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mental health

A Priceless Gift: Remember the Samaritans This Holiday Season

The charity is 65 years old and, in an era of mental health crisis, more crucial than ever.

by David Hillier
27 December 2018, 11:00am

Photos: Ashley Laurence

There was a storm the night 25-year-old Charly-Rose Smith called Samaritans. Ignoring the wet, tarry skies, she stood in a Manchester car park and cranked open her heart to a stranger called Peter. For three hours he listened to Charly’s multitudinous problems: her alopecia; her recent break-up with a long-term partner; her struggle with drug abuse; her homelessness that meant sleeping on a friend’s floor for months; an increasing feeling that perhaps it might be easier if she didn’t exist anymore.

"I struggled with depression since my hair starting falling out when I was 12," Charly says. "Now I had all these problems, and one day it got really awful. I felt like I had no purpose and didn’t want to admit I was struggling to family or friends. I needed to speak to someone impartial."

Samaritans was launched in 1953 by a young vicar called Chad Varah. Suicide was illegal, so Varah set up what he called a "999 for the suicidal" in the church of St Stephen Wallbrook in the City of London. At first it was just him manning a telephone, and despite the nature of its origins and name – the latter bequeathed after a Daily Mirror article coined the phrase "telephone good samaritans" – the organisation had no dogmatic basis in faith. It was a listening post for the desperate and, in the post-war, pre-hippy generation, it was utterly radical.

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Sixty-five years later there are 201 branches across the UK and Ireland, with over 20,000 volunteers providing support by phone, email, SMS or face-to-face. They receive over 5 million calls a year and, in 2016, reported a 300,000 increase on the previous year. Written down, these seem like huge numbers, but given we're living in a country where 14 million people exist in poverty, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised.

"When the recession hits or there are times of austerity, our callers go up and suicides go up," says Jenni McCartney, Chair of Trustees for Samaritans and a volunteer for over 35 years. "People might be just getting by, but then something happens – they could lose their job, get their benefits stopped – and suddenly they’re not able to cope."

There is a trickle-down effect for young people, yet a feeling prevails that Samaritans isn’t reaching as many as they’d like. "Recent focus group work suggested young people were less likely to ring us because they thought we weren’t very relevant to them," says McCartney. "They have a picture of Samaritans being little old ladies with white hair at the back of a church. That isn’t the case at all."

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The reality is that – putting aside the fact that we should respect the life-earned wisdom of all the white-haired ladies out there – Samaritans provide a crucial service that’s vital for Generations Z and millennial, and more of us should be picking up the phone.

Consider the stats: teenage suicides increased 67 percent between 2010 and 2017; suicide is the leading killer of people aged 18 to 34, according to the Mental Health Foundation. The situation is so dire that Theresa May recently appointed a Suicide Prevention Minister, Jackie Doyle-Price, as well as pledging £1.8 million to ensure Samaritans remains active and free for four more years.

Despite our interconnected, social media-addicted world, we’re living in an age of isolation. A recent study of 55,000 people aged 16 and over found that 40 percent of respondents aged 16 to 24 felt lonely often or very often (for context: 27 percent of over-75s reported the same). Anxiety rates are higher than ever, with benzodiazepines like Xanax (or fake Xanax) being the drug of choice for a younger generation in thrall to openly Xanax-popping rappers like Lil Pump, Lil Xan and the tragically deceased Lil Peep.

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We visit the Brighton Samaritans branch at 10AM on a bright November morning. The mood throughout the building is quiet but hospitable. Unsurprisingly for a British organisation where talking is their raison d'être, there’s an abundance of teas and biscuits. "Party Rings are the favourite," says Branch Director Alison Pratt.

Brighton is the fifth biggest branch in the UK, with 140 active listening volunteers, all organised by Alison. It also offers a face-to-face service where anyone can drop in without an appointment and talk with a volunteer. A quick glance at the branch’s volunteers board – which we're not allowed to photograph – confirms that the demographic spreads evenly across generations. They’re mostly white but, well, it is Brighton.

