Long Reads

“What volunteering for a suicide helpline taught me about loneliness”

“The majority of callers were lonely, and simply craved hearing another human voice that wasn’t from their TV…”

The first time I talked someone down from suicide was on a sunny Australian afternoon. I was volunteering at a crisis support helpline there, and a woman in her late 20s was on the other end of the phone. She was in serious distress and told me she was planning to take her own life, following the messy breakdown of her marriage*.

We had very little in common apart from our similar ages: I’d moved to Australia a few months before as a backpacker, landing a job and a boyfriend to keep me there, and she was hundreds of miles away, unemployed and escaping domestic abuse. 

But at that moment she was asking me, a complete stranger, for help.

My training quickly kicked in: I asked her more about her plans and she promised to keep herself safe while we talked. I hit the tracking button on the phone so the police or ambulance service could trace her call if we got cut off, or was in imminent danger, and I told her that I was worried about her welfare. My supervisor listened in while we talked about everything that had happened up until that point. 

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She sobbed, shouted and swore about the unfairness of the situation. I listened, empathised and looked for a turning point in the conversation to help her see that suicide wasn’t the answer. By the end of the call, she’d come up with a much better plan: a friend was on her way over to spend the night with her, and she was going to seek legal advice the next morning. My supervisor was satisfied that she was no longer an imminent risk to herself.

As I ended the call by reassuring her that she could call back if she needed further support, she thanked me and said I was the first person who hadn’t been scared to sit with her in the darkness.

Over the course of the next eight months I would regularly take calls like this. They came from women and men of all ages and backgrounds, who all had one thing in common: they needed to talk. Each time I would diligently ask if they were suicidal and listen to their response, alerting my supervisor if they were in imminent danger or listening, comforting, and gently helping them to find their way again if not. 

Some were dealing with the death of a husband or wife, others were homeless, struggling to hold down a job, or suffering with their mental health. Some were going through court proceedings to get access to their children, while others were struggling to make ends meet after their benefits payments had been cut off.

The majority of callers, though, were lonely, and simply craved hearing another human voice that wasn’t from their TV.

The majority of callers to the helpline were simply lonely

Loneliness is one of the biggest issues of our time – and it doesn’t discriminate. According to a recent study by the Office of National Statistics, five percent of adults in England feel lonely “often” or “always”. That’s around 2.5million people, and the 16-24 age group is most likely to be at risk. 

Research suggests loneliness can not only have a major impact on our happiness levels, but also our physical and mental health. We may well be more connected than ever before through our phones and social media, but most of us would find it difficult to go an entire day without a real conversation. And rightly so; humans are sociable animals by design. 

Sadly, suicide doesn’t discriminate either. Last year in the UK and Republic of Ireland, 6,213 people took their own lives, with men three times more likely than women to take their lives, according to The Samaritans. As the International Association of Suicide Prevention says: “Suicide is complex. It usually occurs gradually, progressing from suicidal thoughts, to planning, to attempting suicide and finally dying by suicide”. 

Humans are sociable animals by design

Suicide charities will also tell you that you can’t put suicidal thoughts into someone’s head by asking if they are feeling suicidal.

Nor should you ever use the term ‘commit suicide’ – it’s neither sinful, nor a crime, to take your own life. Both are integral to breaking down the stigma that still surrounds suicide.

Volunteering for four hours a week on the helpline also taught me something else very powerful: if you can sit in someone’s pain and simply listen, you can make a huge difference. With the right training and support, a conversation can save someone’s life, whether they’re lonely, suicidal or both; a friend or a complete stranger. And that’s reason enough to stop scrolling through Instagram and reconnect in real life.

Want to get involved?

The Samaritans provide emotional support to anyone in emotional distress, struggling to cope, or at risk of suicide throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland, often through their telephone helpline which is manned by volunteers and answers more than five million calls a year. Find out more about volunteering for The Samaritans at www.samaritans.org.

If you or someone you love needs to talk, call The Samaritans on 116 123, email jo@samaritans.org or go to www.samaritans.org to find details of your nearest branch.

*Call information has been changed to protect identity.

Images: Unsplash 

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