Samaritans there to help in your hour of need

A simple phone call can make the difference if you are feeling low
A simple phone call can make the difference if you are feeling low
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Decorations down, festive spirit tucked away for another year and the highs of the season to be merry have well and truly lost their fizz.

For far from launching ourselves into a new year with the gusto that saw Hogmanay parties go with a swing, as the reality of January begins to bite we’re more likely to be singing the blues.

Dreary weather, short days and long nights combined with the thud of credit card bills from December slamming on to our doormats, mean the first few weeks of the year are among the most depressing.

Add to the mix post-Christmas hangovers from relationships in crisis, worries over job security for the year ahead and, just for good measure, apocalyptic predictions that 2012 will bring the end of the world, and there aren’t really that many reasons to be cheerful.

But if you feel down now, then wait until next Monday. The third Monday in January, which this year is the 16th, is regarded as “Blue Monday”, the day when all our misery combines into a storm of depression, misery and gloom.

Of course, for many the January blues will hang around for a few days like the lingering whiff from a bag of mouldy Brussels sprouts and then fade. By February, we’ll be looking forward to the love and romance of Valentine’s Day and the post-new year slump will be simply something to look forward to in 2013.

But for others already coping with lingering feelings of depression, the post-festive mood swing can tip the balance into something far more serious. Self-doubt, fears and deep-rooted anxieties are magnified until, sadly for some, they become too much to bear.

“This time of year is certainly one of our more intense,” says Norman Craig, chair of the Samaritans in Scotland who regularly mans the phones at the organisation’s Torphichen Street base.

“If you have lost someone close to you in the previous year, then that feeling of loss is so much more intense.

“Recently, calls concerning financial issues have been more prevalent, but it’s unusual to be just one thing that makes people call. It’s a combination of things that add up together. People get lower and lower in spirit, they feel overwhelmed, they don’t know how they can cope.

“Sometimes people are feeling lonely too and they just need someone to talk to.”

The Samaritans deal with more than five million calls every year nationwide. The Edinburgh office alone takes as many as 60 calls a day from people struggling to cope with life’s challenges.

Many are related to financial stresses, with calls to the Samaritans about financial worries doubling in three years. Research from the charity reveals one in five people contacting the service in the past year talked about job concerns, housing problems, debt and other financial pressures – doubling from one in ten calls in 2008.

In addition, a YouGov survey which asked people to reflect on their biggest worries during 2011 revealed more than half of Scots questioned put concerns over bank balances and debt at the top of the list, followed by mortgage worries and redundancy fears.

Stress, relationship problems and, perhaps surprisingly, worry over signs of ageing also came out high on the list of Scots’ concerns.

But while most of us shake off the blues, for others the time of year simply magnifies troubled thoughts. It’s then, says Norman, that a call to the Samaritans helpline can be a life-saver.

“There are limits to what we can achieve,” he points out. “We can’t advise people on what they should or shouldn’t do, but we can talk to people and help guide them through a particular crisis.

“We recognise that callers are just people like us but in an extreme situation. They have something in their lives that they are finding hard to cope with. Everyone faces that at some time.”

The Edinburgh branch of Samaritans is run by around 140 volunteers like Norman. As well as phone lines, the specially-trained volunteers can be reached by e-mail and even meet people face to face at the office.

Many calls are from people who have existing mental health problems, explains Norman. Sometimes they may have fallen through the gaps in health care or simply need to talk to someone when normal support isn’t available.

However, others are from callers plunged into the depths of depression by uncontrollable events in their life, such as marriage breakdown and alcohol or drug issues.

“We do have calls from people who are suicidal and may even be in the act of taking pills or threatening to hang themselves,” he adds. “Calls are anonymous, but there are times when we do ask people if they want to tell us where they are so we can get them help.

“But more likely the calls we get are from people with a situation which they feel they can’t get out of. It might be a bad marriage or relationship, a death in the family, finances that are getting out of control, or simply thinking – like at Christmas and New Year – that everyone else is having a wonderful time and you aren’t.

“Some people feel very rejected at this time. There are broken families, parents who can’t see their children when they want, and then alcohol comes in to play and it doesn’t help.”

Norman, 68, from Craigentinny, became a Samaritans volunteer more than 20 years ago after being affected some years earlier by the sudden suicide of a young female colleague.

“This was a girl that everyone liked and I happened to be in charge of the department where she worked,” he recalls. “She called to say she wasn’t coming in to work and burst into tears.

“Looking back on it, I was sympathetic but not in any way particularly helpful. I mentioned it to one of the directors who said there wasn’t much we could do and to speak to her the next day.

“Next day I was told that she had taken her own life. It struck me that I might have been the last person she spoke to and maybe if I’d been more understanding it might have helped.”

Natalie Black, 40, of Dalkeith, has volunteered at Torphichen Street for nearly two years.

“I had a difficult call on New Year’s Day,” she says. “There had been a mixture of calls, then one in particular. You just think ‘Oh no . . .’.

“You feel so sorry for people and the amount that they sometimes have to go through. There can be so much stress in people’s lives and, for some, they feel they can’t tell other people what they are going through. They open up to us.

“Sometimes people call because they just don’t want to be alone during their final moments. You just talk to them and let them know you’re there. Afterwards you wonder if they could have turned their lives around, or maybe things would have just got worse. You just hope you’ve helped.”

n The Samaritans can be contacted 24 hours a day on 087457 909090 or e-mail jo@samaritans.org. For more details, go to www.samaritans.org

sdick@edinburghnews.com