How was lockdown for you? Whisper it, but for many of us – those not serving on the NHS front-line, those not touched by the virus, and those not working flat out from the kitchen table - lockdown was really rather lovely. Once the initial fear and panic had subsided, we began to appreciate no longer being governed by the school run and the daily commute, taking long walks in the sunshine, getting to know our families better, having time to think, and a discovering pace of life that was altogether calmer and less frenetic than before.
It’s easy to forget – when recalling tranquil moments during lockdown – that many people’s memories will be somewhat different from our own. Figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal that one in five adults in the UK experienced feelings of depression during this period, while countless more were facing challenges that many of us can’t even imagine.
69% of adults in the UK reported feelings of fear and anxiety during the pandemic. Social isolation impacts mental health, and people were faced with many other challenges too, such as job and income losses, inadequate housing, and reduced access to mental health services among others. The number of calls to Refuge – the country’s leading organisation for victims of domestic abuse – nearly doubled during lockdown; it’s hard to imagine the circumstances that might have led to those desperate cries for help.
Covid-19 seemed to magnify existing issues for many people. Failing relationships may have become intolerable when trapped together in lockdown. Money worries will have been exacerbated by unemployment fears and the threat of a looming recession. Children living in chaotic households may have particularly suffered, with no school to escape to, and no trusted adult in whom to confide.
Two years ago, when I left full-time employment, I knew I would miss my former colleagues, and the privileged access my job gave me (as a magazine editor) into people’s lives. I decided to train as a listening volunteer with Samaritans, joining my local branch in Putney (Inner South West London). Four months after my initial enquiry – following thorough training, and supported by mentors – I took my first call in the branch. I’ll always remember the hesitant voice which murmured, ‘…. I’m struggling’. My Samaritans journey had begun.
Since that first call, I’ve lost count of the number of phone calls and emails I’ve responded to as a listening volunteer, always in the branch, supported by Samaritans colleagues. I’m part of a vibrant community of people of all ages and from all walks of life, whose shared desire is to support others who may be struggling for any number of reasons.
At the beginning of lockdown, Health Secretary Matt Hancock confirmed that Samaritans could continue to offer its service for as long as it was safe to do so. Strict hygiene and distancing protocols were put in place at the branch to ensure volunteers’ safety.
With a suddenly-empty diary and the days beginning to melt into one another, I found that having regular shift-times gave me something concrete to organise my life around, a government-sanctioned reason to leave my home, travel to an ‘office’, enjoy a quick chat with my fellow volunteers, and then spend a few hours concentrating on other people’s issues.
Lockdown brought home for me how vital it is for us as human beings to interact freely, to meet, talk, hug, laugh and cry together. Covid-19 starved us of this basic life-affirming freedom, with devastating consequences for many. When I asked one caller what she found hardest about life in lockdown, ‘I just crave closeness,’ came her wistful reply.
Many of us have had to postpone or cancel long-anticipated celebrations and events this year. At Putney Samaritans it’s no different: 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the branch. A fund-raising walk, an Open Day at the branch, and a party for our 170 or so volunteers have all sadly had to be shelved until life returns to normal, whenever that might be.
I’ve never once regretted joining Samaritans. You never know, when you start your shift, what you might encounter in the course of the next few hours. I asked my fellow volunteers what they valued about their involvement with Samaritans. For Sarah, “To listen without judgement is so powerful; I feel it’s such a privilege to be a Samaritan.” Tanvisha says, “I think the most powerful thing for me is that the caller feels they are being really listened-to, and that we take them and their feelings seriously.”
A Putney Samaritan for 20 years, Tony says, “The team is like no other I’ve come across, either socially or in my working life. A unique group of like-minded people, drawn from a wide variety of backgrounds, who work together with a common purpose and who have become friends.
“I volunteered because I felt hitherto I’d had a privileged life and, to use a hackneyed expression, ‘wanted to give something back’. Like so many of my colleagues, the reality is that I believe I get just as much back as I put in.
“I can’t eradicate a caller’s abusive childhood or the loss of a loved one, but maybe – by being there and listening - I can contribute towards supporting their immediate emotional wellbeing. And maybe help them to feel that, if only for the duration of their call, they aren’t entirely alone.”
If this year has led you to think about doing some voluntary work supporting others, I urge you to consider joining Samaritans. As well as providing a ready-made family of friends (and plenty of laughs along the way), it will offer you a unique insight into other people’s lives and the challenges they face. The work is thought-provoking and emotionally rewarding. Never before has the service provided by Samaritans been more needed than now, with people suffering profound unhappiness and hardship in so many ways. Go online to find out more, and details of your local branch. You might discover it’s just the thing for you.