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The human voice on the other end of the phone
I RANG the Samaritans helpline early one morning hoping to leave an answer phone message about an interview and was taken aback when a human voice answered the phone.
There is no ‘out of hours’ at Oxford Samaritans where 120 volunteers work one four-hour duty a week (including a whole night once a month) to make sure the phones are manned 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Other non-24-hour branches across the country even re-route their calls to Oxford when they close.
Samaritans aim to reduce the number of suicides by simply enabling someone to talk through their issues with a volunteer.
Today, 60 years since its inception, the charity is more relevant that ever.
During 2011 the number of people taking their own life in the UK rose significantly with 6,045 suicides – an increase of 437 on 2010.
Young men are still the most likely to take their life – and sadly the most successful.
Here in Oxfordshire around 60 people a year take their own life, but the Oxford branch of the Samaritans in Magdalen Road undoubtedly prevents this number growing.
Last year alone the service received 20,000 telephone contacts, met almost 300 face-to-face callers and responded to over 2,500 emails and 5,000 texts from people in distress.
The premise is simple – no advice, no suggestions, just a listening ear and the hope that by talking your problems through, you will find your own way of solving them.
Oxford Samaritans was founded by the Rev Norwyn MacDonald Ramm – known as ‘Mac’ – in 1963 and started from the library of Lincoln College.
The office location has changed several times over the years but the branch has never closed its doors.
Sir Christopher Ball – aka the poet John Ellinger, aka Samaritans volunteer ‘Chris 1275’ – has been with the branch since 1994.
The 78-year-old grandfather of eight said: “I suppose ‘the big three’ in terms of reasons for people to call are loneliness, depression and the breakdown of relationships.
“Calls from children can be difficult – they often ring us when ChildLine is closed – and it is especially hard for volunteers like myself who are parents.
“The impulse is to say ‘Hold on, I’ll come and sort it out’.
“But you’ve just got to say ‘If you talk about it, maybe you’ll see how to sort it out’.”
Sir Christopher added: “If you asked new volunteers why they do it, they would probably say to help people.
“Ask us five years down the line and we will say the same, but also that we love being part of such a fabulous mix of people doing this job. It’s a privilege.
“My message to people who need us is: Call us. And to those who don’t: Join us.”
Founder was Anglican priest
CHAD Varah founded what would become the Samaritans on November 1953 following the suicide of a 14-year-old, female parishioner.
The Rev Varah encouraged people to volunteer and listen to people contemplating suicide.
The movement grew rapidly and within 10 years there were 40 branches. There are now 203 across the UK and Ireland.
The name Samaritans comes from the Biblical parable, but was not chosen by Mr Varah, but was in a headline to an article about his work in the Daily Mirror in 1953.
Many callers to Samaritans are distressed rather than suicidal
‘EVE’, 70 and from Oxford, is one of many people to have called the Samaritans, before becoming a volunteer.
She revealed: “I was 30 when I called. I had just had my daughter and I suppose I must have had post-natal depression, but it was pretty awful.
“One night I was lying in bed, feeling terribly low and I got up and rang the Samaritans.
“The phone was picked up straight away.
“The woman on the other end listened and I found it very useful.
“But more than that I came off the phone knowing there was someone there if I needed them.
“I had lots of people in my family I could have talked to, but I didn’t want to worry them.
“Sometimes you just want to be honest and you can be that with a stranger.”
Samaritans do not give advice, or an opinion, and do not denounce suicide, maintaining a strict code of caller confidentiality, even after the death of a caller. They will only call an ambulance if the caller asks them to.
Eve said: “At first it was difficult not to ‘jump in’ and suggest things to callers or direct them.
“But we want them to talk themselves through it as much as possible.
“Distressed people are more frequent callers than the suicidal. Some call us on and off for years.
“Some people have mental health problems, some are worried about debt and benefit problems.
“Most of the time we don’t know what happens to callers.
“I used to read the papers and watch the news, and if someone had taken their life I would wonder about them and if they had called.
“But now I just listen. That’s what I am there to do.”
HOW TO GET IN TOUCH
- You can visit Oxford Samaritans at 60 Magdalen Road (opposite The Pegasus Theatre) between 8am and 10pm any day of the week.
- For the helpline and details on volunteering phone: 01865 722122.
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