Millions of people contact Samaritans’ telephone helpline every year. On the other end of the phone are trained volunteers who spend hours answering phone calls, emails and text messages. Laura Cooke, a former listening volunteer, explains how you can join the charity.
Warning: this article contains information related to suicide which some readers might find emotionally challenging.
When we go through difficult periods in our lives, some of us can struggle to open up to those closest to us. There are lots of reasons for this – fear of judgement, worry we’ll be misunderstood or concern we won’t be listened to at all. But that is what Samaritans volunteers are best at: listening.
For three years I helped provide emotional support to a handful of the millions of people who contact Samaritans every year. Driven by a desire to help people going through difficult times, I joined up as a 30-year-old trainee volunteer. I went on to spend hours answering phone calls, emails and text messages, often at antisocial hours, offering a listening ear to visitors who dropped into our branch in Sussex.
Samaritans currently receive a record 10,000 calls for help each day, distributed between the charity’s 201 branches in the UK and Ireland. Yet despite having 20,000 volunteers helping to deliver this lifesaving service, more listeners are needed to ensure someone is always at the end of the line when needed the most.
International focus will turn to our wellbeing on 10 October for World Mental Health Day. So what better time to join an organisation that puts mental and emotional wellbeing at the heart of everything it does?
Here, current and former listening volunteers share everything you need to know about how to volunteer for Samaritans.
Check if you are eligible to volunteer
There’s a popular myth that you can’t join the Samaritans as a volunteer if you have previously used the service. But it is not unheard of for former callers to sign up.
Marilyn Devonish became a volunteer at the Watford branch a year after making contact with the service. “I called Samaritans myself during a particularly dark time,” she tells me. “Having got myself sorted out a few weeks later, I decided I wanted to be there for others in the way the Samaritans had been there for me.”
“By then I’d also had a career change to become a coach and therapist and wasn’t sure they would take me because the approaches are so different.” However, the type of job you have is rarely a barrier to joining Samaritans.
The only people automatically ruled out from a role as listening volunteers are police officers and special constables because they have a duty to report crimes, which can conflict with Samaritans’ policy on confidentiality.
Prepare for intense training
Samaritans’ training is time-consuming, so you have to be prepared to make a firm commitment. It also explores difficult and potentially triggering issues, so it is common for people to drop out before reaching the end of the training.
“It was an interesting mix of being both supportive and at times eye-opening and intense,” says Devonish. “We learnt about various scenarios you might come up against, for example, what actually happens when someone takes a drug overdose, because you may need to explain the process to a caller so they’re clear about what they might be doing. There are also role-play sessions where experienced Sams posed as callers. It gave a great insight into the types of calls you might get.”
Julia Page started volunteering at her local branch in Bridgend, South Wales, in 2018. As a mother of three sons, Julia was aware of the frightening statistics around young men and suicide and wanted to do something to help. As a former teacher of 25 years, Page had also been affected by the suicide of a former pupil.
“To be a Samaritan, you need to be a good listener, though the training does really help you do that if it is something you’re not used to,” she says. “My training involved three months of intensive weekly four-hour sessions in a group of 12. Then I spent two or three months shadowing a mentor and gradually taking calls when I was comfortable to do so. We have ongoing training online or at the branch every few months.”
Keep an open mind
Keeping an open mind is crucial if you want to be a Samaritan, as you will come across people from all walks of life with very different reasons for calling.
“You need to be non-judgemental and empathetic, and, though not an expert, aware of issues people experience around race, sexuality, addiction, homelessness and gender identity,” Page tells me.
Prepare to receive calls from people who may not share the same worldview or political ideology as you. Some callers may hold views you find offensive and will be totally unapologetic for it. However, it is critical you maintain a non-judgmental and empathetic stance when talking to all callers and encourage them to talk about their feelings.
Samaritans also receive many calls from prisoners, who are entitled to the same level of support as any other caller, regardless of their crimes.
Be ready to do some soul-searching
Samaritans training can also prompt us to ask difficult questions of ourselves. Some people contact Samaritans looking for the answers to their problems, but volunteers are not allowed to give advice or tell a caller what to do. Instead, we provide a listening ear and a safe space to explore feelings.
It feels counterintuitive not to offer advice, particularly when it comes to the issue of suicide. Samaritans’ policy on suicidal callers does not sit comfortably with everyone.
“The idea that Samaritans do not attempt to talk anyone out of suicide was a shock to me,” says Page. “The self-determination policy was difficult for some people to grasp at first.” For me, it was difficult to accept that not everyone who calls Samaritans wants to be talked out of taking their own life. Some callers just want the comfort of hearing a friendly voice on the end of the line.
Prioritise your own mental health
My branch was particularly good at providing support and aftercare to volunteers after difficult or traumatic calls. Every shift ended with a debrief from a leader and someone would always call to check in with you the following day if any issues had cropped up. So as well as listening to callers, it is vital that Samaritans are able to listen to each other too.
Lynsey Pollard was head of media at Samaritans between 2015 and 2017 and trained as a listening volunteer at Lewisham, Greenwich and Southwark Samaritans to inform her work. “The training teaches listening skills and it’s only after being trained in listening skills that it becomes obvious how little we all listen to each other. Being a good listener is relationship transforming,” says Pollard.
“The training also includes how to process having difficult and distressing conversations. This is vital to keep the volunteers healthy and able to continue the work they do.”
If a volunteer is going through a particularly difficult time, they can take a temporary leave of absence to allow them to tend to their own needs.
There are lots of ways to support Samaritans
I stepped back from answering calls midway through my first pregnancy, when I didn’t feel in the best position to support callers. After a six-month break, I returned in a supporting role as the branch’s fundraising and marketing officer. So even if you feel you are not able to be a listening volunteer, there is still a place for you in the organisation.
“They won’t accept volunteers who are managing an ongoing mental illness or a time of mental ill health,” says Pollard. “Listening to other people’s problems can be triggering, so to keep people safe they have really strict rules about it, but there are plenty of other volunteer roles within the organisation if being a listening volunteer isn’t right at the time of application.”
Support volunteer roles include fundraising, marketing, admin, IT support or putting in some hours at your local Samaritans shop. All are vital to help keep your local branch up and running.
Volunteering will change your life
Training and taking calls has a huge impact on Samaritans’ volunteers, and the experience remains long after they have moved on from the organisation.
“You get to hear about so many different aspects of the human experience and sit beside someone as they navigated their way through,” says Devonish. “I consider it a real privilege to sit in that seat and reach for the phone and have people share private aspects of their lives.”
For me, volunteering has given me an insight into situations I previously knew nothing about, and helped me deepen my personal relationships.
This was echoed by Page, who added: “I’m much more conscious of being a better listener and not such a problem solver. Using open questions is something that has really helped me in my work and also in my personal life. I also have a huge appreciation of how lucky I am and an awareness that not everyone has the support network that I do.”
Pollard, who now trains business owners to be confident onscreen, said: “Samaritans made me a much better listener. It made me a much better parent, encouraging my two boys to talk about their feelings and not to bottle them up and to be receptive to other people sharing their feelings.
“It’s made me passionate about helping to lift the stigma around talking about mental health issues and ensuring that people access the support they need, when they need it. I loved being part of an organisation that delivers such crucial life-saving work. Knowing that there is always someone on the end of the phone is an amazing thing.”
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