Samaritans is celebrating 60 years of service in Scotland
On June 1, 1959, the first call was answered by a volunteer at the Samaritans’ new branch in Edinburgh.
In the intervening 60 years, a further 18 branches have opened the length and breadth of the country.
While it now has around 1000 volunteers across Scotland, the charity’s mission has remained the same for six decades.
James Jopling, executive director in Scotland, believes that will still be the case 60 years from now.
He explained: “All of us in our darkest moments can benefit from someone being there to talk to.
“That is as true now as it was in 1959 and will be just as true in 60 years.
“Our volunteers are not going to judge; they are there to listen and help people talk about their problems.
“There have been many changes over the years. When Samaritans first started, for example, homosexuality was illegal.
“But people still face the same challenges they did when that first call came in.
“When there is no-one else to talk to, we’re there. That’s what is at the heart of the Samaritans – the power of human connection.”
Founded on the principle that trained volunteers should answer calls, that has not changed either.
And it’s something that strikes very many callers who use the service.
In Scotland, volunteers were contacted more than 249,000 times last year and spent more than 60,000 hours providing emotional support to people in distress.
That’s the equivalent of 2500 days of listening in one year alone.
James said: “I’ve spoken to numerous people who have used the service.
“Many of them have said that knowing a volunteer is giving up their time to help them at their lowest ebb is incredibly powerful.
“When people are struggling, even if they have family and friends close by, it can be hard for them to open up and talk about what is troubling them.
“That’s particularly true of Scottish men who have a reputation for being stoic and unlikely to talk about their emotions.
“However, that is also now changing and the ratio of men to women calling the Samaritans is almost 50/50.
“Men are more inclined to pick up the phone now if they are worried or sad about something as they know that they can talk to someone at the Samaritans in the strictest confidence.
“When callers phone in, it’s completely anonymous.
“We can’t see your phone number or where you are calling from and you don’t even have to give your name if you don’t want to.
“All of that means people can have conversations in a way they wouldn’t normally.”
Men and women contact Samaritans for a wide range of reasons including isolation and loneliness, problems with mental or physical health and worries about family and relationships. Just under a third of callers also express thoughts of suicide.
Volunteers also run hundreds of community events and awareness sessions, working with a wide range of organisations including schools, colleges, foodbanks, community centres, support groups, youth groups and health and emergency services.
These events help spread the message that Samaritans is there for everyone.
The charity also works with a range of national and local partners to ensure suicide prevention is a priority. Samaritans runs a Prison Listening Scheme, training inmates to become listening volunteers and provide peer-support.
And through its work with National Rail, it has trained thousands of rail staff in suicide prevention.
Of course, operating 24 hours a day, 365 days a year means the charity needs ever more volunteers to help provide its services, which now include email and text messages too.
So in this diamond anniversary year, James is hopeful of recruiting an additional 250 volunteers.
“We have up to 1000 volunteers, more than 750 of whom answer calls, emails text messages and letters,” said James.
“What our volunteers do is pretty demanding – when you pick up a phone, you’ve no idea what someone is going to say to you next.
“Being non-judgemental is the most important quality we look for in volunteers.
“Many of our callers thank us for our advice but our volunteers don’t actually give advice – they are trained in active listening, encouraging people to share their story and work through their own problems.
“We are often referred to as the fourth emergency service and demand across the UK is substantial.
“That demand is not going to go away and we want to make sure we’re here for people now and in 60 years.
“But there’s a natural turn-over of volunteers so we always need to recruit more.
“We could be there for even more people if we had more volunteers.
“So we’re looking for people of all ages and from all backgrounds to get on board.
“We’d love to hear from younger volunteers as we’re looking at new technology, such as webchat, to respond to people too.
“In the 50s and 60s, most people came to our branches for face to face chats; now almost 80 per cent of our contacts are via the phone and you don’t need credit on your mobile to call us.
“We can’t do online chats now but we want to make sure we’re accessible to future generations so we hope to set them up soon.”
John Lawrie has been a volunteer at the Edinburgh branch for 43 years and has witnessed many changes.
As long as his hearing remains intact, the 76-year-old plans to continue.
Initially, though, the retired investment manager had his doubts.
He said: “I never thought I’d be able to do it. But in the early 70s, a mini series was on TV about the Samaritans and I started wondering if it was something I could do.
“So, almost on the spur of the moment, I applied.
“After an initial chat, I was invited to do the training.
“The intervening 43 years have been immensely rewarding. That might sound strange but speaking to someone in a terrible state and them ringing off 45 minutes later, feeling better, can be really rewarding.
“I’ve not changed their life; they are still in the same boat as when they first called. But talking to someone else can often help them see a way forward.
“It’s a privilege to be the person that they’ve opened up to.”
Some calls are, of course, harrowing but volunteers are there for each other and also debrief their manager at the end of each shift.
John said: “I have spoken to people who are suicidal – we’re not there to talk them out of it.
“However, we do ask them to talk about why they’re feeling so bad.
“The fact they’ve called the Samaritans might mean they’re not quite as certain as they say they are.”
John also enjoys visiting schools. “I often worry they’ll think I’m terribly old, which I am!” he said. “But I like to think they get on better with their grandparents.
“I always end my talk by saying: “I hope you never need our service but, if you do, I hope you never hesitate to use it.”
Someone contacts the Samaritans every six seconds
Today Samaritans has grown to become the leading charity for suicide prevention with 201 branches across the UK and Ireland. Someone contacts the charity every six seconds.
In Scotland, volunteers were contacted more than 249,000 times last year and spent more than 60,000 hours providing emotional support to people in distress and crisis.
People can contact Samaritans by phone, email, text, letter or by visiting their local branch. And in the coming years, the charity will be introducing new methods to provide emotional support including webchat.
Today – just as 60 years ago – every call for help is answered by a volunteer.
And to meet demand, the charity needs to recruit at least 250 volunteers in Scotland in 2019.
Anyone can contact Samaritans for free, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The service is anonymous, confidential and non-judgemental.
You can get in touch by calling 116 123 or emailing [email protected] or write to Chris, Freepost RSRB-KKBY-CYJK, PO Box 9090, Stirling, FK8 2SA. Alternatively, you can find your local branch at samaritans.org/branches.
There are 19 across Scotland including Stornoway, which had 4110 contacts last year answered by 18 volunteers; Aberdeen (14,718 by 64), Dundee (11,490 by 54), Kirkcaldy (15,473 by 44), Falkirk (11,205 by 55), Edinburgh (45,076 by 131), Glasgow (46,182 by 171), Hamilton (15,958 by 50), Dumfries (4789 by 23) and Selkirk (4046 by 26).