My Life As A Samaritan

My Life As A Samaritan

When Isobel Russell volunteered for Samaritans nearly 13 years ago, she had no idea what a pivotal role the organisation would play in her life. Here, she tells us what the charity aims to achieve, what her personal experience has taught her and how you can show your support at this critical time…

Samaritans is available 24 hours a day to provide confidential emotional support for people who are experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those which may lead to suicide. Our aim is to help create a society in which fewer people die by suicide; where people can explore their feelings; and where people can acknowledge and respect the feelings of others. To do this, we take telephone calls, answer emails and welcome door callers into the centre to talk face to face.

The biggest misconception about Samaritans is that you have to be feeling suicidal to contact us. This isn’t true. We talk to anyone and everyone who is finding life difficult – for whatever reason. Because Samaritans was originally founded by an Anglican priest, Chad Varah, some people assume we are a religious organisation, too. But that isn’t the case, either. 

Some callers think we have connections to the NHS and ask for medical advice. We never give advice on any subject, but we can signpost callers to certain organisations which may be of help – although the list of places is determined by central office. 

Every branch is staffed entirely by volunteers who are committed to taking on at least one duty per week as part of an eight-week roster system. The branch is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and is headed by a director who is supported by a team of deputies – but everyone is a volunteer first and foremost.

I had never given Samaritans a thought until I attended a concert and saw an advert in the programme saying ‘Samaritans – could you do this?’ My immediate reaction was, yes. I went home, contacted them immediately, and the rest is history. In a strange way, it feels like Samaritans found me, and now, I can’t imagine my life without it.

It’s quite simple to apply to be a Samaritan. There then follows a period of information days, recruitment and selection, interviews and, finally, training all of which takes approximately nine months to complete. During this time, new volunteers are working properly in the duty room, but are still on probation.

The training process is very structured and intense. When I first contacted Samaritans I naively thought they’d say: “Come in on Tuesday and we’ll show you where the phone is.” Instead, I had to wait nine months for a place to be available on a training course. Initial training takes about four weeks, and consists of group sessions and some online modules. This is followed by about ten weeks of mentoring with an experienced Samaritan – but it’s not until you’ve done a second period of training and had three-month and six-month interviews with the branch director that you finally ‘graduate’. It’s vitally important all Samaritans are thoroughly trained.

I started my training in September 2007 and began working in the branch from December 2007, albeit on probation for six months. Since then, the profile of branch volunteers has changed radically. We now have more younger volunteers, some of whom are still at university. But there is a tendency for them to move on more quickly. With that in mind, we try to accommodate them by enabling them to transfer to other branches or doing most of their duties in the evening and at weekends – a courtesy we try to extend to all volunteers, no matter their age or circumstances. 

Being there for someone when they need to talk is very special.

We have also had to contend with changes in society, generally. For example, since Operation Yewtree, we’ve taken more calls relating to abuse from people who have never been able to talk about it before. Calls relating to mental health issues have increased, as well as callers with issues regarding sexuality.

The most rewarding part of being a Samaritan is when a caller says: “Thank you so much, you’ve really helped.” This tends to happen when we’ve said very little, but the caller has offloaded everything they’ve needed to. Being there for someone when they need to talk is very special. The thing to remember is that we are listeners not talkers – it is always the caller’s conversation and we’re there to offer empathy and compassion.

For me, the most challenging calls are from young children, but callers with mental health issues have also increased and it’s an area in which I find myself short on knowledge. Having said that, it doesn’t always matter if you’re not an expert because you’re not there to give advice, or ‘sort them out’ – you’re there to listen.

There is no such thing as a normal call. We have calls on all subjects and from all ages. We do, however, have regular callers who we’ve been supporting, in some cases, for many years.

Personally, I’ve taken very few calls relating just to the coronavirus. Most of the callers I’ve listened to have difficult lives and issues anyway, and the current crisis is just an added thing for them to cope with. It’s the isolation people are seeming to struggle with most, and overall, younger people appear to find it more difficult. 

Amid the current crisis, I’ve noticed considerably fewer phone calls but a lot more emails. Maybe, with the government instructions to stay at home, people have less privacy to call. Perhaps society is also looking out for the elderly or lonely at the moment, so they don’t have quite the same need to talk to someone. It’s not exactly clear, but that’s my own thinking.

Anxiety and depression are two of the most regular subjects that come up. These are often in addition to something else, and we try to help people in the same way regardless – by offering a safe space to share their thoughts and feelings, no matter how dark or difficult. We reassure them that everything is in confidence, that they can remain totally anonymous. We can’t trace calls, and nor do we make judgements or tell people what to or what not to do.  

We always try asking questions to understand what the caller is going through and to get them to open up. Some callers don’t need any encouragement, while others find it more difficult. Some callers might only need to offload once, while others will call many times. Some even call us many times, only to remain silent and end the call. It might take several attempts before they feel safe enough to start talking.

Dealing with people via email is very different to the phone. Everyone assumes emails are easy but it takes skill and good training to show empathy and compassion without the benefit of tone of voice and human connection. There’s always the danger something written in black and white will be misinterpreted.  

Since Operation Yewtree, we’ve taken more calls relating to abuse from people who have never been able to talk about it before.

We have an excellent system in place for looking after our own emotional health. If we’re not in a good place, we won’t be able to be there for our next caller. There’s always a duty leader available, 24/7, for advice or support for every volunteer. If you have a tough call, you can talk about it with your colleague, or if they’re busy then you can call the duty leader to talk it through. Without fail, every volunteer calls the duty leader at the end of a shift to talk about the calls they’ve taken and how they’re feeling. Most of the time this is sufficient, but if you’ve had a particularly traumatic time, the duty leader will follow up either later that day, maybe the next day, and maybe even the day after that to check how you’re doing.

We also have the Sams’ Sams team, which is a group of volunteers who take on the additional role of looking after the branch members. Volunteers might have various reasons for not being able to take on their regular duties – health and family problems for example – and the Sams’ Sams will look after them and keep an eye on how they’re doing.  

We have many people who want to help Samaritans, but they know being at the coalface isn’t for them. Some will commit to fundraising, others make regular donations, some leave something in their will. You can also offer to support branches by doing administration or cleaning – anything, really. With fundraising, anybody can organise an event and give the proceeds to Samaritans. 

Being a Samaritan is the most fulfilling thing I have ever done. People ask “Do you enjoy it?” which is a tricky one. I always answer that it’s rewarding. It’s the other volunteers who make the job enjoyable. There’s a special bond within the branch and it only functions if we operate as a team. Even though most of us know very little about each other’s personal lives, I’ve made some very good friends there.  

Some volunteers keep the fact they do this completely private, but we are not a secret society. Personally, I’m very happy to talk about being a Samaritan as I want to get the word out. I also think being open might encourage someone else to become a Samaritan – we’re always recruiting. That said, while it’s fine to talk about Samaritans and how we function, confidentiality is the bedrock of what we do, so we never talk about any of our callers outside the branch.  

Finally, a message from Samaritans…

Coronavirus is impacting all of our lives. This crisis is the biggest challenge Samaritans has ever faced and we need the public’s help to ensure our incredible volunteers can provide an ear for anyone that needs it. If you feel it’s possible, a donation to Samaritans Emergency Appeal will help the charity reach those who are struggling to cope. It will also help to recruit more volunteers and work faster on different ways to be there.


DISCLAIMER: We endeavour to always credit the correct original source of every image we use. If you think a credit may be incorrect, please contact us at

Fashion. Beauty. Culture. Life. Home
Delivered to your inbox, daily