Maintaining a rota of 140 volunteers across 24 hours a day, seven days a week, is a task that falls to Maggie Cameron, branch director for Bristol Samaritans. “There are only seven branches in the whole of the UK wide that open constantly, as we do,” Maggie explains.
“We have an amazing bunch of volunteers who do regular shifts and are often willing to help at short notice. Being branch director is a very rewarding role for me. I view it as a privilege, and I’m proud that we don’t have any paid staff. I’m a listing volunteer too, so I’m in the same boat as everyone I look after.”
Samaritans was established as a listening service in 1953, and the lines have never been busier for volunteers like Maggie. In 2016, they fielded 5.7m calls nationally. “Since September 2016, we’ve been rolling out a Freephone number, which is free to call from any phone, even mobiles with no credit, and doesn’t appear on itemised bills.
“More and more people are feeling able to call us. We can’t see anyone’s telephone number, so we don’t know who they are or where they are calling from, and they don’t have to tell us. So, it’s completely confidential.
“The fact we’re open through the night, when most services are not available, is a big reason why the service is so needed. We get lots of calls between 10pm-4am, when people are more likely to be on their own without distractions, and with nowhere else to go to talk about their feelings.”
Over the summer, some of the support volunteers and listeners from the St Nicholas Street branch will hit Bristol’s streets to offer their confidential, non-judgmental listening service at several of the city’s biggest events, including Bristol Harbour Festival (July 21-23) and Balloon Fiesta (August 10-13).
“We’re there to encourage people to seek support if they need it, and to support each other,” Maggie says. “We’re happy to listen to people when we’re out and about – if people want to talk, we’ll step aside and have a chat. It’s just another way to access our service. We’re also encouraging prospective volunteers to join us at our information evenings, on the first Monday of the month at 7.15pm, in branch.”
Throughout the whole of July, Samaritans are encouraging people to participate in the Big Listen, taking the time to listen to each other. Their listening tips, forming the acronym SHUSH, include having patience, using open questions, and saying it back to the person you are listening to.
“The idea is to help people to become better listeners,” Maggie says. “It’s a simple thing, but when people feel listened to, it can make a massive difference.”
If you need emotional support, call Samaritans for free on 116 123, text 07725 909090 or email email@example.com.