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The Samaritans of Medway, Dartford and Swale speak out for National Suicide Prevention Day

For years, Samaritans have been there on the end of the phone to help those desperately in need of someone to chat to.

As the organisation evolves, Rachel Dixon found out more about their work.

Samaritans Charity Director, Des McCarthy, and volunteers Wendy Bell & Georgina Laurie, at The Samaritans offices in Strood. Picture: Tony Jones (15193641)
Samaritans Charity Director, Des McCarthy, and volunteers Wendy Bell & Georgina Laurie, at The Samaritans offices in Strood. Picture: Tony Jones (15193641)

Tucked away in an industrial area of Strood is the Medway, Dartford and Swale Samaritans' office.

Around 80 volunteers aged between 21 and 85 man the phones in shifts from 6am to 3am.

The site is just five minutes from the M2 bridge where this year three people have fallen to their deaths.

The Samaritans want people to visit the office or call them to stop this happening.

Regional director Des McCarthy said: "Our ethos is that fewer people die by suicide.

Regional Director for the Samaritans in Gravesham, Dartford and Swale Des McCarthy. Picture: Toby Jones (15193644)
Regional Director for the Samaritans in Gravesham, Dartford and Swale Des McCarthy. Picture: Toby Jones (15193644)

"The way we do it is by non judgmental listening - it's not for us to tell them what to do.

"We will deal with anything, because it’s an emotional distress. We aren't just for suicide.

“We want people to call us before they get anywhere near that state, so we can stop it."

From bereavement to breaking up with your partner, the Samaritans are there to help.

The group wants to become more visible and accessible to the community and dispel any misconceptions.

Samaritans Charity Director, Des McCarthy, on the telephone at The Samaritans offices in Strood. Picture: Tony Jones (15193623)
Samaritans Charity Director, Des McCarthy, on the telephone at The Samaritans offices in Strood. Picture: Tony Jones (15193623)

Des said: "People get the wrong idea and think we're a Christian charity

"We were started by a vicar, who was also a cartoonist, who started a 'drop in and phone' at his vicarage.

"He was interviewed by his contacts in the press and the article was headlined The Good Samaritan.

"The church has helped set up the groups, we aren't religious in anyway, we're completely secular."

In previous years, Samaritans were given fake names and numbers, now the organisation is open and public.

Des added: "Outreach has been really successful we've been doing events and shows, and really getting out into the community."

Fellow Samaritan Georgina Laurie said: "Every event someone has approached me for emotional support, who otherwise wouldn't have it, and that makes it all worthwhile for me.

"We've been out every week since January.

"It's sad and surprising that at such an event, people want to talk about their feelings.

"But it's great that now people do come forward because they can see we are just an ordinary face, you don't need to have a psychology degree to be a Samaritan."

Being a Samaritan

The volunteers provide emotional support without judgment to callers across the UK.

They are given no details of the caller's name, location or phone number.

When the call ends, the Samaritans never get to know the outcome.

Samaritans volunteer, Sue Giblin, on the telephone at The Samaritans offices in Strood. Picture: Tony Jones (15193632)
Samaritans volunteer, Sue Giblin, on the telephone at The Samaritans offices in Strood. Picture: Tony Jones (15193632)

Des said: "We get people from Scotland, Northern Ireland and even India.

"But it all has the same emotional effect."

The hardest part can be when people are taking their own lives while calling.

Georgina said: "People call who have taken pills, slashed their wrists or are in the process of hanging themselves.

"We don't give advice or tell people what to do and what not to do.

Samaritans volunteer Wendy Bell at The Samaritans offices in Strood. Picture: Tony Jones (15193660)
Samaritans volunteer Wendy Bell at The Samaritans offices in Strood. Picture: Tony Jones (15193660)

"That was the biggest thing, I'm a mum and I'm a fixer, I always used to have to bite my tongue, but now its second nature.

"When people phone us, it's a snapshot of their lives, how they feel in that moment.

