I have been working with the Samaritans for getting on for three years now in response to Sir Charles Bowman’s request to support his charitable appeal for them. That appeal comes to an end this week as the current Lord Mayor William Russell takes the chair for a second year[i]
and starts a new three-year programme. I recently attended by Zoom an update by some of the Samaritans’ senior executives and it made very grim listening. This took place before the announcement of the second lockdown and so I can only assume that what I was told two weeks ago will be getting even more concerning. They told us that the Coronavirus is the biggest challenge the Samaritans have ever faced. The government briefing has included signposting to the Samaritans and this has meant they have needed to increase their flexibility, ensure availability on a 24/7 basis, think creatively and make their decisions based on evidence-led research. The Samaritans are treated by the government as an essential service.
When the nationwide lockdown was first announced in March 2020, they estimate that around 30% of their volunteers were shielding, because they had long term health conditions or were living with someone who did. Samaritans branches remain closed for face-to-face support. Since March their volunteers have provided emotional support over a million times (via phone, email and letter) and almost a quarter of those calls for help have been about Coronavirus, with people being concerned about isolation, mental health and illness, as well as family and finance. Callers are generally more anxious and more distressed than before the pandemic. Anxiety in particular has increased among callers, month on month, even with changes to lockdown restrictions. Now that we are in a renewed lockdown that can only get even more acute.
At the start of the pandemic they developed an online Coronavirus hub and resources to help people look after themselves and others. At the peak of the first lockdown this Coronavirus hub was viewed over 140,000 times. Between March and August 2020 their social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Linked In) were viewed over 57 million times. The Samaritans run 200+ branches in the UK and Ireland with 20,000 volunteers. During these lockdowns there can be no face-to-face support and instead they take a call every seven seconds. Covid-19 is the main concern in one in four of these calls. Half relate to mental health and half talk of loneliness and isolation. 38% describe problems in the family that are exacerbated by lockdowns while 8% referred to financial problems. There are many newly unemployed and people are struggling to access benefits.
They have focused on those people at the highest risk. Through primary research they have developed new insights. The three main groups of concern identified in this research are middle aged men, young people who self-harm and those with existing mental health issues. The highest risk demographic is among less well-off middle-aged men. They are concerned about keeping their families safe (especially older relatives), being able to provide for them and relationship breakdown. Those who lived away from family or didn’t have access to their children reported missing that contact. As for young persons who self-harm, much of this is caused by widespread suicide and self-harm content on Instagram and Facebook.
The helpline is seen as a form of social contact in many cases. Each week the Samaritans are taking more calls than in the same week in 2019. People who are worried about Covid-19 find it difficult to access mental health support or social and community support. Young people are less able to cope with the restrictions that are placed on them and the limitations of access to their peer group. They feel trapped, cooped up in their bedrooms and have feelings of negativity and uncertainty about the future. Many have developed feelings of hopelessness, caused by problems in education or employment and their concerns are not going away. There has been a 35% increase in emails from men, particularly the less well-off middle-aged group. They have no one to talk to and don’t feel they can talk to their friends. They lack support from their families and don’t want to be a burden on anyone. There has been a 20% increase in calls from this group complaining of loneliness and isolation, financial problems and loss of employment.
Management continues to monitor the service to understand how the pandemic is playing out. There is no doubt that the lockdowns have had a major impact on mental health. The Samaritans’ response to the pandemic has been to maintain a full 24/7 service with new channels of support, moving volunteers’ recruitment and training online and developing new remote volunteering pilots with online chat. They launched a new confidential support line service dedicated to NHS and social care workers in England and Wales, with funding from the NHS. The support line is run by Samaritans and all calls are answered by trained Samaritans volunteers, who provide confidential, non-judgmental support. They have also launched an emergency appeal for national and local support preparing for the years ahead.
While the team was unable to provide data on whether there has been an increase in people taking their own lives – that will have to wait for official data provided by the Office of National Statistics for the year as a whole - but they have little or no doubt that when this is reported it will show a significant increase as a result of the lockdown and other restrictive measures.
Back in May I published a blog describing the work that colleagues of mine in my Past Masters’ Association and I have been doing with the Samaritans. At the end of the blog I wrote “I think in the current crisis the Samaritans will be busier than ever.” I then wrote “So if you are minded so to do please visit https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/David-Pearson70
Your donations will be most welcome but will be anonymous.” And I do so again.