A Chat With: Samaritans Liverpool and Merseyside

Samaritans Liverpool and Merseyside celebrated its 60th anniversary in March this year. It is the second oldest branch in England, opening in 1960. Although well known, the full extent of the work the organisation does, particularly on a local level, can be overlooked.

To mark World Mental Health Day (Saturday 10th October), LCR Pride Foundation went behind the scenes with Branch Director Sheila Campbell and Development Manager Rachel Howley, to find out about the team, the organisation’s training and what actually happens when a call comes into the service.

Samaritans is a well-known organisation, but many may not be aware of its overall aims, can you tell us a little more about them?

“Samaritans Liverpool and Merseyside’s vision is that fewer people die by suicide. We believe it is preventable and that by working together we can give people the support they need before they reach a crisis point.

Sometimes people think that we are a service that you only access at that crisis point, when an individual may be contemplating harming themselves. But we are here for them before that point, to listen to anyone who is struggling in any way. This might be to discuss feelings of isolation, bullying, being in an abusive relationship or situation, problems in the workplace or concerns around sexuality or gender identity. 

Our mission is to get to people who are struggling to cope much earlier and in particular target those who need us and reach out to high risk groups who may not be aware of us, or how to access our services.”

Why are Samaritans services so important, particularly given our present situation with COVID-19?

“Recent analysis has shown that isolation and loneliness, family, mental health or illness, physical health and illness and relationship problems were the most common reasons for people to contact Samaritans and suicidal feelings were expressed in 25% of those calls.

Right now, mental health is at the forefront, with COVID-19 exacerbating issues through isolation and loneliness, fear, bereavement, unemployment and more. Our listening service has never been more vital.

We find that giving people time, undivided attention and empathy meets an emotional need and often allows callers to find their own way to cope with the situation they find themselves in.”

What do people need to know about what happens when they access Samaritans’ services?

“That we are primarily there to listen and help people explore their feelings, to allow them to talk and alleviate distress so they can reach a better understanding of their situation and the options open to them, to facilitate them making their own decisions where that is possible.

“We believe that people have the right to find their own solution and that telling people what to do takes that responsibility away from them.

“Confidentiality is also paramount as we know people need to feel safe so they can open up about their feelings and our service is non-judgemental, because we want people to be able to talk to us without fear of prejudice or rejection.”

When we visited the service, we were able to observe a training call, in which the scenario was a caller is thinking about transitioning from male to female and whose decisions who had been accepted by their family, but they were struggling with anxieties about how the rest of the world will accept them as a transitioned person. How does your training work?

“Each of our volunteers go through an interview and selection process once they have been successful they are then put on a seven-week training course where they will learn and understand our values and our mission.  

Throughout their training they are issued a mentor and will receive practice calls which are delivered by experienced volunteers. They are supported and if they go on to take calls at the end of the training, they are supported by another mentor and will go through a six-month probationary period. We pride ourselves on the fact that training we provide is thorough and well supported.

We have various groups and community representatives who come into the branch to deliver talks to our volunteers, to build on our understanding of the issues and challenges different communities face. They have included talks by transgender men and women who have talked about their experience of calling us and have helped us understand the physical and mental difficulties which they encounter with transition.

We also train our volunteers to understand and recognise the importance of gender identity and asking for the preferred pronouns the caller wishes us to use.  We have a non-judgemental policy which is important for all volunteers to understand and abide by, as we are an inclusive organisation.  

Our calls are varied but we do receive calls from callers who are struggling with their sexual identity, family/religious issues, cross dressing, transitioning, homophobic, biphobic and transphobic abuse and relationship issues. We accept and understand the needs of callers and if asked we can signpost them to other organisations if they wish us to.

Our training is continuous and all active volunteers will go through five hours of training each year. This year we were hoping to have a workshop training session led by a local group based in Toxteth specifically on diversity and inclusion. However, due to COVID-19 we have suspended this until next year and may have to be run virtually.

How important are volunteers to your service?

