The Samaritans of the Western Isles have received help from some Samaritans of their own – in the form of community wind farm charity Point and Sandwick Trust.
The Trust have donated £3,000 to the local charity to help with the costs of upgrading their base in Stornoway in order to help them help people in their hour of need.
The Samaritans is a national helpline, with 201 branches and 20,000 volunteers around the United Kingdom. They provide a 24 hour listening service, 365 days a year, and although ‘you don’t have to be suicidal to call the Samaritans’, they listen when people are at their lowest point, with suicide prevention being one of the service’s key aims.
Statistically, someone will die by suicide in the UK every 90 minutes – and the team who make up the Samaritans of the Western Isles are part of this coordinated effort to save lives.
The Stornoway branch is part of a UK-wide network of volunteers all answering calls to the one central number – freephone 116 123 – and the place a call is routed to depends on the location of the next volunteer who picks up.
The Stornoway branch opened in 2012 and is based in a small premises on Cromwell Street which needs modernising and upgrading so they can train new volunteers and carry on helping people in confidence, whether on the phone or in their weekly walk-in sessions.
The Western Isles’ Samaritans usually do four hour shifts on the lines, a number of times a week, and they hold face-to-face sessions in Stornoway between 1pm and 4pm on Fridays, when anyone is welcome to knock on the door.
Samaritans Western Isles currently have 21 volunteers and 12 more have recently joined and are waiting to start training, which can take up to a year to be completed.
Their base is used for training sessions and meetings, as well as the listening sessions, and the Stornoway branch director said it needed upgraded to be more fit for purpose.
There are two main rooms – a social / training area and the operations room – and some work has already been carried out in a first phase of upgrades, including the installation of soundproof glass to increase privacy. However, further work and investment is needed, including the purchase of items including earphones and computers.
The branch director said: “We are affiliated to the central branch but everything is self-funding. All our income comes from grants, bag packing, rattling the can… that sort of thing.
“The reason we asked for the money is to refurbish this place. So hopefully that money from Point and Sandwick Trust will go some way towards helping us with a more inviting face-to-face area and also with updating our IT.”
She said the grant was “absolutely amazing” and they would be having a meeting soon to plan the interior work. “We hope the place will be a bit more inviting. Not only for people coming in, although they’re the most important ones, but also for the volunteers coming in for their shifts and their training. Training in here can be very difficult when there’s more than six people.”
For anyone in need of someone to talk to, the branch director stressed the Samaritans treat all calls with complete confidence and the chance of an islander phoning the service and getting through to another islander are very small indeed – though it would not matter, even if they did.
“It’s so important that people know when they phone the Samaritans that it’s not going to be their next door neighbour.
“It’s 99.9 per cent chance that a caller from the Western Isles wouldn’t get through to this branch. For all the time I’ve been here, I’ve probably spoken to two people from the island.”
That said, “the calls are non-stop”. In 2018, the branch volunteers answered 3,396 calls and replied to 210 emails and 501 texts.
Across the country, Samaritans respond to a call for help every six seconds.
Donald John MacSween, General Manager of Point and Sandwick Trust, said the words of Samaritans founder Chad Varah summed up their approach – and the spirit of their vital service was the reason Point and Sandwick Trust were so pleased to support their work at their Stornoway base.
“There are people in this world, in every country, who seem to be ‘ordinary’, but who turn out to be extraordinary. They give their total attention. They listen and listen and listen, without interrupting. They do not preach. They have nothing to sell. We call them Samaritans.”
The branch director stressed: “It’s not just a suicide service. I’ve had people on the phone saying, ‘I’m sorry to bother you… I’m not suicidal’ and that’s fine! We’re hoping to catch people before they’re suicidal, for a chat, and it’s confidential. It’s good to talk, that’s what we’re here for – just to help people get it off their chest. Sometimes people realise when they finish the call that they know what to do. We don’t give advice; we listen.”
The branch director said she hoped more people would make use of the drop-in sessions but acknowledged that some people might be apprehensive in case they knew the volunteer.
“Probably because it’s a relatively small area, people are afraid to come in – they’re afraid to see somebody they know – but if they realised that we’re not allowed to say anything…If a volunteer breached confidentiality, that would be the end of them being a Samaritan. Nothing goes out of here.”
The Samaritans will also signpost to other agencies, and have an extensive list at their fingertips.
Ultimately, what makes a good Samaritan? The branch director said: “Someone who is non-judgemental – that’s the first thing – and can listen and not be shocked by anything.”
Picture: The Samaritans base – which offers Friday drop-in sessions – on Cromwell Street in Stornoway. Picture by Sandie Maciver of SandiePhotos