You never know who you are going to get when you pick up the phone
SAMARITAN ON REALITY OF VOLUNTEERING... AND HOW IT HAS HELPED HIM
IN his role as a Samaritan, Matthew Charleston offers a listening ear to people in their darkest hour.
It’s a service he wished he’d turned to when he was growing up, as it could have helped him ‘recover quicker.’
His late teens and early 20s were punctuated with bouts of depression, and two suicide attempts.
The first was at the age of 17, when he was doing a job that he hated, the second during an unhappy relationship in his mid-20s.
Personal struggles, low mood, and then a struggle to get the right help it’s an all too familiar story to too many Mancunians in recent years.
Matthew’s account of his attempts to get help through mental health services is one of frustration.
The 31-year-old, from Atherton, says his GP prescribed him antidepressants and he tried cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
The CBT therapist then referred him to a psychologist.
He waited six months to see one, and on his first session was told he wasn’t a suitable patient.
“They told me there’s nothing else they can do for me and I should go to CBT as that was more appropriate, even though that’s the service that had referred me,” he said.
“I felt frustration and anger that I had waited six months just to be referred back to a service that I’d come from.”
Help came for Matthew in the form of a ‘very supportive friend,’ who he could talk to.
He continued to take the medication his doctor had prescribed.
And then, around the age of 26 and feeling more confident, he decided to give volunteering a go.
It was while Matthew was stuck in traffic one day that he saw a recruitment advert for the Samaritans on the bus in front.
He thought he might be good at it. Even when he was going through rough patches himself, he was often a shoulder to cry on for friends.
He was interviewed and then attended an assessment day, where he had to come up with scenarios for how he would handle different situations.
The training involves three months in a classroom, then a further three months training with a mentor.
After that you’re on probation, taking calls on your own but with an experienced volunteer on stand-by.
“I was in a much better place (when I signed up)”, Matthew said.
“And I felt that I was strong enough to be able to volunteer.
“I wouldn’t say I was fully there, but in a way I found that Samaritans helped me with that last bit of the journey, going through the training and the friends that I’ve made here as well.”
Having made it through the process, Matthew has been volunteering, at the Samaritans branch on Oxford Street ever since.
Answering his first call was ‘nerveracking.’ “You never know what you are going to get when you pick up the phone,” he said.
“It could be someone in the process of taking their own life. Or you could be picking up the phone and it’s someone that is lonely.
“They might not have seen or spoken to someone that day and they just need to hear somebody’s voice.
The most important skill, he says, is ‘empathy.’ “You have to be a people-person, some of the callers can be challenging at times, you’ve got to be able to handle that.
“But also you’ve got to have the openness and honesty to speak to your fellow volunteers when you are struggling. Otherwise you can take things away with you.”
Samaritans debrief after every shift so they can talk to a volunteer support coordinator, nicknamed the ‘Samaritan’s Samaritan.’ It means they don’t go home with stressful calls weighing on their minds. They’ve got such a strict confidentiality policy that they can’t speak to anyone outside of work about the circumstances of a call, so speaking to colleagues is hugely helpful. Before he became a Samaritan, Matthew, who now lives in Salford with his Yorkshire terrier Alfie, thought he was a good listener. But Samaritans training took that skill to a new level.
Calls can be as short as five minutes or as long as five hours. Having experienced mental health problems makes his job easier, Matthew thinks. He knows what it’s like to be in the callers’ shoes. But there are plenty of calls from people in situations he’s never been in – issues with their children, marital problems, or older people with health issues. One issue is prank calls – mainly of a sexual nature. Bizarrely people sometimes mistake him for a woman on the phone, and so he gets some very ‘odd comments,’ he said. Another is threats or abuse. Sometimes people are drunk or on drugs when they phone up.
In his day job, Matthew works as a debt collector.
He relaxes by watching science fiction shows like Star Trek – a nice escape from the real world. Another passion is pottery, the meditative process helps him switch off from the stresses of daily life.
CALLS TO THE SAMARITANS ARE FREE ON 116 123
Matthew Charleston is a Samaritans volunteer VINCENT COLE