We continue our series of monthly member blogs, with this month’s blog coming from Pio Fenton, Chairperson of Samaritans in Ireland, about his experience of volunteering with the listening-ear service.
“I could never say that before…”
I first became a Samaritans volunteer about 9 years ago. It has been a huge experience in terms of getting an insight in the breadth of humanity that walks the earth. More particularly, it has been a lesson on acceptance and on taking people as you get them. So often, the greatest barrier to seeking help is the fear of judgement. In the time I have been a volunteer I can say that when you provide people with a judgement free listening ear that it can be exceptionally liberating.
In essence, it is my opinion that each of us is imperfectly human. If we were to label every life situation in the way we label those that are experiencing mental ill-health then I think we would be doing an enormous disservice to the variety of life we have around us. That is why one of the Samaritans perspective in providing support is to focus not on labels but on feelings. When you take people as you get them you are giving them the freedom to be themselves. There is little that any of us want more than the ability to be who we are; to be real and to express ourselves without imposition.
Frequently people call us, particularly in the dead of night, who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses. Samaritans approach is not to direct but to explore. So when we do lift the phone or answer an email we would never ask them what their diagnosis was but would talk about this if the person wanted to. There is enormous comfort in talking to ordinary people sometimes, as all Samaritans volunteers are. It amazes me how often I have heard someone say“I could never say that to my doctor/psychiatrist/
If I were to explore why that is the case then I think one thing is obvious; person oriented listening rather than treatment of an illness. That’s not to say that illnesses shouldn’t be treated or that psychiatry etc has little to offer. The opposite is the case. Perhaps though, we should be encouraging those that have been diagnosed with mental illness to avail of the spectrum of support that may be available to them. Similarly, services supporting those that have mental illnesses need to work together to signpost and refer where appropriate. An advantage of Samaritans service in this respect is that it is not directive – we don’t tell people what to do. This is crucial where treatment plans etc are in place. Similarly, I would be the first to accept that Talk Therapy is not always sufficient in and of itself.
We are primarily associated with suicide but we have value to offer to many and all across the continuum of emotional distress. Freedom from labels is a key tenet of the service provide and is something that enables and assists many in sometimes getting through the night.