with drugs or alcohol. Perhaps more than anything we listen to people who are profoundly lonely.

Some of them are difficult, angry people. Some are charming and self-deprecating. Some are admirable. Many are apologetic for taking up our time. Some are distraught after experiencing events that other people might think trivial. Some are sanguine in the face of experiences that would destroy most of us.

What we offer them is something very simple: the opportunity to talk about what is troubling them for as long as they need. And we listen. We don’t try to cheer them up or change their minds. We don’t talk about ourselves, we don’t make judgments or give advice.

In our daily lives, we are always asking people, “How are you?”, but it’s rarely more than a friendly greeting. If someone were to reply, “I’m having a terrible time,” most of our hearts would sink, which is why people rarely say, “I’m having a terrible time.”

Only since working for the Samaritans have I come to understand how much being listened to and feeling genuinely heard can ease that burden.

If someone is planning to take their life, we don’t try to dissuade them. We encourage them to tell us about what they’re going through, however terrifying, however bleak. Research suggests that this reduces the number of callers who go on to take their lives, something you will know in your bones after you’ve taken a few of these calls.

We also take calls from prisoners and ex-prisoners, some of whom have committed violent or sexual crimes. We steer round the subject of their offences where possible and ask instead about what’s troubling them now. Sometimes these calls are difficult because of our instinctive distaste for someone who might have hurt or killed other people. Often the shock is discovering how ordinary they seem, how little difference there is between them and us.

And a surprising number of people abuse the service. Some want an argument. Some need to swear loudly at a stranger. Commonest of all are those who ring up to share their sexual fantasies: the majority are men who want to talk to female volunteers.

I signed up partly because I missed the voluntary work I had done after leaving college. I wanted to learn something new and do something that wasn’t about me. The work sounded scary but intriguing, and they seemed like a warm group of people. I passed the interview, took part in the reassuringly thorough training and took part in my first five shifts with a mentor beside me.

I now do a shift most weeks, always alongside another volunteer. Some calls last five minutes, some last for hours. We’ve all had people call up just to sing to us then put the phone down, and we’ve all had people ringing to thank Samaritans for getting them through a really difficult stage in their lives.

We answer emails and texts, neither of them an ideal medium for discussing difficult subjects, but they help us reach people who wouldn’t get in touch in any other way. Callers can also talk to us in person from 8am to 10pm.

I still turn up for every shift feeling a little nervous, and I hope I always do. None of us has any idea what to expect when that phone rings for the first time. By the second call, however, I’m starting to feel at home. And at the end of every shift I feel – paradoxically – happier, for reasons I still only half understand. Some of it, I suspect, is that I’ve had a few hours in which I’ve not had a chance to think about myself.

But we have a problem. The number of callers has been rising steadily. Some of them, especially those who call in the small hours of the morning, now get an engaged tone, and that’s a worry. For many people, it’s hard enough plucking up the courage to ring us in the first place. If we’re busy it might be the last time they try.

One reason for this surge is that it now costs nothing to call the Samaritans from anywhere in the UK or Ireland, and that’s a good thing. But there are less cheering reasons. Homelessness is rising, people are earning less money for jobs that are less secure. We’re also getting an increasing number of calls from people with long-term mental health problems who feel let down by the health service. Many of them have been told explicitly by doctors, nurses or social workers to ring us when they are in crisis. And we will do this happily. We will always answer as many calls as we can from anyone who needs to talk. But one volunteer can only pick up one phone at a time.

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