"They might feel differently the next day. To give advice would be wrong

"If someone was to ring us about suicidal thoughts, we explore options, try to get them to tell us about their life."

Des said: "If someone is in the process of harming themselves, we always say, 'we don't know who you are or where you are, we can't call an ambulance'. We really don't know anything.

"If they change their mind, we often say hang up, ring an ambulance and ring back.”

"We never know what happens at the other end of the phone.

"That can be really frustrating, which is why we're really careful about the welfare of our volunteers."

There are always two volunteers and a senior volunteer on call so people can debrief and offload calls.

Georgina's story

A few years ago, Georgina was sat with a bottle of vodka and pills ready to end her life.

She said: "To be isolated and bereaved, you're alone in a big old empty house; loneliness is a seed that can grow into a nasty web of thorns.

Samaritans volunteer Georgina Laurie, at The Samaritans offices in Strood. Picture: Tony Jones (15193651)
Samaritans volunteer Georgina Laurie, at The Samaritans offices in Strood. Picture: Tony Jones (15193651)

"I was feeling suicidal after my husband died.

"I completely made up my mind that I couldn't go on without him."

But on a whim she picked up the phone and called the Samaritans.

She said: "The conversation went on for about an hour but one thing stuck in my head.

"He said 'You must feel exhausted' and that stuck in my mind.

"I realised if I'm exhausted I'm not thinking rationally and that sent me onto a whole new train of thought."

Georgina joined the Samaritans and is now happy and healthy.

Suicide prevention across Medway

After numerous reports of people in distress on the M2 bridge, the Samaritans are planning to take action.

Billy Angell fell from the M2 Bridge in Rochester on Wednesday July, 31 (15004176)
Billy Angell fell from the M2 Bridge in Rochester on Wednesday July, 31 (15004176)

The death of lorry driver Norrie Hyde and 32-year-old Billy Angell has sparked calls for an emergency helpline to be installed.

Des said: "There are Samaritans' posters already on the bridge, but we're going to update the signs.

"Actually there are phones on the bridge already.

"If you break-down you can call police, ambulance or highways service.

"I'm at the beginning of exploring if people can be put through to us."

The tributes left on Medway Bridge for Billy Angell.Picture: Phil Lee (15073535)
The tributes left on Medway Bridge for Billy Angell.Picture: Phil Lee (15073535)

Georgina said: "It diverts to seven different channels, and I think it would be very easy to add us to that list.

"There are four phones on each carriageway."

For people who want to talk face-to-face, the office in Priory Road, Strood, has an open-door policy and volunteers will talk just like the phone service.

To appeal to younger people who are less confident with phone calls, Samaritans has launched an online chat service.

People can text in online via www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help/contact-samaritan/chat-online/.

The group run an outreach programme in the prisons across the area including Swaleside and Rochester.

Billy Angell fell from the M2 Bridge in Rochester on Wednesday, July 31 (14602612)
Billy Angell fell from the M2 Bridge in Rochester on Wednesday, July 31 (14602612)

Des said: "We run a prison programme where we train prisoners who have been there for a long time to listen and do exactly what we do in person.

There are four or five who we train up regularly to make sure they are okay, with full support of the prison governors."

There are also Samaritan telephones in the prisoner cells, but occasionally inmates call for a chat when they are bored.

Des is in talks with Medway Domestic Abuse Forum to organise for two Samaritans to attend the weekly support sessions in the Sunlight Centre, Richmond Road, Gillingham.

At train stations, staff have been trained by the Samaritans to help people in distress.

Des said: "We've got leaflets with listening tips and how to approach someone.

"You might see a stranger in a position which seems strange, just open conversation.

"Go up and ask if everything is okay, if they want to talk, show an interest.

Georgina added: "Sometimes, just a good morning is enough for someone who is in emotional distress."

KentOnline is running a series of articles for National Suicide Prevention Day


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