‘You don’t need to be suicidal to ring the Samaritans’
At the Samaritans office in Dublin, the team talk about why people ring them, how they help those in distress, and those dreaded calls when the line goes dead
From left, chairman of Dublin Samaritans David Hughes, volunteer Erna O’Connor, director Brendan Gallagher, volunteer Hilda Robinson, and executive director Catherine Brogan. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
A man once rang Brendan Gallagher and told him he was on his way to take his own life.
“He had picked a spot,” says Gallagher. “This was the early hours of the morning and I could hear him walking along. I spoke to him for the best part of an hour. The most important thing I wanted him to understand was that even if he felt the people in his life didn’t care about him, that we did. I wasn’t arguing the point that life could be better or how he could see things a different way, because he had his mind very fixed on how he was feeling, but we know we can say to someone that we care. You can say to someone with hand on heart, ‘I care about you, I’m here.’ And towards the end of the call, he told me he was on his way home.”
He says this with quiet, calm relief. I’m upstairs in a meeting room at the Dublin offices of the Samaritans on Marlborough Street. Gallagher is the director and a listening volunteer of 12 years standing. Erna O’Connor is a Trinity lecturer and has been a volunteer for seven years. David Hughes is the chairman and has been a listening volunteer for 18 years. Samaritans volunteers, they tell me, come from all sorts of backgrounds, and although they share a lot, they often know little of each others’ working lives outside the building.
“I don’t even know the chair’s second name,” chuckles Gallagher of Hughes, and this could well be true. Internally volunteers use numbers instead of surnames, which correspond to the number of “Brendans” or “Davids” involved in the organisation at the time they joined. There are almost 2,000 volunteers nationwide.
All calls go through a server in the Dublin office. It’s a 24-7 service. People can also drop into the office from 10am to 10pm if they would prefer to talk face to face (the meeting rooms have two armchairs facing one another and are soundproofed). Hughes has long argued that there should be signposts on O’Connell Street near the Luas so that people can find them if necessary.
The Samaritans was founded in 1953 in London by a vicar, Chad Varah, after a 14-year-old girl took her own life when she mistook menstruation for symptoms of an STD. The Irish branch was founded by Canon Billy Wynne in 1970, when the UK branch noticed the small counselling service he was running in his parish and suggested he come under their remit.
On a sidetable in the meeting room, there’s an old rotary dial telephone (“The kind we were using then,” says Gallagher) and a framed copy of the original telegram from the UK Samaritans congratulating the Dublin branch on its foundation.
“There was a little bit of opposition from the Catholic Church, ” says Mairéad Butler, the outreach officer of Dublin Samaritans.
Why? “Suicide was a sin at the time,” says Butler. “Their theory was probably that it was best not to mention it.”
Samaritans Ireland opened their doors on March 2nd, 1970, on the top floor of a rickety old building on Kildare Street with one phone and an adopted cat, which had kittens in the bath. They then moved to South William Street, where they had two phones. In the 1980s they moved to their current address.
Since then there have been many developments. A year ago the phone service was made entirely free and since then there’s been an increase in calls (15 per cent in the Dublin region), a particular increase in calls from mobiles (suggesting younger callers) and a shortening of the average call length. “We think people are ringing earlier in a crisis,” says executive director Catherine Brogan. “We’re getting that message out there that you don’t need to be suicidal to ring the Samaritans.”
In 2014 the Samaritans in Ireland received 478,222 calls; had 8,646 face-to-face meetings; received 11,987 emails; and 8,057 texts (which are, predictably, more likely to come from younger people).
Countless families may never know what they owe the Samaritans. (And some do. When Hughes was singing carols to fundraise at Christmas, a man slipped a substantial amount of money in the bucket and whispered to him: “You don’t know how much you helped our family.”)
“It’s hard to talk about that depth of despair to someone close,” says O’Connor, “because people try to protect those around them, and people close want to get them out of that [despair] as quick as possible.”
Samaritans volunteers commit to intensive training, then three hours a week manning the phones and one overnight every two months (more people call them at night). They call a shift here “a duty”. The average length of a call is 20 minutes but calls can last a couple of hours.
What sort of problems do people call with? Since the economic crash, says Hughes, there’s been a big increase in people calling because of financial problems (about 20 per cent of calls concern financial issues, says Brogan).
And a lot of people are lonely. “I’d always do Christmas Day,” says Hughes. “And the number of people who won’t even see anyone on Christmas Day . . . I always find that quite difficult.”
They also get people in the middle of a crisis. “Something has gone wrong in work,” says O’Connor, “someone is sacked or [made] redundant, someone finds out their partner has been seeing someone else, [there’s] a diagnosis of an illness or a hospital appointment, a domestic situation where a woman has been hurt badly.”
“And sometimes it can seem trivial,” says Hughes, “like someone who has lost their pet who has been with them.”
Volunteers understand that it’s not always about the “objective facts”. The question, says O’Connor, is “How is that for this person? What does it mean for them emotionally and practically and in terms of how they see the world now?”
Being a Samaritan volunteer can be difficult for self-identified problem-solvers. “When someone says they’re going through something, one’s natural inclination is to say, ‘I went through that, this is how I sorted it out, did you think of doing this and doing that?’” says O’Connor. “It’s not about trying to offer solutions. We do explore options with people, but options coming from them. We don’t impose options. And some people going through training find that hard.”
