For my second website review here, I looked at the Samaritans site. This organization specializes in involving members of the public as volunteers at the sharp end of care for people with mental health and other emotional issues, providing a hugely beneficial service.
Its website has been carefully designed — a bit too carefully, perhaps, giving the faint impression of a story not fully told.
Samaritans provides confidential non-judgemental emotional support, 24 hours a day for people who are experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those which could lead to suicide.
Whatever you’re going through, whether it’s big or small, don’t bottle it up. We are here for you if you’re worried about something, feel upset or confused, or just want to talk to someone.
The site’s immediate message is to people who might need their help, to emphasize that
anyone in the UK or Ireland can contact them by telephone at any time, day or night, for emotional support about anything at all, serious or trivial. Anyone can also e-mail or
write a conventional letter, or visit one of around 200 branches.
There are temporary branches at festivals and other events, training programmes in schools, prisons and workplaces, and links to organizations providing similar services in universities and in other countries.
Samaritans’ real goal is to reduce suicide, and their strategy includes researching, identifying, and working with high-risk groups. But their tactics include encouraging absolutely everyone to talk about feelings, especially distressing feelings, and to handle stress effectively.
And for anyone who has distressing feelings they can’t share with anyone else, Samaritans are always available. This is such a key idea. It’s so easy to give that good advice: “Share your feelings with someone.” But Samaritans make it real: “Share your feelings with someone — here’s the number.”
Samaritans volunteers (‘listeners’) are trained to listen and to understand the caller’s point of view, no matter what that might be, without intruding, judging or giving advice. As callers sometimes need to talk about extreme emotions, about harming themselves, and about the possibility of death, the training and support that listeners themselves receive is highly important.
The organization has developed limits and procedures that protect callers and listeners. Confidentiality is strict, even for under-18s. Listeners not only have an initial training programme, but they have constant supervision and support to help them cope with the work. Good training, constant support, and strict limits seem to be the key to Samaritans’ striking success in using volunteer listeners to provide emotional support in situations that are occasionally extreme.
The information on the website seems mildly spun to emphasise the positive. Although reducing suicide is the underlying goal of the organization, it is not the theme of the site, which mostly promotes the tactical view that talking about feelings is a healthy way to manage stress and depression.
Some negative aspects of Samaritans’ work are difficult to find information about. Listeners do receive a proportion of calls that are sexual or abusive in other ways. They receive many silent calls, where no actual contact is made between the caller and the listener, for whatever reason. The proportion of silent calls has risen steadily in recent years to around half of all calls. The organization’s response to these kinds of thing is veiled.
The combination of strict limits, confidentiality, a somewhat veiled response to certain things, and the (completely false) suspicion that there is something religious behind all this, have given Samaritans a whiff of mystery in the past. This website almost manages to dispel the mystery by careful management of the message.
Samaritans’ technique of active listening and emotional support is pretty much identical to the basic technique of good psychotherapy. However, because active listening and emotional support are all that Samaritans listeners do, some of them are probably very much better at it than many psychotherapists, who can hide behind a wall of psychological tests and theories to avoid emotional engagement.
The site does not really make this clear, though. I did not find any comparisons with other sources of support and help for people with emotional difficulties. There is a links page, but it is little more than a list of links.
There are some pages that teach you how to start a difficult conversation with someone you are worried about, and how to do active listening yourself, but these sections are not very detailed or helpful. If anything, they trivialize the work of Samaritans themselves.
Volunteering as a listener requires a considerable commitment of time. In return, listeners get a kind of practical training and supported experience in helping others that must be difficult to find anywhere else.
For anyone thinking about a career working with people in emotional situations, the training and experience would be invaluable, not just as a basis on which to build further professional skills, but also as a way to test the water and find out how it feels to help other people cope with difficult emotions.
It looks like about half the people who volunteer complete the training and probationary period, suggesting a rigorous selection process about which little is said. Being rejected or having to drop out from training because of the impact on your own feelings must be difficult, though the fact is that Samaritans is an unusual organization that not everyone will like being a part of. Again, it is not clear why people volunteer only to drop out.
The few people I know who have been Samaritans listeners do not talk about it much, and do not seem to feel that their work for Samaritans has anything in common with psychotherapy — which I find odd.
Often the reason someone phones is apparent at the beginning of the conversation. Sometimes it isn’t and it takes patience to build up a trust so that the caller will say why they have phoned… Perhaps they are frightened of dying, or living, or they may be lonely or not able to cope with life. They may feel suicidal or have suicidal thoughts.
Samaritans make sure that as a caller you have little to lose by contacting them, as conversations are confidential and the listening style is deliberately not intrusive.
No doubt there are good and bad listeners, so there could be a slight risk that you get a beginner who doesn’t know what to do, or an old fart who knew once but has since forgotten. That is not always important, though. If you are really in an emotional crisis you probably don’t care whether the person on the other end of the phone has perfect technique. It’s probably much more important that the person on the other end of the phone is just a person.
Reports I’ve heard from people who have occasionally called Samaritans have generally been good, and sometimes glowing. But some people who have become regular callers are not so complimentary. It seems likely that the service works best when used in short bursts to cope with crises, rather than as part of a lifestyle.
I think the website is broadly right to suggest that sharing difficult emotions with other people is a good thing, though I think that advice and plans of action are also important in people’s lives, and the site may not be right to downplay those things.
It was not clear from the site whether there is any continuity of contact, or whether it’s run like a call centre, where you can never get back to that helpful person you were talking to before.
I can’t overstate how helpful it is to feel listened to and understood. The service is unique, and phenomenal, and I’m incredibly grateful to Samaritans. It’s a completely fundamental part of what keeps me afloat, literally alive and functioning. Apart from the two periods when I’ve been hospitalised, I have carried on working during the past three years, living in my own home, seeing friends and having a life. To be able to ring – at any time – and to be guaranteed that I will speak to someone who will be understanding, gentle and non judgemental is remarkable.
In summary, this is a large and well-written website describing a still somewhat mysterious but enormously successful and important organization in the field of emotions and mental health.
Like the previous site I reviewed, Rethink, it seems to be independent of NHS and Department of Health influence.
Perhaps the site’s most appealing feature is its use of personal stories. I would have liked more story content, and for it to be better integrated into the rest of the site.
I saw psychotherapy mentioned in only a couple of places, and only in passing, despite the very close similarity of some aspects of Samaritans’ work to some aspects of psychotherapy. I wonder how many mental health professionals are aware of the quality of this resource for their patients. Perhaps maintaining this distance from other professionals helps Samaritans to do what they do, or perhaps it hinders.