The Samaritans have been helped to maintain their service and deal with increased demand with a grant from the Wiltshire Community Foundation.
The Swindon and District branch, based in Curtis Street, Swindon, has seen a 17 per cent increase in calls and emails a month from people suffering anxiety because of the pandemic. At the same time, it has lost two thirds of its income after its charity shop closed. It has been able to cover phone costs and volunteer travel expenses with a £5,000 grant from the Wiltshire and Swindon Coronavirus Response Fund.
The fund has now raised more than £670,000 and given grants totalling more than £425,000 to 119 groups across Wiltshire.
The Samaritans’ volunteer listeners come from all over Swindon, as well as Marlborough, Devizes, Calne, Pewsey and Chippenham. With some of them having to isolate, the remainder have stepped into the breach to keep the 24-hour, seven day a week service running.
Volunteer branch director and listener, Susie Higgs said: “They have been really lovely and stepped up. Some of them have been saying ‘okay I’ll just do back to back shifts’ which has been brilliant. We’ve also set up a remote system where we can still respond to email callers.”
The grant has also paid for extra outreach to remind people the service is there. “We’ve been going to foodbanks, supermarkets and Great Western Hospital to deliver our contact details so that they are put into food parcels and into staff rooms,” said Ms Higgs.
“We want to reach out to as many people as possible so that they know we are still there.”
She said the charity is seeing an increase in emails because callers are often finding it difficult to talk on the phone in private during lockdown. “There also seems to be an increase in first-time callers, people in prison, frequent callers, or just those wanting some human contact,” she said.
“We are continuing to hear about struggles with mental health, access to services, and the impact on people around basic needs such as food, housing and employment. Coronavirus and lockdown seem to be exacerbating callers’ existing conditions – mainly anxiety, but also depression, OCD and others too. Covid is not helping the situation because they are caught in something that is so different than any of us have experienced before and it is hard to say when normality will come back.”
Two volunteers at a time man the phones at the Curtis Street branch, ready to take calls from anywhere in the UK as the national number allocates each caller to whichever line is free.
“We don’t necessarily take calls from Swindon or Salisbury - it could be Scotland or the Isles of Scilly,” said Ms Higgs. “We also respond to emails from all over the world.”
No matter what the problem being shared with them, the volunteers are trained to listen, not judge and never give advice.
Said Ms Higgs: “What we try and do is really listen to people, to help them open up and start to understand what options they may have. We can’t walk in their shoes, but we aim to walk alongside them and give them the space to talk about whatever is getting to them.”
The Samaritans are available to call free on 116123 or can be emailed at jo@Samaritans.org.
Fiona Oliver, interim co-chief executive of the community foundation, said: “So many of the groups we’ve funded have adapted their services to respond to the needs of the people who rely on them and we are delighted to support wonderful causes like The Samaritans who are working hard to make life better for people at such an awful time.
“We are so grateful for the donations we’ve had from the people of Wiltshire to the fund and we really need them because the applications are still coming in thick and fast.”
To donate to the Wiltshire and Swindon Coronavirus Response Fund or to find out how to apply for a grant, go to wiltshirecf.org.uk.