Throughout our visit and all my dealings with the charity, confidentiality is paramount. Everything is laser-focused on ensuring the caller’s identity is never compromised. All calls are unrecorded and unmonitored. Getting anyone to reveal anything vaguely specific about previous calls is a fool's errand. We’re not allowed to take pictures while the volunteers are actually on the phone in their booths, lest we hear anything or the volunteer gets distracted.

Claire has been a volunteer for three years and says that "lots of people mention the political climate. People are struggling financially or on benefits or homeless." On the computer, she deals with incoming texts and says you get more teenagers using this service. "They’re often having trouble at school and don’t know who to speak to. They’re used to speaking by text, so more comfortable with this."

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Alison says she thinks "most volunteers have some kind of lived experience", whether that’s with mental health issues or trauma, and you sense this experience-led empathy powers the organisation. Another driving force is dedication. "The training is intense," says Susie, deputy director for Caller Support in Brighton and Hove. "It's brilliant, though. It teaches you lots of skills: listening, empathy." Susie is involved with the Samaritans’ Listener programme that trains prisoners to provide confidential emotional support to their fellow inmates. "We often get prisoners saying, 'If I'd had these skills before, I’d never have committed the crimes I did.’ Thats’s very powerful."

As well as generally trying to reach young people – they’re scheduled to launch an instant messaging service in the spring to aide this – there’s an urgent desire to engage more young men. The frailty of male mental health in the UK is well documented; 2016 saw the number of male suicides drop to 4,382, but they still accounted for three-quarters of suicides in the UK. Suicide remains the biggest killer of men under 50. Organisations like Movember and CALM are trying to combat this, while Samaritans are using Joe Talbot to promote their Brew Monday campaign. Joe is the lead singer of Bristol punk band IDLES, whose latest album Joy As an Act of Resistance tackles toxic masculinity and features a song named after Samaritans. "Samaritans saved the life of two people I know," he says. "At their darkest point – a point of suicide – they spoke to Samaritans. I think that faceless conversation is a dream. It stops the idea of judgment and burden because those people are volunteering to listen. It’s a priceless gift for people in modern times."

Joe has been unflinchingly open about his past, including troubles with alcohol and substance abuse. After starting counselling at 32, he’s now sober, while his band threaten to become a generation-defining act. He’s not used Samaritans himself, but says their services could have helped him make a change sooner: "There’s so many tropes of masculinity that cause men to behave in certain ways. If I could have talked to someone anonymous like Samaritans it might have saved myself five or ten years of cyclical bullshit."

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Samaritans are also reaching out to men in other ways. As part of their ongoing partnership with Network Rail, the British Transport Police and the wider rail industry through their Small Talk Saves Lives campaign, they’ve trained thousands of railway workers in intervention skills with people who may be about to commit suicide. This isn’t just an effort to arrest suicides on the railways, but to spread awareness in a male-dominated environment.

It’s probably not surprising that only women replied to my shoutout on social media for testimonials from Samaritans callers. Hollie Brooks, a 29-year-old freelance journalist, called several times during her early-to-mid twenties while working crushing hours in a London digital agency where she was bullied by a senior member of staff. “I called Samaritans for help, for someone to tell me I wasn't going insane and for someone to help me pass those dark hours where I thought there was no way out."

Charlie Melrose O'Connor, a 29-year-old singer from Brighton, called during a brutal drugs comedown where she was considering self-harming. "It was the middle of the night and I didn’t want to wake anyone up. I rang them and it calmed me down. They don’t give you their opinions or tell you what to do. They just help you talk your way out of that horrible place."

It was that opportunity to talk herself out of the darkness – not to mention a drenching – that instigated change in Charly-Rose Smith’s life on that stormy night in Manchester. She went home and finally told a friend everything. She cried again, then opened up to the university counselling services. She still sees them every week, but is now happy and studying a sociology course she adores.

That Samaritans call didn’t provide an answer to her problems – maintaining her mental health is a day-by-day process – but gave her a safe space to be vulnerable and explore her options with a kind stranger. "It sounds like such a dramatic cliche," she laughs, "having this life-changing moment in the pouring rain. But I’m so grateful they were there."

Click here to donate to Samaritan’s #GiveTheGift campaign

@dhillierwrites