Social issues

The Samaritans: Here to Listen

– by David Churack

We’re here for you. There’s no problem too small or too big to talk about.

Most of us have heard of the Samaritans Crisis Line, and are at least vaguely familiar with the nature of the organisation. For those of you who are in the dark, the Samaritans can be described as a suicide prevention crisis hotline individuals are able to ring up if they are feeling suicidal, or are otherwise experiencing some form of a crisis.

I recently had the good fortune to talk to the Youth and Community Liaison Officer, Judy, and the Training and Recruitment Coordinator, Nita, at Samaritans to learn more about the invaluable work their organisation does.

The discussion opened with an overview of the Samaritans fascinating origin; “It was started by Reverend Chad Varah in the United Kingdom, who was officiating a young girls funeral. She was 14 years old I think. She had committed suicide because her menstruation cycle had started and no one had talked to her about what that was. She thought she was dying from a sexually transmitted disease and she took her own life… if someone had just spoken to this girl or been there for her this tragedy could have been avoided.

So he started the Samaritans as an organisation that people could just come and speak to. The story goes that he used to open up his doors at the parish, and he had some volunteers who made tea and coffee for the people who would come and see him personally, and while they were waiting the people had been speaking to the ladies and they didn’t need to speak to him anymore. So it was just having a conversation, and anyone could do it – that’s where the Samaritans started.”

This focus on communication and simply talking about issues clearly remains important to the Samaritans to this day. When asked the best way to combat suicide and depression, I received comments like these; “The more you talk about your problems the more they lose their power. Secrets, they make you sick.”

“Talking about it. Having empathy. I mean real empathy, I’m not talking sympathy here. Just being there for people.” This is the basis for Samaritan Crisis Line’s existence – that just a single conversation and a willingness to listen to another person’s problems without judgement can go a long way to improving someone’s day and can, in some cases, even save a life.

Samaritans therefore aspires to provide a 24 hour, non-judgmental service people can call if they have problems. The volunteers who answer the calls of those in need aren’t going to reflect their own judgments and opinions back at those in need. Rather, they are simply going to listen to the concerns of the person on the other end, and let them be in control of what they want to say and where they want the call to go. The Samaritans is ready to be contacted at any time for any issue by someone in need. As Judy and Nita made clear, no issue is too big or too small to warrant calling them up for support.

Another important aspect of the Samaritans crisis line is the amount of confidentiality and anonymity the service provides to listeners. This confidentiality was described by the organisation as:

“We are different to other services in that we are 100% confidential, we will not trace the call, we will not call an ambulance or the police, we will not tell their parents–we will not do any of these things without their permission. Even if they are under 16, it doesn’t matter, it’s the same as if they were an adult, and I think the young people like that. They feel like they can open up more and tell us exactly what’s going on. Whereas if they ring some of the other places they sometimes feel like they can’t tell the truth.”

This respect for young people’s autonomy is a major part of what sets the Samaritans apart from other organisations, and puts it in an ideal position to help and relate to young people who are experiencing mental problems or simply going through a rough period in their lives.

This respect for individual choice and autonomy is taken so seriously by the Samaritans that, as stated by representatives of the organisation: “Everyone has the right to make fundamental decisions regarding their own life, including the decision to die if that’s their choice. Do I want anyone to have to die by suicide? No, of course not. But it is their choice. I’m gonna be there to support them in whatever choice they make.” This respect for the choice involved in living, which could be considered extreme by some, undoubtedly makes a welcome change from the regular experiences of many people affected by mental illness.

“Rather than be told, ‘This is what we’re gonna do, this is what’s best for you,’ because they’ve been told that their whole life, we’re giving them more of a voice. One of our points is that caller is in charge of their own destiny.”

Despite this belief in the right of each individual to choose, the Samaritans are undoubtedly committed to reducing the harm that suicide causes to both those who attempt it as well as their family members and loved ones.

This dedication is reflected in the large number of programs Samaritans runs, including a 24/7 hotline, an email system, a drop in service at the Samaritan offices (available in office hours on weekdays) as well as the creation of specific groups to deal with particular victims of suicide (such as the ‘Shadow of Suicide’ group which involves helping those who have had a close friend die from suicide).

Being the leading cause of death among 15 – 24 year olds in Australia, suicide is undoubtedly an extremely serious social issue that necessitates the creation of organisations such as the Samaritans whose tireless charitable work has doubtless saved countless lives. The incredibly damaging nature of suicide as an issue is best reflected by Judy’s reference to the recent World Health Organisation statistic: “Every 40 seconds someone dies from suicide somewhere in the world. And every 40 seconds someone is left to pick up the pieces.”

Anyone doubting the value of the work of the Samaritans need only pay attention to one of the countless instances of this: “Sometimes we get people ringing and sending us a card saying ‘Thank you, I didn’t kill myself that night.”

Just by talking to people and trying to understand their situation, the Samaritans are saving lives and helping many people through serious life struggles. You simply cannot ask more of an organisation than that.

Anyone who feels the need to contact the Samaritans can take advantage of their services through the following mediums:

Crisis Line: 13 52 47

Youthline WA: 1800 198 313

Email Service: support@samaritanscrisisline.org.au

Web Address: www.samaritanscrisisline.org.au

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