For Samaritans, July represents Talk To Us month, where the leading suicide prevention charity reminds everyone that its 23,000 listening volunteers are available 24/7, providing emotional support to anyone struggling. Here, Lorraine, a listening volunteer at Birmingham Samaritans, shares what she’s learnt about loneliness and her experiences of being there for people who need to be heard.
Samaritans’ listening volunteers
Like a lot of people, I’ve had my own experiences of feeling lonely and isolated. In fact, I imagine almost everyone has had similar feelings at one point or another in their lives – whether they realise – or accept it – or not.
For me, I felt loneliness most strongly as a teenager. I just thought my problems were huge and that nobody cared or knew about them. I was too reserved and introverted to talk to somebody about it or call somebody.
If I’d known about Samaritans, maybe that would’ve helped me open up and talk to people, but when you’re suffering it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that ‘my problem is the only problem, nobody’s ever heard this before, I’m isolated and I’m on my own – nobody cares’. Now, as a Samaritans listening volunteer, I answer calls from people going through all kinds of challenges – people going through exactly what I did. You don’t have to be suicidal to contact us.
Loneliness – a common concern
One of the most common concerns I hear about is from people experiencing loneliness and isolation – in fact it’s the third most common concern we hear about. That might surprise you, as it did me when I first started volunteering, but the more you think about it, the more it makes sense. You can feel lonely in a crowd, or lonely in a relationship. It’s striking that there have never been more ways to communicate and stay in touch, yet a lot of people are still struggling.
We get calls from people of all ages – a surprising amount of young people experiencing loneliness, as well as older people which is a bit more understandable but no less upsetting. I find a lot of people allude to feeling lonely rather than outright admitting or saying the word itself – which shows we have a long way to go in breaking the stigma and shame around loneliness.
I think this is where Samaritans, and other sources of support, are so useful. Samaritans is a safe space to explore your feelings, as openly and honestly as you feel comfortable. It’s your call. You’re talking to a volunteer rather than a friend or family so the conversation doesn’t go anywhere afterwards.
We don’t expect anything from you. We’re just there to listen. We don’t have to do anything but listen. We don’t give advice. I think that’s very important to know. I don’t jump in to try and fix things. We’re there to support, listen and give someone space to be themselves.
It’s a privilege in a funny way that people trust you with their feelings. They’ve not told anybody anything about it, but they’ve chosen to speak to you about it because you’re a stranger and you’re completely impartial about their life.
Calls during the pandemic
Obviously, the pandemic had a massive impact on loneliness – which we’re still emerging from. We did see a rise in the number of calls mentioning loneliness and isolation, understandably – as well as a change in the way people contacted us – with an increase in emails, probably because people didn’t want to be overhead. This again speaks to the need to tackle the stigma around loneliness, and help-seeking help.
Having volunteered before, during and after the pandemic, it’s been very interesting to see how people have – and haven’t – been coping with the return to ‘normal’ life. While some are very much enjoying themselves, others are struggling to cope – either with returning to hectic lifestyles or finding it hard to go back to their old routines – worried that their mental or physical health hasn’t improved as much as they were expecting.
Over the five years of being a listening volunteer, I’ve learnt several things – namely understanding the importance of human connection. There really is nothing like it. Just the idea that somebody can be on the other end of the phone and say, ‘I’m here, I’m listening, and I care’ – it means everything. It can be very difficult to open up when you are feeling isolated, alone and that nobody cares.
And the truth is, we’re all a lot closer to needing to be listened to, and heard, than we might realise. On shift, I speak to people just like me. Callers to Samaritans are invariably the same as you and me, just having a bad day.
Find out more about the Talk To Us campaign.