As Swindon Samaritans marks its 50th anniversary, DENISE BARKLEY talks to the interim director about the organisation and its forthcoming recruitment event

ENCOURAGING schoolchildren to talk about their feelings and not bottle up their worries is a crucial aspect of the work of Swindon Samaritans and goes hand-in-hand with the core task of being there for people in despair or crisis when they need to talk.

This was brought home earlier this month with Prince Harry revealing that he sought counselling in his late-20s to cope with the death of his mother, Princess Diana, when he was just 12.

“So many people are going through crises and it is important for us when people like Prince Harry, in significant positions in society, talk about their feelings and the need to discuss them, not bottle them up, and are encouraged to contact the Samaritans or other agencies who can help,” said Paul Bentley, interim director of the Swindon branch.

This year is the 50th anniversary of Swindon Samaritans, and the 130 volunteers at the charity’s drop-in premises and shop in Curtis Street are as committed now as they were back in 1967 to offering a lifeline to distressed callers, some on the brink of suicide.

Last year 17,262 people contacted Swindon Samaritans – 14,700 of them did this on the phone and the rest were via e-mails, texts or face-to-face.

Fifty years ago mobile phones, text, e-mail and social media didn’t exist so the majority of callers would come into the office or use a home phone or a call-box. These days, the Curtis Street branch will only see two or three people face-to-face each week.

“Today’s high-tech society makes the Samaritans more accessible to more people for more of the time,” Paul explained.

“I don’t think things are so different to 50 years ago, when the Swindon branch launched. The fact remains that if people are very unhappy or distressed, for whatever reason, then they need to talk about it.

“But some of the driving forces have changed over the last half century and social media has had a big effect. Bullying via the Internet is a worrying aspect of life that certainly didn’t exist 50 years ago.

“The pressures may have been different back then, but our job is just the same, allowing people in distress and despair, some with thoughts of ending their lives, to talk to a stranger who will actively listen, without judgement, in complete confidence.

“And these days there is less of a stigma about talking to the Samaritans or other agencies, there’s a lot less ‘stiff upper lip’.”

As well as providing a listening ear to those in distress the Swindon branch has a busy programme of outreach work, going into schools and community groups, Jobcentres and Erlestoke prison, near Devizes, to spread the word that help is there when it’s needed, at any time of the day or night. The prison outreach work is particularly vital as, nationally, suicide rates among prisoners rose by nearly a third last year.

And suicide is rising among the general population too. The Samaritans Suicide Statistics Report 2017 reveals that 6,188 suicides were registered in the UK in the previous 12 months, an increase of 3.8 per cent. Female suicide rates are at their highest in a decade, though the male rate remains around three times higher with the 40-44 age group the most vulnerable.

Swindon Samaritans launched back in 1967 from an office in Sanford Street, then moved to Regent Street, and finally to their current premises in Curtis Street in 1984. There are 130 volunteers who are either listening volunteers who deal with phone calls, texts and emails 24-hours-a-day, or support volunteers who help with running the charity shop – located below the office – fundraising and so on.

“The key message of our 50th year, as well as thanking the Swindon community for their support over all those years, is a call for more volunteers. We always need more – you may only be able to spare a few hours, but it is all valuable to us,” Paul explained.

“We provide an intensive training course for listening volunteers, and there is ongoing support. It’s really a question of understanding and knowing what is and isn’t being said by someone who contacts us – listening is the key skill, and these skills and knowledge are transferable to our own personal lives as well.”

Paul has been a listening volunteer for 17 years. He used to work for Zurich Financial Services in Swindon and the company was keen to get employees involved in the local community – so Paul started volunteering with the Samaritans.

“I am here because I firmly believe in the Samaritans and I love volunteering, it is rewarding and satisfying to make a difference,” he revealed.

“It is so important to be there for someone in crisis – the Samaritans have a free 24-hour helpline so there’s always someone ready to listen.

“The middle of the night can often be the worst time for many people – we have all woken up at 3am with something on our mind. That’s the sort of time texts and calls come in – and we will respond.

“It’s all totally confidential, we can’t see telephone numbers or e-mail addresses.

“Volunteers must be aged 18 or over and an average listening volunteer will be available for a four-hour shift each week. Some will get involved in additional duties such as admin or publicity too. Our band of amazing volunteers give 25,000 hours a year.

“I work full-time, so my volunteering is at evenings and weekends. We have a lot of retired people who do the day shifts; the night shifts are the busiest - we always need more volunteers.

“People call us for many different reasons but, yes, they might be in the process of taking their own life. The training, which is ongoing, prepares us to deal with calls of this nature.

“After a call we will offload to another Samaritans volunteer before we go home, there are always two on duty at any time.

“People do ring and say thank you, but because anonymity is retained, it’s not a personal thanks. But I don’t do it for thanks, I do it because I want to be there for another human being at their time of need – they can talk to me, about anything, for as long as they want, without any pressure.”

The Samaritans is a family affair for Paul, 58, who works as a relationship manager in the financial sector and lives in Swindon. His wife, Denise, works as a support volunteer for the Samaritans too, helping with fundraising for the Swindon branch, and his sister Liz Reason volunteers in the Curtis Street shop.

“Some people start volunteering after they have been through a distressing episode themselves,” Paul added. “A large part of it is having the time and making the commitment – but all this is covered at the training stage, so people can see if it suits them.”

Paul is on his second term as branch director at Swindon. He stepped in as interim director last December.

“Every three years the branch decides who will be the next director – it is not a question of putting yourself forward, the volunteers decide and it is all in complete confidence. I think it’s a great honour that my fellow volunteers think that I am the person for the role.

“Swindon Samaritans have a strong footing in the town, which comes from being here for 50 years now, and it is great that for all these years we have been supported by our many volunteers and taken to heart by the local community.”

People interested in volunteering should visit the website to register or go along to Swindon Samaritans’ information event at the office at 6, Curtis Street, Swindon SN1 5JU, on Saturday, May 6, at 10am. E-mail to register for a place.

To contact Swindon Samaritans call 01793 537373 (local call charges apply) or the national free helpline 116 123. The Curtis Street office is usually open to those who wish to pop in from 8am-2pm and 6-9pm seven-days-a-week.

  • In the beginning

The Samaritans began in London 64 years ago, founded by vicar Chad Varah. Throughout his career he had offered counselling to his parishioners and wanted to do something more specific to help people struggling to cope and possibly contemplating suicide.

The catalyst was the first funeral Chad conducted early in his career. A girl aged 14 had started her period and, having no-one to talk to, believed she had a sexually transmitted disease and took her own life.

He said: “I might have dedicated myself to suicide prevention then and there, providing a network of people you could ‘ask’ about anything, however embarrassing, but I didn’t come to that until later.”

In 1953 Chad knew the time was right to launch what he called “a 999 for the suicidal’. The service received lots of press coverage and the Daily Mirror coined the term ‘Telephone Good Samaritans’ and, although Samaritans is not a religious organisation, the name stuck.

In 1954 Chad handed over the task of supporting callers to the volunteers and the Samaritans as we know it today was born and still operates under its founder’s guiding principles of confidential, non-judgemental support.