‘Some callers cannot see another way’ - lifting the lid on life as a Samaritan

A feature looking at life as a Samaritan in Norwich. Photo: Angela Sharpe

A feature looking at life as a Samaritan in Norwich. Photo: Angela Sharpe - Credit: Archant © 2008

Samaritans answer thousands of calls from people in need every week - but volunteers can't keep pace with demand. In the week the branch celebrated its 55th birthday, Lauren Cope spoke to a Samaritan in Norwich about what it is like when the phone rings - and how you can help.

'Samaritans, can I help you?'

It is pointless trying to predict what follows. For some callers, it is their cue to open up. For others, the thought of finally talking about what's weighing on them proves overwhelming. It's not unusual for us to wait in silence, reassuring callers that we are there.

Eventually, many will feel ready. That might mean a stream of thoughts, a chance to pour out what they've had bottled up. It might mean a short call, the first step. Or it might just mean silence. Knowing someone is there.

Even when a conversation starts, it's impossible to know where it will end. We see the full range of human emotion, and hear incredibly complex stories.

Some calls tug at the heart strings. Some are humbling. Some can be uncomfortable. Occasionally, they are amusing, and frustrating.

But it is, of course, some time before a Samaritan answers their first call. There are weeks of training, intense, but infinitely helpful both when answering calls and in our personal lives.

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Trainers unpick what it means to really listen, stripping a skill we take for granted back to basics, and teaching how to listen without judgment or, crucially, putting ourselves in the call.

It takes time to move away from the instinct to advise or reassure - it's not our place to tell a caller that everything will be fine, or relate their problems to our circumstances.

It goes against how we act with friends and family, but it is also liberating - we are there to listen, with patience and without preconceptions. It's as simple as that.

Some callers are dealing with money problems, or navigating the benefits system, while others are trying to cope with bereavement or a relationship breakdown.

Many of our callers are living with mental health problems. Through our local partnerships with the NHS we can provide a useful listening service to those people who are struggling.

And while the majority of our callers are not suicidal, there are some who cannot see another way. For them, we can only offer time and space, giving them to opportunity to think about their options.

Sometimes callers' difficulties are immense, and we know that a call to the Samaritans can't take that away. But the difference that we can make, whether as a distraction, a kind ear or a platform in which to explore their situation, is remarkable.

For volunteers, it's not unusual for certain calls to be particularly difficult - sometimes those that touch a nerve, or are a little too close to home.

But others are more obvious in their challenge, with volunteers sometimes speaking to people who are just in need of a place to vent.

There is a strong network of support for volunteers from fellow Samaritans, who are always ready to talk through a call.

Samaritans is one of the only support charities that prioritises a caller's anonymity, so, with volunteers unable to talk to friends and family about their shift, having layers of support in place is key.

More often than not, though, it is hugely rewarding. When a caller thanks you, and tells you what a difference you have made, it's hard to imagine a more worthwhile use of your time.

But we are always in need of more volunteers and supporters – both practical and financial. Samaritans does not receive government funding, and branches rely largely on local fundraising and donations.

Demand is high - some of our most rewarding calls come in the small hours, when people are alone, and reflective - and is hard to match.

If you're interested in learning more, on Saturday, April 13, the Norwich branch, which is based at St Stephens Square, will hold an information morning, giving potential volunteers the chance to see how volunteering - whether answering calls or helping elsewhere in the branch - could fit into their life.

Samaritans come from all walks of life, from retirees to students and full-time workers with large families to people who live on their own.

All are expected to take on one duty a week - 32 in any one year - which is roughly four hours, including 10 night shifts a year.

After training, volunteers can choose their own shifts, making it as easy as possible to fit them around other life commitments.

• If you would like to get involved, or find out more, email volunteering@norwichsams.org.uk or click here.

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