The Samaritans number is 116 123. During 2020 and the height of the Covid pandemic, it was a number that rang 418,135 times, with the most calls handled by volunteers coming on a Wednesday.
Volunteer Aileen Spitere is one of those at the end of the line, having joined the Samaritans in London in 1987 and staying on with the organisation after she moved to live in Cork 12 years ago.
“I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t calls that I wasn’t upset by. But, generally, we have a very good support system. You are never on your own,” she declared, adding that volunteers have someone to call at the end of a shift to talk things through.
“That’s one of the reasons I have stayed so long. I don’t carry it home with me. I’ve talked about how I felt about it,” Spitere told The Irish Times, “Before you leave, you have to ring someone who’s only job is to be there to support you.”
Even after 25 years, Spitere is still struck by the bravery of callers: “People are amazing. The fact that they pick up the phone and ring and talk, that they will share their most intimate thoughts with a complete stranger.”
Wednesday is the busiest day for the Samaritans in the Republic, though its Northern Ireland branches get the largest share of their 121, 444 calls on Thursday. For both, the busiest hours are between 6p.m and 10p.m, when over a quarter of calls are answered.
Now with 2,000 volunteers in 21 branches on the island, the Samaritans have offered help since 1961: “One in five us will be suicidal, four out of five will not, but they obviously have a reason for ringing us,” says executive director for Ireland, Niall Mulligan.
“Loneliness features quite a lot and they might just want to chat with somebody and talk about whatever it is that might be bothering or annoying them at the time,” said Mr. Mulligan.
Helping those who see no see no way out in life is mentally difficult for any volunteer, he went on: “At the end of their shift, there’s always a debrief, talking about some of the issues that come up. It might be 5-10 minutes, or it could be an hour.
Support must come quickly. If it comes only after a volunteer has run into problems then it “is too late”, he says: “If they can’t leave something behind, there is always someone to talk it through. There is significant support, and there needs to be.”
Volunteers do not just stay on the telephone, he said. Often, they go out into the community if there has been a local suicide especially “when it’s a young person in school, someone in the GAA club.”
Volunteers were pushed to the limits over the last two years during the pandemic. Initially, the calls were about the risks posed by Covid-19. In time, the focus shifted onto the mental health caused by lockdown.
“During certain times of the pandemic, people needed us for longer. What started to happen was one in three calls were about Covid. None of us really knew how it was going to impact on people.
“The other thing we saw was that if there was a particular spike in cases, or an announcement from NPHET, there might be a spike in calls depending on the message coming out from NPHET,” Mulligan went on.
Today, the focus has shifted away from Covid-19 onto the cost of living crisis: “(That) is beginning to come through. People are calling and are concerned. It is not the dominant topic yet. (It) depends how the next 12 to 18 months plays out.”
The pandemic was particularly difficult for the Samaritans because 40 per cent of their volunteers stepping back at the beginning of the pandemic due to the need to protect themselves, or loved ones.
In time, new systems were created by the Samaritans to cope with volunteers and staff working from home, while the detailed training necessary for new volunteers was moved online.
It also combined with the charity ALONE, who provide support to elderly people. Suicidal callers to Alone were put through to Samaritans, while they also took over the handling of calls to Alone after 8pm.
Volunteers are beginning to rejoin the charity, but a turnover in numbers is always happening, with, or without a pandemic: “(In) my experience in other charities about 5-10% change every year.
The Samaritans’ rural branches now need new volunteers more than city ones. Urging people to think local, he said: “If people are interested, they can go to our website and express an interest or call down to their local branch and enquire.”
“We are seeing some good signs that people are interested in coming back. We have just developed a five-year plan. One of our targets over the next five years is to increase our overall number of volunteers by 20%,” he went on.
This Sunday, July 24th is Samaritans Awareness Day and several branches across the country are holding events, while 7km walks are being held in many places to highlight the charity’s availability 24/7.
Curiously, Mulligan said experience shows that people struggle more in summer, rather than the winter: “Most people presume the winter months are hardest, but it’s often the long summer days that people find most difficult.
“If someone is isolated or feeling lonely, depressed or even feeling suicidal, it can be really hard to see other people enjoying the nice weather and summer evening with family and friends,” he declared.
The Samaritans can be contacted free at any time from any phone on 116 123, even a mobile without credit, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.