As a country, we’ve come a long way when talking about mental health. People in the public eye such as Stephen Fry and Frank Bruno being open about their struggles are beginning to normalise mental illness. The perception of mental illness and those who live with them is changing. One of the first mental health charities in the UK, largely focusing on helping people with emotional distress and the suicidal, has carried out a great deal of important work over the decades. Their work is so important that they are one of only a few charities to have a day dedicated to their cause. They are Samaritans.
Despite the biblical implication of its name and founded in 1953 by a vicar, it is a secular organisation. Chad Varah came up with the idea after conducting a funeral of a 14-year-old girl who killed herself. Her story touched him so he invited volunteers to help him set up sessions at his church to listen and talk to suicidal people.
The story of the Good Samaritan is iconic and memorable, even with people who do not consider themselves religious. The Good Samaritan helped a Jew who had been robbed (a person who would otherwise have been a mortal enemy) when a priest and a Levite ignored him. That’s the philosophy behind the charity’s name – helping those in distress without prejudice and regardless of social class, race, gender and colour.
Chad Varah broke with the charity in 2004, feeling it was no longer about what he’d wanted. Today, around a quarter of calls to their helpline are from suicidal people, the rest making up people going through mental distress.
Why a Samaritans Awareness Day?
Choosing the actual date of Samaritan’s Awareness Day is a clever piece of marketing. It falls every year on 24th July. That’s 24/7 – reflecting the service they offer as a 24-hour, 7-days-per-week crisis service. Samaritans was the first ever charity to offer a 24/7/365 service.
Samaritans Awareness Days began in 2012 but evolved in line with each annual campaign. Each year, it takes on a different name but remains true to the traditions of Samaritans Awareness Day. In the past, it’s been called a variety of names including “Talk To Us”. This year’s event is called “The Big Listen”.
We need such a day because mental illness is reaching crisis point. Since the financial crisis of 2008, suicide rates, particularly amongst men, the disabled and the poorest in society, have only increased. Although Samaritans is largely about helping the suicidal, in reality, they help people who are dealing with stress, anxiety, depression and any other form of mental illness causing distress.
The Big Listen 2017
Do any of us really listen enough? Or perhaps, are we too focused on sharing platitudes and inspiring soundbites? It feels that too few of us make the time to listen to the people around us. Part of this year’s Samaritans Awareness Day “The Big Listen” is how to be a better listener to those around us. Not everybody has the time, inclination or the emotional fortitude to hear other people’s struggles by volunteering for the charity. It doesn’t take that to be there for friends and family.
- Show you care: demonstrating concern for a family member or friend going through distress can go a long way
- Show patience: No matter how irrational they appear, losing your temper and talking all over them will not improve their mood
- Use open questions: let them talk while you listen
- Say it back: repeating what they say to you not only demonstrates that you understand but creates empathy
- Have courage: Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but don’t push the issue if they don’t want to talk