Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Helplines sending out SOS over missed distress calls

They need more volunteers as the number of calls is rapidly increasing
By Janice Tai, The Straits Times, 18 Feb 2013

MANY of the calls made to helplines by people who are in distress or contemplating suicide are not being answered because of a shortage of volunteers.

Voluntary welfare organisations running the hotlines are appealing for more volunteers so that callers facing a crisis are not denied timely help.

Suicide prevention agency Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) received 40,387 calls in its last financial year ending 2012, compared to 37,752 the year before and 34,444 in 2000.

The increase in the number of calls in the past two years has been so rapid that it matches the increase over the entire decade before that.

Accordingly, the surge in the number of calls has outstripped what the trained volunteers can handle. The team of people who answer the calls has grown marginally from 181 in 2000 to 232 in the last financial year.

"Even though our phone rings every 13 minutes on average, we wonder how many more individuals who are in crisis or contemplating suicide give up while trying to reach us," said Ms Christine Wong, executive director of SOS.

On average, there is one suicide death every day in Singapore, says SOS. Last year, 986 people were arrested for attempting suicide, up from 842 in 2009 and 706 in 2007.

Care Corner Counselling Centre, which runs a hotline for Mandarin-speaking callers and operates four phone lines, is facing a similar problem.

It says it misses about 300 to 600 calls a month on average, with holiday periods or festive seasons such as Christmas or Chinese New Year being especially bad as fewer volunteers turn up.

"As many of the calls are made by callers struggling with mental health issues or family and marital issues, we do have the concern that if they can't reach us, they will feel even more desperate and hopeless, though not to the extent of ending their lives," said its centre manager Jonathan Siew.

Care Corner received about 1,600 calls each month in the last financial year but answered only 1,400 calls in December and 1,200 calls last month, due to the lack of volunteers.

This is despite the more dire need for a listening ear and advice among callers during the festive season.

SOS has noticed a greater intensity of distress expressed in calls during this period, as some callers may feel more vulnerable or lonely during the festive season.

A 49-year-old volunteer with SOS, who wanted to be known only as Tiffany because volunteers' identities are kept confidential, said she always gives full attention to all her callers, even if their problems may not be as serious as others.

"However, I am conscious when talking with someone whose concerns are not life-threatening that there may be others urgently seeking to get through, perhaps someone who is very low and having thoughts about suicide," said Tiffany, who has been a volunteer for the past seven years.

The organisations have been ramping up their recruitment efforts for more volunteers, but they say it is an uphill struggle as many time-strapped Singaporeans are unable to commit.

Volunteers usually man the lines for three to four hours once a week. Those at SOS, which is a 24-hour hotline, also do one overnight shift and are put on emergency standby once a month.

SOS is urging callers who do not get through right away not to give up, but to try calling again after 15 or 30 minutes. They can also e-mail pat@samaritans.org.sg for counselling via e-mail.

Care Corner hopes to have another 30 volunteers in the next two years so that it can open another line to attend to more calls.

The Singapore Association for Mental Health, which runs a hotline manned by professional counsellors, opened a lunchtime slot for callers last year.

This is because there is only one line and callers will not get through if the line is busy. Its counsellors also have to juggle face-to-face counselling sessions with their duties of manning the line.

Organisations say that the top concerns broached by troubled callers centre on relationship problems and mental health issues.

Some companies are chipping in and have found creative ways to help the organisations recruit more volunteers.

StarHub started an initiative early this month to allow its mobile customers to opt for a service which runs a message from SOS calling for more volunteers and donations each time someone places a call to them.

Instead of a ring tone, those who call customers with the service will hear the message of appeal, while the owner of the phone hears a ring tone.

"As a volunteer, my heart goes out to everyone I talk to and everyone I don't talk to," said Tiffany.

"I hope more will think about volunteering as the more volunteers we have, the more calls we can take and the greater our ability to help make a difference."

I hope more will think about volunteering as the more volunteers we have, the more calls we can take and the greater our ability to help make a difference.
- Samaritans of Singapore helpline volunteer Tiffany

The numbers to call

Samaritans of Singapore (24 hours): 1800-221-4444

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