“We are a volunteer led service and at Samaritans Liverpool and Merseyside we have about 160 active volunteers at any one time that deliver all aspects of our services. We couldn’t do any of this without our volunteers, people who come from all walks of life and give up their time to help others.

With the exception of three paid members of staff – Development Manager (Outreach and Strategic Partnerships), Branch Administrator and cleaner – all other members are volunteers delivering our service led by a Director and Leadership team who are also volunteers.

It’s also really important to highlight that we receive no statutory or local authority funding and instead rely on the generosity of public donations for the majority of our funding – we really are grateful for every penny that is donated, especially in these difficult times.”

As well as your helpline and in-person services (outside of COVID-19 restrictions) what other initiatives do you run in the city region?

“There really is a lot of work that we do that people aren’t as familiar with as they are with our Helpline. Samaritans Liverpool and Merseyside support some of the most vulnerable and hard to reach people in our communities and we work in partnership with the emergency services.

We undertake outreach at Aintree Hospital Emergency Department, where we provide direct support to both patients and staff, a service that this year has been shortlisted for a national NHS award.

We are also working with Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service to develop a unique workshop to help train their staff in how to respond to those in crisis and distress, in particular anyone presenting as suicidal.

We work with Merseyside British Transport Police and conduct regular joint outreach sessions across the Liverpool City region, including traveling on trains to raise awareness of our service and an annual Christmas campaign.

We work in partnership with Merseyside Water Safety Forum where we provide expertise on suicide prevention and just recently launched a new joint campaign, funded by Merseytravel, across 200 Stagecoach and Arriva buses in order to further to raise awareness of our services.

For over 25 years Samaritans Liverpool and Merseyside has also worked in partnership with HMP Liverpool where we operate a ‘Listener Scheme’ training prisoners to become ‘Listeners’ so that they are then able to support fellow prisoners.

We work nationally with Network Rail and locally with Merseyrail to reduce suicide on the railways. This includes proactive campaigns where we work together to raise awareness of our service through outreach sessions at local stations. We also react to incidents and provide emotional support to staff, passengers, families and the communities affected by suicide.”

Do you undertake work with local community and grassroots organisations too?

“We do indeed! For the last two years we have worked in partnership with D Street Media, a local theatre group that specialise in sensitively promoting the importance of mental health to children and young people. Throughout 2019 we attended 38 D Street Media Outreach sessions at schools and youth clubs across the Liverpool City Region.

Samaritans Liverpool and Merseyside also has strong connections with other local organisations to increase support for vulnerable groups. This enables us to signpost our local service users to a wide range of agencies that provide practical support including Citizens Advice, food banks, homelessness charities, local disability groups, domestic violence and sexual assault and rape centres. 

While we do not tell people what to do, when asked, we do signpost to relevant help and support available to them. We work closely with Liverpool City Council and NHS Liverpool Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) to inform policy makers around suicide prevention and to raise awareness of the importance of better mental health and well-being. This is particularly in regard to the current emphasis on mental health and well-being in the workplace. 

We also work with the local media to promote a responsible representation of mental health and suicide including regular slots at Radio Merseyside and Radio City. This year we have supported the cast and crew of Hollyoaks at their Liverpool studio in relation to an ongoing storyline about suicide.”

Who can get help from Samaritans if they are struggling and how can they do it?

“Samaritans provide emotional support to anyone experiencing feelings of distress, despair and suicidal thoughts. We are widely known for our helpline, giving support 24/7 by Freephone telephone, Email and soon we will be introducing Webchat. 

As part of the national helpline’s round-the-clock service, Samaritans Liverpool and Merseyside is open 17 hours a day, from 10am through to 3am, every day of the year.

Ordinarily we are open for face-to-face Drop In, from 10 am to 8pm every single day of the year but this service is suspended due to COVID-19 at present.”

Find out more about Samaritans Liverpool and Merseyside at: https://www.samaritans.org/branches/liverpool/

If you are struggling and need to talk, call 116 123 free from any phone or 0330 094 5717 (local call charges apply).