Before I go further, I want to make it clear that this post is meant to be constructive criticism, nothing more. It is based purely on my own experiences. Please note that anything written here which may be deemed confidential has been altered enough to ensure I have broken no rules, nor betrayed anyone.
A few years ago, I was a volunteer listener for a local branch of the Samaritans. For those of you unfamiliar with the organisation: The Samaritans provide support (mainly via telephone) for people who are in despair and suicidal. There are branches throughout the UK and phone lines are manned by volunteers, 24hrs per day, 365 days per year.
As a volunteer, I was taken initially through a rigorous and very challenging selection and training program. Without going into detail, this is designed to ensure each candidate volunteer is not only the right “sort” of person, but is capable of dealing with some of the very traumatic issues callers want to discuss. I’ll leave you to fill in those blanks.
I’m not giving away any confidential information or secrets away by telling you that Samaritans are almost exclusively there to listen to people talk about their feelings. The whole philosophy is to be completely non-judgemental and to provide an ear for people who want to die or who are in despair. This is a unique service and gives those people in such an awful position some help. Contrary to popular belief, the Samaritans will not try to talk anyone out of suicide. This is understandably a very controversial issue and further details are beyond the scope of this post.
So, other than to try and paint a positive picture of the Samaritans, why am I telling you all this? Well, after around one year of being a volunteer, I had to take a temporary leave of absence. My domestic circumstances prevented me from fulfilling my time commitment to the them and I had to put my family first, quite rightly. This time-out distanced me from my role as volunteer for a while and gave me some time to think about one or two things that had been bothering me. Ultimately, these concerns caused me to leave. What follows is a brief discussion of what my concerns were, how they fit into the context of the organisation’s beliefs and why I decided that we weren’t compatible. It saddens me still, to think of this.
I consider myself to be a caring sort of person and would never let anyone suffer if I was in a position to help them in some way. I have been trained as a Samaritan volunteer listener, a bereavement counseller and hypnotherapist. In addition, I have 40yrs life skills to draw upon and have personal experience of losing someone to suicide.
Perhaps things have changed in the few years since I left, but it was made very clear during my training that we were there primarily and virtually exclusively to listen to people talk about feelings. Callers were to be gently steered back to feelings if they strayed into the why’s and wherefore’s of their problems. At first, this made perfect sense to me. However, after gaining experience of being a volunteer, I began to see this philosophy as limiting and a source of frustration for some callers. As one person said to me; “how can I tell you how I feel without telling you why? The two are intimately connected!!”.
Let me give you an example of a particular call I took one evening. This conversation between myself and a lady who called has never left me. The gist of the conversation was that she rang Samaritans because she didn’t know who else to call. The lady said she was in her 80’s and very lonely. The last of her friends had recently died and none of her family were still living. Basically, she was completely alone. She didn’t particularly want to die, but couldn’t see any point to life any more. It had been some time since she’d spoken to another person and she just needed to hear another voice and to have a bit of a chat with another human being. Virtually none of this ten minute call was about feelings. I just spent the whole time giving her exactly what she needed…some close human contact. She had a bit of a cry during the call, but thanked me at the end. She said she couldn’t tell me how much my being there for her at that moment meant to her as she had been sat at home alone desperate to speak to someone. What was the primary subject of the call? Nothing. All she needed was a kind word and someone to lend an ear. I felt honoured to have been in a position to provide that for her.
For me to take this call in the way I did broke all the rules of Samaritans as I’d been taught them. To be honest, I didn’t really think about that at the time. My conscience would never have let me either try to get this old lady to talk about how she was feeling or bring the call to a close. I doubt either would have been any help to her under the circumstances!
I can understand why each call has to be controlled to some extent. The Samaritans are there for a specific purpose. However, as with all things in this life, there have to be exceptions to every rule. I didn’t admit to anyone else on duty the whole story of the call as I should have done and that was something else I found hard to reconcile. The support for each volunteer within the organisation is exceptional, but I didn’t feel that I wanted to share that call with anyone else because I knew I’d ignored the basics.
When I sat and thought about this call, plus one or two similar ones afterwards, along with what the Samaritans required of me, I felt I couldn’t continue being a volunteer.
What this says about me as a person or the Samaritans as an organisation is not for me to say here. I was in the wrong from their perspective, yet my conscience is clear because I know I helped the old lady.
I don’t regret leaving, but I do miss being in a position to offer help to those people who need someone there at the end of a phone.
As a last point. If you do feel in despair and want to die, please do call Samaritans. They are there for you 24/7. Do not let me put you off. The Samaritans provide a unique and amazing service to those people who need it most.