Samaritans' Small Talk Saves Lives campaign says helping each other starts with simple steps

‘Are you okay today?’ Those are the first steps.

Monday, 27th June 2022, 2:24 pm

A mental health crisis is often found at the end of an unbroken chain of thought.

Most people already know, on some level, that what breaks those chains of thought is having someone to listen.

And, some people might think to themselves, that’s what helplines like Samaritans are there for. All well in hand then, right?

The 'Small Talk Saves Lives' campaign by Samaritans wants to empower members of the public to act on their intuition and start simple conversations with strangers they think might be struggling.

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David Townend, a volunteer listener at Doncaster’s branch of Samaritans, is proud of the work he and the organisation does every week – but, the truth is, everyone can help break those chains of thought for others, because all it takes is starting a conversation.

"I think there's still a stigma around the word 'crisis’,” David said. “Because people are scared having a conversation with someone will lead them to a crisis situation.

"And, because we’re scared if we ask how someone is feeling, we won’t be able to help with that person's issues or fix their problems.

"Until then, someone can feel so isolated they feel that society doesn’t care.”

David says he enjoys the voluntary work he carries out for Samaritans a lot. He has been at the Doncaster branch for 15 years, and is one of over 20,000 volunteers nationwide in 200 branches.

He doesn't receive calls just from South Yorkshire. The people he speaks to can be from all over the country.

‘I feel as a society, as we’ve gone on, we've lost our empathy’

"For me personally, it was a chance at regaining a connection with society around me,” said David. “It’s increased my ability to listen to the people around me.

"I feel as a society, as we’ve gone on, we've lost our empathy. The pressures of daily life and being addicted to screens means ‘talking to our neighbours’ is something from a bygone age.

"Samaritans is there to listen to people when they’re feeling distressed or feeling burdened by something in their life. There’s a perception that we’re just there for people feeling suicidal, but we’re also there for people to listen to.

"All your thoughts and pressures of life are like a tumbledryer; sometimes you have to press stop and take out what’s in the tumble dryer and organise it, fold it. Now, it’s still there, but at least there’s some order to it.”

Lately, David says social isolation is top of the totem pole of concerns people have when they dial the service. Where fears about money and quality of life are always a high concern, loneliness and a feeling of being disconnected from society, friends and family remains the highest concern, and is something that has been made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic.

"Isolation is made worse when society because there is a still a stigma around what is a crisis,” David said.

"If a person says ‘I'm close to committing suicide’, we don’t know how to help that person but that is something we want to do.

"If someone has a broken leg, we know how to fix that as a society. If someone has a broken mind we don’t know how to help that.”

For this reason, David feels one of the things creating that isolation is that people feel they have to be trained to help someone else, or if they talk to someone they will only make their struggles worse.

But what if all it took to break that chain of thought, and cut through the social isolation that let it grow, was reaching out and making small talk?

Talking to someone about their mental health in a positive way is going to be better than not engaging with them whatsoever

"The advice to people is to engage. It’s literally ‘are you okay today’. Those are the first steps to do,” said David.

It’s here that Samaritans wants to empower the public to reach out and take the simple steps that can break this chain of thoughts for another, with the Small Talk Saves Lives campaign.

In partnership with Network Rail and British Transport Police, it aims to empower the public to act to prevent suicide on the railways and other settings.

It reminds people that they already know how to start a conversation and that suicide is preventable through a simple act of making small talk.

The message is, if you think somebody might need help, trust your insights and start a conversation.

"It might be that one little link to help people reconnect to their society around and help them on the road to recovery,” said David.

"One of the things they teach at Samaritans is that talking to someone about suicide is not going to make them go and do it.

"Talking to someone about their mental health in a positive way is going to be better than not engaging with them whatsoever.

"The Small Talk Saves Lives website has steps and guidance on how to break that chain of thought that makes someone feel so isolated they feel no one in society cares.”

A little small talk and a simple question like 'Hello what’s the time?' or ‘Hi, where can I get a coffee?’ can be all it takes to interrupt someone's suicidal thoughts and help set them on the journey to recovery.

You don’t need special training to help – you just need to trust your intuition that someone is in trouble and start a conversation.

If you don’t feel comfortable speaking to the person yourself, tell a member of staff or a police officer. Samaritans has been working with Network Rail and BtP and there are 25,000 trained railway employees across the UK in suicide prevention – or call 999 in an emergency.

Once you’ve started a conversation, listen to what they have to say and repeat it back to them to make them feel listened to and understood.