Since 1969, Samaritans of Singapore has provided a safe space to anyone in crisis. But who are the good Samaritans that have been doing all the hard work?
For most of us, we have at least one person whom we can turn to for an empathetic listening ear. But what happens if you don’t have anyone to talk to, particularly when it comes to sensitive matters like depression or suicide? Non-profit organisation Samaritans of Singapore (SOS), which has been around for over 50 years, was set up to provide confidential emotional support to anyone in distress. Callers are comforted by Samaritans: volunteers who are there to listen when you have no one else to turn to.
So I spoke to a Samaritan, who’s been with SOS for over 10 years, to find out exactly what it’s like to be on the receiving end of these difficult phone calls. We talked about their day-to-day work, how they detach after a shift, and what more can be done regarding suicide and mental health in Singapore.
A day in the life of an SOS volunteer
How and why did you decide to become a Samaritan at SOS?
When my kids grew up, I had time to spare beyond my then full-time job. I looked for a regular volunteering opportunity and came across SOS. I didn’t know much about the organisation then, but I became more interested after finding out more.
Can you share with us a typical day for a hotline operator?
Volunteer shifts usually last a few hours. I try to get there earlier to get ready by sanitising my workstation and having a short check-in with the staff on duty. Then, I’ll make myself a cup of coffee or tea to stay alert as sometimes the calls can come in continuously. When that’s the case, I can hardly take a break. If I can afford the time, I’ll have a chat with fellow volunteers either before or after my shift.
What are the topics/issues that are often brought up when people call SOS?
They call for a wide variety of issues. Some callers will share that they face anxiety, depression or other mental health issues. Some feel lonely and isolated, have relationship problems, or are grieving over a death or loss. Others may be stressed by their job, their studies, life changes, or other challenges. Some have multiple issues. Every caller’s situation is different. We usually receive a higher volume of calls at night.
What are the common misconceptions/stigmas that people have about folks who call SOS?
Some people might think that those who call SOS or seek help are weak and unable to help themselves. This is not the case. Reaching out takes tremendous strength. Sometimes we feel like we cannot tell the full truth to our friends and family, as we do not want them to worry. But talking to someone can help to clarify what we want or can do. There should be no stigma in calling SOS.
Are there any basic/common techniques that you employ during calls?
As hotline operators, we provide a listening ear and respond with empathy to our callers. It’s important to provide emotional support without judging them or trying to prescribe what they should do. We also share resources that might help them. SOS’ comprehensive training equips us with the necessary skills to man the hotline.
Do you remember the very first call that you picked up?
It came from a man who was feeling suicidal because of debt and financial pressures. He had no one else to talk to about his problems other than SOS. It brought home the need for a hotline like ours.
What about the hardest call – can you recall any?
The hardest calls for me are from those who felt so hopeless and trapped that all they could think about was ending their lives. Sometimes, I can only hope that they find within themselves some strength or reason to hang on despite their pain.
Being a mother, I find it especially heart-wrenching whenever children and teenagers call to talk about their mental health struggles and suicidal thoughts. At the same time, I am glad they picked up the courage to call us for help.
What happens after a call?
If the caller has consented to share their number, the staff will make follow-up calls to check in on them. Volunteers are also encouraged to have a short debrief with the staff as a form of check-out after a challenging call.
How do you let go of your job after each day?
After my shift, I’ll tidy up my workstation and wash my coffee cup. It makes me recognise that my work has ended and I can leave everything behind in the office. I find that small things help!
As a volunteer, we’re always encouraged to take care of ourselves and set boundaries. It’s also comforting to have staff on duty who can support us when we’re manning the hotline. We can share experiences with these people too.
What keeps you motivated to volunteer at SOS?
To me, it’s a small but meaningful way of giving back to the community. I also feel a shared sense of purpose with my fellow volunteers and the staff at SOS. SOS has good volunteer management practices and continual training, which helps volunteers like me stay motivated to serve.
Do you feel that you’ve changed since volunteering at SOS? If so, why and how?
Yes, the experience has changed me. Firstly, I’ve gained perspective about the problems I face. I’ve also realised that people share common emotions, fears, anxieties and challenges, even if to different degrees. I’ve become less judgmental about people, and quicker to recognise their dignity and our common humanity.
What have you learned/picked up throughout your time volunteering at SOS?
The most important lesson I’ve learned is to really listen and simply be there for the person. I’ve picked up many other things too, such as learning about mental health issues, suicide prevention and community resources available for people with different needs. It’s an important, learnable life skill.
What are your tips for those who are helping out their loved ones who have suicidal thoughts?
Ask them about what they are going through and offer a listening ear. Starting the conversation directly lets them know that you are there to support them. Don’t be afraid to ask them directly about their suicidal thoughts, as you need to know if they are in immediate danger. If they are, you can accompany them to the hospital or call for the police or ambulance to help keep them safe. If they aren’t, you can help them seek professional help. You can also urge them to call, text or email SOS.
Suicide and mental health are topics that are now being actively discussed in Singapore. Do you think it’s being talked about enough? What else can we do?
I feel that the awareness of suicide and mental health issues has increased tremendously over the years. We see more public personalities and corporate leaders share their personal stories publicly. This has helped reduce the stigma, but we can certainly do more. On a personal level, each of us can learn to be more sensitive, open and empathetic to those around us who may be struggling with mental health issues.
Thank you Samaritans of Singapore for facilitating this interview. If you are interested in volunteering for SOS’ 24-hour Hotline and Care Text, you can sign up here.