Samaritans ‘utterly motivated’ to keeping service running for callers

Samaritans volunteers are “utterly motivated” to ensuring the helpline keeps running as callers raise Covid-19-related concerns, one branch leader has said.

John Humpston, interim director at the charity’s Cambridge branch, said the impact of the Covid-19 crisis meant his team were making greater commitments to help keep phone lines safely manned.

The Samaritans national listening service exists to provide people struggling to cope, including those possibly contemplating suicide, a confidential and non-judgemental place to share their feelings.

Mr Humpston said that in general the content of calls to the service tended “to mirror what’s uppermost in the public consciousness”.

While volunteers are not permitted to share the content of individual calls, Mr Humpston said that from his own personal experience coronavirus was being discussed.

“If they don’t want to talk about coronavirus they want to talk about things that are a consequence of coronavirus and the shutdown,” he explained.

“The sort of things you would expect, whether that is financial, mental health, relationships, it’s all heightened.

“It is almost a catalyst, if there was a pre-existing vulnerability there then coronavirus has sort of accentuated it really.

“Coronavirus isn’t necessarily the main feature of most calls, but it’s in the background if not the foreground of quite a lot of calls at the moment.”

The impact of self-isolation rules mean around two-thirds of the number of volunteers in Cambridge are working hard to fill the usual level of shifts.

“We had to make sure that that physical environment was coronavirus safe or as coronavirus safe as it could be for volunteers,” Mr Humpston emphasised.

This meant the introduction of strict social distancing procedures, high levels of cleanliness and re-ordering the layout of the branch.

“If we are going to support other people then, a bit like doctors and nurses, the first thing we have to do is make sure we were OK,” Mr Humpston said.

Volunteers are told not to come in if they have coronavirus symptoms, or have been in contact with someone who does, even if this means pulling out of a shift at short notice.

Anyone who feels vulnerable, even if they are not over 70 and do not have underlying health conditions, can choose to step back from volunteering if they wish, Mr Humpston said.

Lockdown and social distancing rules also mean the branch is unable to accept face-to-face visitors or carry out its work in a local prison and schools.

But some branch volunteers are also working to provide specific support to NHS workers.

Earlier this month, the NHS launched a mental health hotline to offer support to hundreds of thousands of health workers on the frontline in the fight against coronavirus.

Volunteers, including from Hospice UK, the Samaritans and Shout, will listen to NHS staff and offer guidance.

“It has been fantastic how those who can carry on are carrying on and the shifts are being filled,” Mr Humpston said.

“There’s a tremendous sense of we’ve got to be there as long as we can.

“Early on, two or three weeks ago, I think some of us were wondering can we even maintain the service.

“Is it going to be physically possible to do it?

“It really helped that there was a question in the House of Commons to (health secretary) Matt Hancock, before he got coronavirus, saying do you regard Samaritans as essential workers and his unequivocal answer was yes.

“That was really helpful.

“It enabled volunteers to feel much more comfortable about getting in cars and on bikes to come to the centre here.”

Samaritans chief executive Ruth Sutherland previously said the charity was “working really hard” to keep volunteers safe and minimise disruption to its services.

“There’s been quite a lot of work to make sure that there are branches open, that the phone will get answered 24/7, just give us a call,” Mr Humpston said.

He added that it was “humbling” to witness the commitment of his fellow volunteers to supporting callers.

“I think most Samaritans are motivated by that sense of we can be there, we won’t judge, we’re confidential and I think they are utterly motivated to do that,” he said.

To speak to Samaritans you can call them for free any time, from any phone on 116 123.

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