There’s a lot of support for volunteers internally. “We have a literal round table where we can talk things through,” says Gallagher. They’re trained to leave the troubles of a duty behind when they leave, and usually they can.
“The hardest thing is when someone is in the middle of talking about something really upsetting and the phone goes dead,” says O’Connor. “So you’re not sure if they just can’t take talking about it any more or someone’s walked into the room or if they feel they’ve said enough.”
About 22 per cent of those who call are suicidal. “We get people who are in the process of having taken tablets or who have hurt themselves,” says O’Connor.
What can they do? “You just stay with the person and sometimes you mightn’t say an awful lot,” she says. “You’re listening, trying to understand the world from where they’re at. You’re letting them know you’re with them and you’re not going to leave them . . . you would ask them have they thought of calling an ambulance, whether they’d like us to call an ambulance.” (There’s a procedure for this.)
And if they say no? “If they say no you, stay with them and talk a bit more,” says O’Connor. “We’d often ask somebody is it that they want to die or that they just want to get away from the pain they’re in, in the moment . . . It gives them a chance to think about the permanence of it. You let them think and you let them talk.”
Sometimes, if the caller has taken tablets, the volunteer finds themselves listening as the caller get groggier and eventually the line goes dead. “You never know what has happened,” says Hughes. “I remember when I was being trained, someone asked, ‘Do you look at the papers the next day to see if someone has died suddenly?’ But we don’t do that. Maybe they wake up the next day and are fine. But if they didn’t, at least there was someone with them in their last few minutes . . . At least we were there with them.” These calls are rare.
All the volunteers I meet are compassionate, warm people who say they feel privileged to do what they do. O’Connor praises the bravery of the callers. “The calls I feel best about are the calls where you have a chance to talk something through or hear someone through,” she says. “It can sound like [the caller is] weighing it up and you can ask ‘How are you feeling now?’ Hopefully people can say, ‘I feel a bit calmer. I feel a bit lighter.’
“ ‘I feel I can sleep’ is the greatest thing to hear on a call at night. ‘I think I might be able to sleep now. I think I’ll have a cup of tea and go to bed.’ ”
There are often silent calls where the caller doesn’t say anything at all, possibly waiting to hear “the right voice” or plucking up the courage to speak. Gallagher has a theory about some of these calls. He recalls meeting a widowed family friend. She told him that on her first night alone she rang the Samaritans.
“It was three in the morning. She rang. The phone was answered. She didn’t speak and put the phone down. ‘Now I know they’re there,’ she said. And after that she knew what the number was, and if she was desperate or lonely or despairing she could ring it. Maybe with the silent calls, people just want to see we’re there.”
As we make our way out, Gallagher shows me the room where the calls are taken. There are six soundproofed booths and four volunteers on duty. On the wall there’s a photograph of the volunteers meeting then president Mary McAleese during the Irish Samaritans 40th anniversary, and a painting by one of the prisoners volunteering with their prison programme. In the booths two volunteers are on the phone. “We see it as sitting in a dark room with someone,” says Gallagher. “We’re not saying that the room is going to get any brighter, but we’re here.” He touches my arm. “You’re not in this dark place on your own. As long as you have to sit in that dark room, we’ll be here with you.”
- You can call the Samaritans for free in Ireland on 116123
Rita first called the Samaritans ten years ago when she was in her early twenties. “I’d had a really bad falling out with two of my friends,” she says. “I was home that Christmas. It was two or three in the morning and I was so low in myself I just didn’t know what to do. I was crying all the time. I was very depressed. I hardly ventured outside - neglecting myself, low hygiene, sleeping on the couch, smoking 50 fags a day.”
The female volunteer on the phone helped her to get some clarity on the situation, she says. “I felt like someone had supported me and given me an outsider’s view. I could get some of my grief out. She said that it wasn’t all my fault.”
Over the following years she rang the Samaritans from time to time. In 2008 she moved to Australia, where she worked as a nurse, but when there she became isolated and depressed. On a visit home she was withdrawn and erratic. She had been offered a job in Saudi Arabia but couldn’t decide what to do. “I was a month off having a full nervous breakdown,” she says. “I couldn’t concentrate. I was having panic attacks.” She rang the Samaritans while babysitting her brother’s children. The volunteer suggested she contact another adult to come help with the children. “I rang my brother and it was fine.”
She went back to Australia against the advice of many people around her. “I was staying in an apartment in Sydney and it was very dark there was no furniture,” she says. “I had very strong suicidal thoughts... I got the number of the Australian Samaritans and I rang and explained what was happening and [the woman] said ‘I really think I should get you an ambulance. Please give me your address.’ An ambulance came and brought me to the A&E.”
Rita was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia and has gone through intensive therapy. “We’re getting there slowly,” she says. She seems happy. She’s back in Ireland. She’s studying and she is an ambassador for See Change, which campaigns to remove the stigma from mental illness. She still contacts the Samaritans, particularly using their text service, and she can’t say enough good things about them. “If I hadn’t rung them that day in Australia,” she says, “I wouldn’t be here now.”