Thursday, 30 December 2010

Samaritans - it's good to talk, it's better to listen

This special feature appeared in the Bath Chronicle, The Somerset Standard and the Somerset Guardian on Thursday, December 23. It followed a visit I made to a recruitment night for the vital charity.....

Over the Christmas period, phone lines across the world will be buzzing.

People will be ringing their loved ones in far flung corners of the globe every second of every minute of every day.

But here in Bath there will be a number of other phone calls being made to.

On these calls, there won't be instant shrieks of delight as loved ones recognise each other's voices. For the two people talking here will be total strangers.

And for one party the call could truly be a matter of life and death.

Welcome to the world of the Samaritans - one of Britain's most remarkable, if unofficial, emergency services. And one for whom Christmas might, sadly, be among the busiest times of the year.

These calls the dedicated volunteers at the Bath and District Samaritans will be taking will be coming in from people for whom other people's festive happiness only exaggerates their own feelings of sadness, loneliness and low self-worth. These often lonely, confused and sometimes even suicidal people may desperately need someone to talk to and while all other certainties in their lives are challenged they can be assured their call to the Samaritans will be received by people who truly care.

I have long been interested in the work of the Samaritans for a number of reasons.
Primarily, I suspect, it is because two close members of my family committed suicide and various mental illness issues have arisen with others. I know that even as family members you don't always know the depths of people's personal anguishes and so it is a comfort to know that there is one group of trained volunteers who will always be there to provide a confidential, caring, listening ear.

It is for that reason that, after meeting a couple of the impressive people who make up the 100-strong Bath area branch of this famous group, I decided to attend one of the regular introduction evenings to see how one goes about becoming a volunteer and what indeed makes someone take up this role .

After all, it is one that gives them no money and certainly no 'glory' as Samaritans, like their clients, are often anonymous, and not even their nearest and dearest can be given an insight into their confidential dealings.

The local branch of the Samaritans has its base at a typical and unremarkable Bath town house in Newbridge. On arriving at one of the introductory evenings, I wondered whether I would be alone or, if I wasn't, just who would make up the rest of the potential recruits. What sort of person would want to become a Samaritan I wondered?

Well, the answer to that one is simple - anyone. I was both amazed and impressed that the small meeting room was full to bursting (around 20-25 people). The potential recruits were predominantly female (which I had suspected) but also predominantly younger (which I hadn't imagined). Considering the nature of the work, I thought the average would-be recruit would be in their 40s and 50s, people who had 'seen a bit of life' and who wanted to give something back, but there was every age from late teens to OAPS.

And that pleased me because it is a service for everyone so it is right that everyone is represented.

And what is that service?

During the course of an informative and non-pressured 90 minutes three or four volunteers (all of whom had Samaritan aliases in respect of the need for confidentiality) spoke about the work they did, the clients they spoke to (and sometimes met) and the path one needs to tread to become a member of this special group of people.

What became clear is that this is a serious business and so serious training is involved. If the first call you take as a new Samaritan is from someone considering taking their own life the last thing they need to hear is someone more panicked and frightened than they are so there is a long and strictly-observed training period before you ever get to that stage.

Potential recruits would need to be interviewed, to be paired up with mentors and initially to undergo two months of weekly sessions before they get within touching distance of the phones. It is a process designed to make sure of two things: one that the Samaritans is right for you, and secondly (and more importantly) that you are right for the Samaritans.

And it is clear it won't be for everyone. I was a bit surprised to learn that as a Samaritan you are not there to offer counselling or advice (although I was less surprised when I realised later a few months training does not make you a trained counsellor).

You also have to be non-judgmental, and you have to leave your personal, moral and religious beliefs firmly at the door. Despite its name, the Samaritans is a decidedly non-religious grouping and your views and your opinions are simply not important - it is all about the person on the other end of the line. It is the classic case that you have two ears and one mouth and that ratio is the way your phone call should be. Would-be amateur psychiatrists or well meaning evangelists are not needed - this is about people with the capacity to listen. And to care. And then to listen again.

The introductory evening was just that - a quick but thought-provoking insight into what is involved which is probably just enough to let you know if this is really for you. The relaxed, friendly Samaritans who took us through the process didn't make it sound like a bed of roses ( and nor should they) but the love they have for what they do, their obvious camaraderie and their genuine belief that they can and do help by providing an ear for the often voiceless was impressive stuff.

The best advert for being a Samaritan was to see these Samaritans in action and to see what it meant to them. It was a powerful witness.

So, could I be a Samaritan and will I sign up? Well, I'm not sure I am ready, but the truth is I probably wouldn't tell you even if I did sign up. This is not about the person on the receiving end of the call, it is about the person who makes it and so to be a (ahem) good Samaritan you have to make yourself less and your caller more.

You have, above all, to be a good listener and prepare to become an anonymous person so the equally anonymous person you talk to can truly feel confident they can tell you things they couldn't tell the closest person to them in the world.

My final impression was this. BT once had a campaign called 'it's good to talk'. What my night with the Samaritans showed me is that sometimes it's even better to listen.
  • If you would like to attend the next Samaritans introductory evenings they are on Thursday, January 6 and Tuesday, January 11. To find out more about the recruitment process call 01225 423540. If you need to talk to the Samaritans call the local Bath branch on 01225 429 222 or the national number 08457 90 90 90.
    For more information on the aims and ethos of the charity go to

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