Are You Good At Listening?
Hastings and Rother branch of the Samaritans does amazing work, and needs more volunteers. Ben Bruges met Yvette Harris, the branch director to find out what’s involved.
One of Chad Varah’s first duties when ordained in 1935 was to take the funeral of a 13 year old girl who had committed suicide. She didn’t know that bleeding between her legs was perfectly normal; her tragic death could so easily have been avoided. The lack of someone to speak to in confidence stayed with Varah, eventually leading to the establishment of the Samaritans in 1953. Varah answered the first call for the new service, describing it as requiring just “a man willing to listen, with a base and an emergency telephone”.
The Hastings and Rother Samaritans’ base is a small terraced house in a quiet square in Hastings. Talking to Yvette Harris, the branch director, it became clear that the Samaritan volunteers all learn to deal with very difficult issues with a deep-seated honesty, emotional resilience and mental toughness.
Yvette explains how difficult it can be when the caller is suicidal: “If they are not vulnerable and capable of making their own decisions then we will be with them to support them. If they wish us to be on the phone, if that’s what they wish to do, then that’s what we would do. But our hope is that they would put down the phone and for just one more day feel that they can hang on, maybe the next day they might feel a little bit stronger that things might change, they might talk to us again.”
It took a moment to realise that she was talking about staying on the phone while something potentially awful happens. But of course they don’t know where the caller is – they could be anywhere across the country; all local branches answer the national 116123 number which is free (and untraceable) for both mobiles and landlines and won’t appear as ‘Samaritans’ on caller lists or bills.
No judgements, no advice
It can be hard not to give advice. Yvette explains: “Just because it’s worked for us it doesn’t mean it’s going to be right for the caller, and it could go drastically wrong. We never want to tell someone what we think they should do.” She makes a wider point that we could all do well to heed: “Next time you have a conversation with someone and you start telling them about yourself or what’s been happening, pay attention to who you think is really listening to you because you find quite often it gets completely turned around. Before you know it they’re telling you that exactly the same thing happened to them or they know about what you’re talking about they’ve experienced it and they’re talking about themselves, not you. It’s quite strange, and I don’t think you notice it until you’ve learned to listen.”
Nowadays they answer callers in many different ways – via phone, text (SMS), email or face to face. They have a festival branch that travels to festivals, and a correspondence branch as some people still prefer to write letters. In the future they have a plan to set up an instant messaging system, but estimate that that would require 6,500 more volunteers nationally.
A huge level of need
Nationwide, through 201 branches, the Samaritans answer a call every 6 seconds; 550 every hour every day, with an average length of 21 minutes and half are first-time callers. At the Hastings branch last year 53 volunteers took 13 thousand calls, answered 2,400 emails, 2,715 texts and conducted 139 face to face meetings. As Yvette says, “For a very small branch, that is a lot, we do pack it in. We are working non-stop.”
The scale of their work, of the need, is huge. Yvette says: “There is no one type of caller; it’s just such a mixed bag.” Callers’ concerns in 2018 included isolation and loneliness, family problems, mental health issues, physical health or illness, relationship problems and self-harming. Suicidal feelings are present in one in four calls for help; in the early hours of the morning that rises to one in three. One in five of those self-harming say they were talking to the Samaritans to avoid self-harm. Men are more likely to mention isolation and loneliness. 50% of calls were from women, 36% from men, 1% transgender and 7% of unknown gender. 85% were adults, 4% children under 18, and 11% age unknown.
Becoming a volunteer
Everyone’s journey to becoming a Samaritans volunteer is different. For Yvette, early in her life she experienced a difficult, long illness. She didn’t use or even know about the Samaritans at the time, but was left thinking that she wanted to give something back. Later, when she heard about the Samaritans, it felt like the perfect thing to do, the way to help others.
The Samaritans set clear expectations about becoming a volunteer. Nationwide they recruited and trained 4,300 new volunteers last year and it’s currently a process that is open twice a year in Hastings, though there are plans that will make the process more flexible soon.
Upfront a potential volunteer is told that they must commit to one duty a week, four hours at the moment, and one of those duties has to be a night duty every month. If interested, a volunteer sends in an application form (search ‘Samaritans application’), is invited to attend an information day; then there’s an interview and a selection day. The process explores the applicant’s life skills, how they perceive things in life; are they non-judgemental? Are they empathetic? Yvette says, “Some people have so much empathy it oozes out of them, some people don’t have as much, but it’s not to say they won’t, they gain it along the way.”
Then it’s on to basic training which takes about two and a half months, working through ten modules. Once that’s finished they are given a mentor for a number of sessions, for around 6 to 8 weeks. They then go into the duty room, always with a full Samaritan by their side, during which time they complete another four modules of Samaritans training. All being well they become a full Samaritan and are then able to support trainees themselves. In addition, at the end of every duty a volunteer can phone a “leader”, who support the people on duty, they discuss the call, and assess if the volunteer needs support themselves. There’s even a Samaritan’s Samaritan in the branch who everyone can talk to; at no point are the people on duty left unsupported.
What’s in it for volunteers?
So why volunteer? Yvette explains: “Volunteers do gain a lot. We gain comfort in knowing that we have been able to be there for someone who may really have needed it. It’s like a family in here. It’s a wonderful organization. We really do all support each other and every single one of us who comes in really cares about what we do.”
• If you are interested in becoming a volunteer,
email Yvette on [email protected]
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