[TW this post mentions suicidal thoughts and self-harm]
If you're not already familiar with them, Samaritans is an organisation that listens to anyone by phone, email, letter or web chat (currently a pilot) who wants to talk about what's on their mind. Samaritans is run by trained volunteers and their phone lines are open 24 hours 365 days a year for anyone to call. They also have some branches which are open at times for in-person conversations. For full details about what Samaritans do (and don't do), as well as their confidentiality policy please visit their website.
Samaritans have helped me countless times. Over the last decade I must have called hundreds of times. I've phoned them in the middle of the night, on street corners, on trains, on the way home from work and after appointments or therapist sessions that left me heartbroken and shaking. Sometimes when I've called them, I've been feeling suicidal and other times not. At times I've been breathless and panicky, talking so rapidly I was breathless. Other times, I have been sobbing from such a primal depths that I felt if I didn't connect with a human I would die from the feeling of disconnection. In my book acknowledgements I thanked the Samaritans who listened to me—without them in those moments I don't know how else I would have got through.
I don't remember the exact first time I called Samaritans, but I think it was when I had my initial (and terrifying) mental breakdown. I was a young adult, just nineteen years old, and since that times I have called them at various frequencies. Some months I struggled to cope meaning that I needed to call on a daily basis, usually at night when I felt the lowest. There have been days when I've called several times just because I didn't know how else to survive my emotional pain and I didn't have mental health services to take care of me.
I know that picking up the phone to talk to an organisation like Samaritans can be fraught with trepidation or anxious thoughts such as 'what if I'm wasting their time?', 'what if someone needs the call more than me?' or 'what if they think I'm being silly'. I wanted to share my six pieces of advice that I've learnt from being a long time Samaritans caller. I really hope they give you confidence to call if you think it might help you, but you're too nervous right now to take that leap.
1. You are worthy of a Samaritans' time
Even though you may feel unworthy, and may have been treated as undeserving in the past, you are absolutely worthy of care and understanding. Who is to say one person's pain is more agonising than the next person's? An indvidual's difficulties cannot be measured against someone else's, like a sapphire's hardness can be compared to a diamond. At Samaritans, there is no hierarchy of whose call is more important; such judgments are impossible to make and even if they were possible they would not be helpful.
The volunteer will respect your decision to get in touch regardless of the content of the call and you are equally welcome to call if you are suicidal as if you are not feeling suicidal. Volunteers will want to make you feel comfortable, in part so that you feel welcome to contact again in the future should you choose to. Rest assured also that callers are of all genders, ages, socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicities and so on. There is no one demographic or 'type' of caller and, in fact, you probably know people who have called Samaritans they just might have kept this private.
2. It’s your choice what you talk about
When you call Samaritans, the volunteer makes it your space and time. You can talk specifically about what’s on your mind or you can talk more generally if that's easier. Feel free to paint a highly-detailed picture of your situation to the volunteer or use broad brush strokes and keep it more vague, whatever is most comfortable at this time. Some ideas of what you might possibly talk about are emotions, feelings, problems, events, relationships or conflicts. Perhaps you want to use the call to debrief after a difficult appointment or perhaps you have received difficult news and are feeling overwhelmed.
3. There are countless reasons why people contact
For some people, calling Samaritans is a way to alleviate the pressure when everything feels too much; having the space and time to express can make stressful things feel more manageable. For others, a phone call is a chance to think out loud and problem solve. Whilst a Samaritan won’t give you advice as such, they will be able to listen to you and ask questions that may help you reflect and find your way towards the next step.
Sometimes people call because they have a specific situation they need to handle. Once I called because I had been to an appointment and I had felt really distressed at the appointment. As soon as I left the building I was overwhelmed with huge emotions that frightened me so much I had a panic attack. I called Samaritans and the volunteer listened to me as I managed to regain composure and make myself okay enough to get to work. Other times people call because their life more generally feels like a huge, tangled knot or a dark, friendless cave.
4. It’s okay to take your time
You don’t have to have a plan of what you want to say or have all the words formed. It is normal to struggle to articulate things, especially if they are emotionally difficult or you have never spoken about them before. It can be helpful to tell the volunteer something like: 'I'm not sure how to start' or 'I haven't talked about this before so it might take me a little while to find the words'. It's likely that the volunteer will be able to reassure you that it’s okay to take your time and offer gentle questions if it's helpful at any point.
When you're on the call, there is no pressure to say everything at once. There is no limit to how many times you can call, so you are welcome to call again another day and have another conversation (even though it will most likely be a different volunteer next time). Everyone is different with how much they say and the speed at which they express themselves— the volunteers are aware of this.
5. You are in control
Although all Samaritans volunteers undergo the same training and abide by the same organisational principles, every volunteer is also a human with their own communication style (after all, conversation is an art not a science). If you call and you don’t 'click' with that particular volunteer for whatever reason, you can end the call. It's as simple as clicking 'end' on your phone or saying 'I need to go'. As calls are allocated to numerous branches, it is very unlikely that you will reach the same volunteer twice.
Talking about personal topics, especially if they are emotionally difficult, can be exhausting. If you become too tired, stop. Furthermore, if you simple change your mind and don't want to speak anymore, or feel the conversation has come to a natural end, you can end the call. It’s completely your choice when the conversation finishes. You are in control.
6. Samaritans take a non-judgmental approach
One thing you might worry about before calling is eliciting shock, repulsion, distress, pity or panic a volunteer. Anxieties like this can be especially strong if you have been met with negative reactions or unwelcome emotional reactions when expressing yourself to friends or family. After such experiences it's understandable to be afraid of speaking openly, even to strangers. However, I want to reassure you that Samaritans volunteers are trained in non-judgemental responses. Their stance is curious and open, rather than one that rushes to push their emotions and beliefs onto you. If you think it might help, you are free to tell the volunteer how others’ reactions have made you feel in the past.
I also find it helpful to remember that a Samaritans volunteer is lending their time and skills to this role because they want to. A volunteer must believe (or personally know) that listening non-judgmentally is a valuable resource or they wouldn't be spending their time doing this. The volunteers feel good when they offer you the time and space that you were struggling to find in other places and so keenly needed.
Have you ever contacted Samaritans? I hope you found this post reassuring and helpful, if you're needing some confidence with making a call. Let me know what you think if you would like to. I would also like to highlight the organisation Shout here too. Shout is the UK's first free 24/7 text support service. It's described as 'a place to go if you're struggling to cope and need mental health support'.
My book, Talking About BPD: A Stigma-Free Guide to Living a Calmer, Happier Life with Borderline Personality Disorder, which offers coping techniques for managing emotional distress is out now.