'I can only imagine the pain': The Samaritans who save people from taking their own lives
“For most of them, the callers find comfort knowing that a stranger is willing to spend a part of their lives, supporting someone they may never know” – we meet a Samaritan of Singapore.
SINGAPORE: “People are better off without me,” a caller uttered to Wendy (not her real name) over the phone.
For 30-year-old Wendy, a volunteer with the Samaritans of Singapore (SOS), people expressing suicidal thoughts are common. For three to four hours a week, and at least one overnight session a month, Wendy is picking up distress calls on the SOS hotline - sometimes from people who are thinking about killing themselves.
“I can only imagine the pain that they are facing and how overwhelmed they are to be contemplating suicide,” Wendy explained.
“When I first started volunteering, it worried me to hear that.”
Last year, 397 people in Singapore took their own lives, with suicides among boys aged between 10 and 29 at a record high.
In fact, all age groups - except those 60 and above - recorded an increase in the number of suicides. It is a worrying statistic. For every suicide, at least six suicide survivors are left behind, said SOS.
"It is disconcerting to know that many of our young feel unsupported through their darkest periods and see suicide as the only choice to end their pain and struggles," said SOS senior assistant director Wong Lai Chun.
At the SOS' Cantonment Close office, volunteers like Wendy are armed with a listening ear - but it is not an easy role. Every call requires their focused, undivided attention for however long the person wants to talk.
“Over the phone, we listen carefully to what the callers have to share,” Wendy said.
“When callers say things that hint at being a burden to others, or express having no reasons to live, or experience unbearable emotional pain in life - like ‘people are better off without me’ or ‘I am a burden to my family’ - these are possible indicators that the caller may be thinking of suicide.”
Knowing what to say and how to say it are essential skills.
“We empathise with the caller and acknowledge the struggles that they may be going through,” Wendy explained.
“Callers cite feeling alone and not being able to talk with their friends and family for fear of being judged or seen as weak.
“We give them the time and space - and invite them to share more about what might be troubling them to make them feel this way.
“At the same time, we also check in on the safety of the caller. Together, we explore some alternatives that might improve their current situation.”
It is with repeated conviction that Wendy mentions the next point - it is clearly something she is passionate about.
“Most importantly, it is our role as an SOS volunteer to listen to the caller with an open mind and just being present with them.”
READ: MOE, MSF ‘very concerned’ about spike in youth suicides; experts say more support and awareness necessary
MINUTES TO CREATE A SAFE SPACE
The number of calls varies with the time of the day, Wendy said. According to SOS, people are most likely to reach out to the Samaritans between 10pm and 2am.
Sometimes, festivals that are most associated with warmth - such as Christmas or New Year - can be the most difficult times.
“Typically, we see an increase in the number of incoming calls at night or on special occasions like public holidays or periods leading up to exams,” Wendy said.
“The callers come from all walks of life - ranging from young to old - working in all types of industry. Sometimes, we even have callers of different nationalities.”
It is a safe space that is most difficult to create. For some of the callers, they struggle to voice their innermost thoughts or struggles - sometimes even to their loved ones.
Creating that non-judgmental, quiet and empathetic space within a few minutes of being on the line could save a life.
“When I am able to connect with them about their circumstances and pain, it allows me to better empathise with them and through their despair, I hope that they realise that there is somebody out there that is willing to listen and care about them.”
If callers are deemed to be at a high risk of suicide, SOS professional staff will follow up and invite them to the office for face-to-face counselling, but only if the caller consents.
Empathy, emotional maturity and being able to provide a listening ear without judgment are just some of the common factors among Samaritans staff.
For Wendy, it is a cause close to her heart after the death of a friend.
“For a period of time, I was struggling to find meaning in my life. I was overwhelmed at work and burnt out.
“In the midst of everything, I lost a friend who passed away from liver failure. I was too occupied with my work - I could not be there for my friend during her final days, and her passing left me with guilt and regrets.”
WHAT IF I KNOW SOMEONE SUICIDAL?
In 2018, 94 young people chose to end their own lives. Among boys aged between 10 and 19 years old, there were 19 suicides last year - the highest since records began in 1991 and almost triple the seven cases recorded in 2017.
Young people today have a greater awareness of the moments when they feel alone and helpless, Ms Wong explained.
They are more likely to reach out and explore the support services available - and sometimes it’s not all about professional help. A lot of them show warning signs or talk to someone about their suicidal thoughts before taking their own lives.
When someone tells you they want to die, it is shocking and disturbing. People react in different ways, said Wendy.
“It is common for people to comfort a friend by tapping on past personal experiences and giving advice. While there may be good intentions in doing so, it may downplay the severity of the problem and unintentionally disregard their experience and feelings, creating a form of disconnect between your friend and you,” Wendy explained.
Listen and invite them to talk - and do so without judgment. Sometimes, what they need is to know that someone will be there to journey with them through a tough period, she said.
“We have to be mindful and wary of imposing our own values on them. Rather than advising on what they should or should not do, let them know that we can together explore what other options there may be.”
SOS volunteers sometimes get calls from people who are unsure how they can help their friends or loved ones who have suicidal thoughts.
It is important to continuously check in on people who are in crisis and to talk to them in a caring and non-judgmental manner, Wendy said.
Items which might be used to harm themselves should be removed or moved out of reach, and people should ring 995 if their loved one is in immediate danger due to a suicide crisis situation.
“We will also check on the wellbeing of the (third-party) callers themselves as such situations may be overwhelming and stressful. They may face struggles as they may see themselves being responsible for the loved ones’ well-being.”
SAMARITAN - A WILLING STRANGER
Creating a safe space to talk and listen is important to SOS volunteers - that way, the people who need help can be sure everything they tell them remains confidential. That’s why Wendy, who works in an office job in the day, chose to remain anonymous.
“Whenever I feel burnt out or uncomfortable after a call, I cope by speaking to other SOS volunteers. The SOS professional staff are also readily available should I wish to talk to them as well.”
Practising mindfulness and getting enough rest are key parts of Wendy’s arsenal.
“Too often we forget that we all have one very important skill - and that is to listen, which many of us take for granted. In a fast-paced society like Singapore, we often forget to slow down our steps, to stop and smell the flowers, or even listen to people around us.”
For most of the volunteers, they will never know what comes next after the calls, but they will have given someone the strength to carry on.
“If by some chance of fate, I get to speak to the same caller again - assuming they continue to call in and if I happen to remember their voices or their stories - I can at least know how they are doing currently,” Wendy said.
“It comforts me whenever callers thank me for listening to them. For most of them, they find comfort knowing that a stranger is willing to spend a part of their lives, supporting someone they may never know.”
Where to get help:
Samaritans of Singapore Hotline: 1800 221 4444
Institute of Mental Health’s Helpline: 6389 2222
Singapore Association of Mental Health Helpline: 1800 283 7019
You can also find a list of international helplines here. If someone you know is at immediate risk, call 24-hour emergency medical services.