For many of us the festive season means parties, fun and celebration, but for some it signals loneliness and despair – as Samaritans helpline operators know only too well. Approaching its 60th Christmas, Nel Staveley hears why the charity’s work is so vital at this time of year
Open any magazine over the next few weeks and chances are experts will be falling over themselves to tell us all how to ‘cope with festive stress’. How to ‘battle’ the shopping crowds, how to ‘put up with’ all the travelling and how to ‘deal with’ fatigue from all the parties.
But there’s one piece of advice that tends to be missing, yet it’s something we should probably take heed of most: be careful what you wish for.
Because, yes, in the middle of a high street, the last weekend before Christmas, wedged amid frantic shoppers spending unnecessary cash on unnecessary presents, it can feel like you’re being pushed to your limit.
But, just for a minute, stop and step back. Having your plate full with organising gifts and parties, and being in a flap about deciding which relatives to see when – is that really such a problem?
Over last year’s Christmas period, every day the Samaritans received around 15,000 calls to their helpline.
It’s a harrowing number, and one that of course does not only exist at Christmas time. All year long, on average, the Samaritans – the world’s first, and biggest, helpline for people in distress – receive a call every six seconds. Since the charity launched 60 years ago, it’s answered some 115 million desperate calls for help.
In many ways, things have changed since Reverend Prebendary Chad Varah – inspired by the tragic suicide of a 14 year-old-girl who started menstruating and didn’t understand what was happening – first installed his phone in the parish of St Stephen Walbrook, London, on November 2, 1953, as what he called “a 999 for the suicidal”.
Back then, no one had mobile phones, many people didn’t even have landlines, and often they went to speak to Chad in person. Now, the Samaritans have services in prisons and hospitals, and in recent years the charity launched an email and texting service, and is hoping to start an instant messaging service in the next few years.
“We are always improving our digital channels to make sure callers feel comfortable,” says Rachel Kirby-Rider, Samaritans’ director of fundraising and communications. “Our calls have always been 100% confidential, but with email and texting, people can feel even more anonymous.”
Aside from this ever-changing landscape of communication, the landscape of society is very different to 60 years ago too. Back then, there was post-war poverty, only a primitive welfare state, abortion and homosexuality were both illegal, and racial and sexual discrimination were, generally, far more widespread.
Thankfully, all that has now shifted, but throughout the passing decades the essence of the Samaritans has remained constant.
“When you sweep back and forward over the last 60 years, and over the future of the Samaritans, the core values are exactly the same,” says Stephen Hoddell, Samaritans’ current chair and a volunteer for over 40 years.
“We will constantly evolve, but when people are struggling with difficult lives, the need for an organisation, for someone to listen, not to judge, with no time constraints, entirely confidentially – that will never change.”
Neither, sadly, will some of the heartbreaking reasons why people turn to the Samaritans in the first place. Financial worries, confusion over sexual orientation, relationship troubles, being abused, addictions, feeling worthless… The grim list of human despair could go on indefinitely.
But one thing the Samaritans can say for sure, is that near the top of the list, repeatedly, is loneliness.
As one example, over just one week in August this year, from the 671 calls made by men to 10 Samaritans branches, more than a quarter were about their feelings of loneliness and isolation.
It doesn’t take much to work out that these feelings can only be painfully exacerbated at this time of year, a time when every display in every shop is one of people clinking champagne glasses with friends, or joking around tables groaning with food and laughing families.
“Loneliness comes home at Christmas. If you have family and friends, then it’s wonderful, but there are people who are completely alone, for whom it is a very bleak time,” says Hoddell.
“There are calls from people on Boxing Day who haven’t seen anyone since the day before Christmas Eve and who opened only a can of beans for lunch.”
Hoddell knows this from personal experience, manning the phones nearly every Christmas since he first volunteered for the charity in 1973. Amid all the darkness the Samaritans have to cope with, the dedication of volunteers like Hoddell is an ever-shining light.
Across the charity’s 200 branches throughout the UK, a humbling 20,980 people are trained to pick up the phone – or indeed answer texts and emails – and be what is often the last resort for people in distress.
“You forget how powerful it can be for someone who is suffering to have another person listen and call them by their name,” says ‘Kate’, who has volunteered in a London branch of Samaritans over several festive periods.
“It might not change their life, but it might give them the boost and lift they need to see them through the next day.”
Of course, the reason these ‘Kates’ volunteer their time and emotions to the Samaritans is about the people they help, not themselves – but there’s no denying that their selflessness deserves endless admiration.
“One of the things that never fails to impress me is the enormous humanity that volunteers show to every single caller and also, to each other,” says Kate. “I’m not religious, but the goodwill, generosity of spirit and kindness that the volunteers demonstrate never fails to make me feel good about humanity and very, very fortunate about my lot in life.”
Samaritans has never been a charity about preaching goodwill to others, it’s always been about quietly, doggedly, helping people who have nowhere else to turn, or who feel they can’t speak to the people around them.
But in their 60th year, about to mark their 60th Christmas, there’s never been a better time for all of us to remember the invaluable lifeline Samaritans give to people who may feel alone, scared and desperate, and who would otherwise have nowhere else to go.
:: Samaritans is available round the clock, every day of the year, providing a safe place for anyone struggling to cope, whoever they are, however they feel, whatever life has done to them. Call 08457 90 90 90 (UK), 1850 60 90 90 (ROI), email [email protected] or visit www.samaritans.org to find details of your nearest branch.