Most of us are aware that the UK is in the grips of a mental health crisis. Even before COVID-19 shattered our support systems and overwhelmed an already struggling NHS, things were bad. What we’re less aware of, though, is who exactly has been bearing the brunt of this crisis. Beyond the statistics and the petitions and the Parliamentary debates, who are the people moving the needle each day, helping turn the tide of this catastrophe one person, one phone call, one conversation at a time? We wanted to find out. To mark Mental Health Awareness Month 2021, we asked four people from different mental health care professions to walk us through a typical day on the job. Here, we hear from Samaritans listening volunteer Alex who explains how she prepares for a shift, looks after her own mental health, and the techniques she uses to ensure the people who call Samaritans feel truly heard.
“People don't think that listening is a skill but so many people don’t properly listen and take in what’s being said,” Alex explains. She has been a volunteer with Samaritans for around three years. As an active listener, she’s the person at the end of the phone when someone calls feeling anxious, struggling to cope, or are simply in need of someone to speak to. Her motivation for getting involved with the charity? “I’m quite a sounding board for friends and family and I really wanted to give back,” she explains.
During the pandemic, people around the U.K. relied on Samaritans for mental health support. Since social distancing began their volunteers have provided emotional support over 2.3 million times via phone or email and answered nearly 400,000 emails — a 32% increase compared to 2019. One in five calls were from people who were specifically concerned about COVID-19 and many people expressed worries about the knock on effects of social distancing, as well as concern for loved ones and feelings of isolation.
It’s Alex’s job to help field some of the many requests for support that come in. “The calls are so varied. You could have someone who seems quite happy but just wants to check in,” she says, “But at other times, come 11 p.m. when the world goes really quiet and there’s no one else around it’s a space where people can offload to someone who is non-judgemental.”
Her Samaritans role may sound emotionally demanding but by definition it isn’t “work.” Alex still has a full time job, is a painter for commission, and manages to squeeze in time with her partner. She explains being organised with her time and taking time to recharge are key to staying on top of it all. “I have a strict routine. Then on Sunday afternoon I have a bath, stick a face mask on, and have an hour where I do nothing at all,” she laughs. Below, she reveals what volunteering for Samaritans is really like.
6:15 a.m. My alarm goes off at 6:15 a.m. Rather than staying in bed, I try to get up straight away. After coming to I put a Joe Wicks workout on. You’ve got to love Joe Wicks. He’s been amazing over lockdown. I do a quick 20 minute workout before making some breakfast. To save some time I prepare my lunch for the day too.
7:30 a.m. In my eight to five job I’m a Learning and Development Trainer for an energy company. I’m really lucky that I live really close by to work. Once I’m ready for the day I get into the car.
8 a.m. I sit down at my desk at 8 a.m. I open my emails and calendar up and prepare myself for what’s to come. I like to be an organised human anyway but you find as a volunteer that you have to be.
Everyday is different for me. I might be doing inductions for employees, management training, and coaching. We also have an off-shore company in South Africa so I lead a lot of online training too. It’s hectic during the day and my workload is lovely and busy. It’s constant but I love it.
5 p.m. I finish up at work at 5 p.m. and get ready to go home. It’s a day when I’m volunteering with Samaritans so my day is far from over. My partner is a police officer so he’s used to having a busy schedule and working unsociable hours too. As we’re both working I’ve organised dinner already. If he hasn’t worked my partner will have made dinner. We’re good at sharing the load 50/50. He knows how much I do.
Because we live in Blackpool and really close to the front I get out for a walk. It’s really pretty to walk along the front. As I work full time I can’t do shifts with the Samaritans during the day. However, they’re so flexible and I usually do three hours in the evening or at the weekend.
7:30 p.m. At around 7:30 p.m. I get ready for my three hour shift with the Samaritans. Again it’s really lucky that I live so close to my branch and I spend the 20 minute car journey getting myself into the right headspace. I reflect on what I’ve done that day and any stresses from work or home that I’m holding on to and then set them down, recognising that the next three hours aren’t about me. I need to get into the zone. I know some volunteers who use totally different names while volunteering to totally separate themselves.
8 p.m. Like everything, COVID-19 has impacted what I do with Samaritans and as soon as I arrive I make sure I’ve got my mask on, swap over with whoever was working before me, and sanitise the computers. Who knows when that will end.
There’s always a call waiting when I sit down. For the next three hours I could have 20 calls or I could have three, depending on how long each conversation lasts. It totally depends on the needs of the person calling.
8:15 p.m.: There’s no “typical” caller. I speak to someone for an hour and we use what’s called the listening wheel. I reflect with the person on why they called and make sure that I’m actively listening all the way through. Once they’ve processed it, we start talking about what they want to do next.
We always volunteer in twos for safety but also to talk through distressing calls. It’s so good to have someone there who you can immediately talk to about a call you’ve taken and give yourself a minute to reflect yourself.
We’re still all human, I’m not a rock. If I didn’t have feelings I wouldn’t be able to do the work that I do. It's not good for me to get upset. I need to make sure on the call that I’m there for that person.
9:20 p.m. I’ve taken a difficult call and seek out my leader. Of course, a cup of tea and a biscuit always goes down well. They’re there all shift and, among other things, are there to support the volunteers. When someone calls about something that is relatable or has happened in my own life it can be especially difficult.
My leader tells me to take 20 minutes, finish my tea, and get away from the phone. I can’t be a Samaritans volunteer if I’m only thinking about myself. It’s about taking time to reflect and getting ready to speak to the next person.
9:50 p.m. Sometimes I do split shifts which means stepping away from the phones to answer people who have emailed us. I see that we’ve got a few messages and I have people that I’m assigned to. Helping people over email is fairly similar to the work I do on the phone. I might answer any questions I can and will also ask them questions if they’re indicated that they want to talk about things more. It’s all about being open with people, whether you’re speaking on the phone or messaging.
11 p.m. My shift is over and I seek out my leader again for a final debrief on the shift. This is so important to me so I can leave everything I’ve done at the branch and go home to bed. I will give them a brief lowdown and once I’m in my car I know that it’s time to wind down. The drive helps immensely.
11:20 p.m. I walk through the door and switch on some Netflix to help me relax. If I went to bed straight away I wouldn’t be able to switch off. I’ve been loving The Bold Type, it’s amazing. Everyone’s been watching Bridgerton too. Any cheesy film usually does the trick. I can’t get enough of Bridesmaids and I’m quite nostalgic so if I’m feeling tired I will stick Harry Potter on.
11:50 p.m.: I’m feeling fully chilled and go up to bed. I like to bring up a pint of water with me. Then my fit bit and my phone go on charge. My phone also goes on silent because I need that uninterrupted sleep. The last thing I do is set that “lovely” 6:15 a.m. alarm. I like to put on an Esfar face cream just before I close my eyes.
I’m pretty exhausted but I like to be this busy. My partner is busy but I know that when we can we’ll get away to the Lake District for a climbing session or foraging for mushrooms. At the weekend I always take time for myself. I might spend the entire day painting. I always make sure I do a piece just for myself. And in the week, if I’m not doing a shift with the Samaritans, I will be in bed bang on 10:00p.m.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.