In an office in Portsmouth in the dead of night, a phone rings out like an alarm.
Someone out there is in distress, but the person picking up the receiver has no idea who they are or what is about to happen.
The caller might be sobbing uncontrollably and unable to speak or they might sound calm at first but reveal intense fears or distress. They may feel that they aren’t ready to speak and simply hang up.
Or it could be one of the most extreme and upsetting calls, when someone has reached crisis point and is about to take their life.
No matter what situations the volunteers at the Portsmouth and East Hampshire branch of the Samaritans face they have to stay calm. And for 50 years they have been there ready to listen, no matter who is calling and what kind of trouble they might be in.
‘You can get calls when someone is saying ‘I’ve got the vodka and the pills and I’m about to take my life’ or even from people who have already taken them,’ says Chris Trevellick, the branch director.
‘Of course it is scary and we don’t take it lightly, but we’re here to be supportive and to listen and talk. And you have to remain calm for that.’
Chris says the shocking death of Wales football manager Gary Speed, who was found hanged at his home on Sunday, may well have prompted people to contact the Samaritans to discuss personal problems.
He explains: ‘It’s very sad that it takes the death of somebody well-known to bring it out in the open.
‘But it may well be that Mr Speed’s death has prompted people to think of phoning us.
‘There has been a lot in the media about the importance of talking and seeking help. It may not be instantaneous, but the seed has been sown.’
He adds: ‘The Samaritans are very aware that men is where need to focus the message about talking, because many have great difficulty in admitting to an illness such as depression.’
Callers to the Samaritans are guaranteed absolute anonymity and confidentiality and Chris is careful not to reveal details of individual calls.
But in the national charity’s promotional leaflets, a man called Tony tells of his experiences after taking an overdose and then phoning the Samaritans to help him ‘go to sleep’.
Tony ended up calling an ambulance and says: ‘To this day I know I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t rung the Samaritans. It was just the calmness of the conversation with everything that was racing in me, able to talk quietly and I thought “if I can talk to somebody like this, why can’t I do that at home?”
‘I was talking to someone calmly about dying. How many people can do this? And there was somebody at the other end being equally calm rather than a hysterical response.’
Thankfully, most callers haven’t reached this stage, although around 6,000 people in the UK and Republic of Ireland take their own life each year.
‘There is a misconception that we’re only here for people who are suicidal. But we’re here to listen to people with all kinds of problems,’ says Chris.
‘It might be that somebody is feeling tremendously down because they have lost a pet. Someone might call if they have a flying phobia and are going on a family holiday. People are very different and some can cope with things that others find difficult.’
As the pressures in society increase, so does the need for an organisation like the Samaritans.
‘The worries behind people calling us can vary a lot but relationship problems or depression figure highly. Increasingly we are also noticing more people who cannot cope with the pressures of financial difficulties and unemployment,’ says Chris, adding that the charity will phone people back and always bear the cost.
Whatever the call, the aim of the organisation – set up in the early 1950s as a phone line to help people in distress – is not to give advice or take action but to listen, offer support and help the caller explore options if that’s what they want.
The Portsmouth branch has 95 volunteers from the city and surrounding area. Their skill is being supportive and patient without imposing opinions and advice.
‘I think that’s the hardest thing for people when they start because it’s our natural instinct to advise. But we really can’t and shouldn’t,’ says 66-year-old Chris, a volunteer for 23 years.
‘What advice do you give to someone who has terminal cancer and wants to talk about facing death? If someone has a mental illness, we don’t understand everything about that.
‘So we’re here to say “how is it for you?” It sounds bland but it’s the most effective thing.’
The Samaritans are just ordinary people willing to listen, says 68-year-old volunteer Jean.
‘I’ve always been told I’m a people person, which was one of the reasons I wanted to do it,’ she says.
‘We’re just talking to them as another person to see if we can find a way forward.’
Sometimes that isn’t possible and one of the most difficult things for volunteers is they don’t always know the outcomes of the calls they receive.
The sheer volume of calls received by the branch – more than 3,000 in October as well as e-mails – shows why the volunteers are never going to find out how everyone is progressing, although they do provide ongoing support.
‘It can be rewarding and I consider it a privilege to be trusted with people’s deepest thoughts,’ says Chris.
‘But there are times when you hear terrible things and you feel utterly helpless.’
One volunteer is always on duty at home to receive calls from those who have been manning the phones.
Their dedication is vital to an organisation which nationally receives five million calls a year.
HOW TO HELP
The Samaritans depends on the help of listening volunteers – those who answer the phone and give support to distressed callers – and support volunteers who help with recruitment, fundraising, administration and other activities.
Samaritans are ordinary people from all walks of life and all age groups, although those who answer phones must be at least 18.
To be a listening volunteer you have to be able to listen attentively, unhurriedly and at length and learn not to advise, criticise or judge.
Chris Trevellick, director of the Portsmouth branch, says: ‘We’re only human and everyone has prejudices and opinions but we ask people to hang those up with their coats at the door.’
No formal qualifications are necessary but there is an interview process to make sure the organisation and individual are right for one another. Those selected are given intensive training.
For further information, visit samaritans.org, e-mail email@example.com or call the Portsmouth branch on (023) 9269 1313.
Volunteers can be contacted round the clock to offer confidential support by phone – 08457 90 90 90 or 023 9269 1313, e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or face to face. The Portsmouth branch at 296 London Road, North End is open from 9am until 10pm every day for face to face visitors.