Confessions of a suicide hotline volunteer
With a phone, he saves lives. He talks people out of hurting themselves.
Donovan, who is in his mid 60s, is a volunteer with Samaritans of Singapore (SOS).
It is not his real name as SOS keeps its volunteers anonymous.
For four hours each week, he's at the SOS call centre at Cantonment Close and waits for calls to come in.
SOS has 220 volunteers who take turns to man the hotline.
Out of the 120 calls they get daily, 20 per cent are from people with "a suicide risk".
Another 40 per cent are people deemed to be in crisis.
Says Donovan, a former human resource manager: "We receive calls from distressed people thinking of suicide or who are just feeling lonely. But there are other calls too, some of which can be amusing."
As each call can make the difference between life and death, volunteers treat all calls seriously even though they might be a false alarm.
All volunteers have to undergo rigorous training before they can man the phones.
The training can last from nine months to a year.
Says Donovan: "It is not as frightening as it seems. Before one goes 'solo' on the phone, they would have received months of training."
During the training, they learn how to listen with empathy and gain skills in suicide intervention.
They also learn about "postvention", meant to help bereaved parties after they have lost their loved ones in a suicide.
Says Donovan: "We must make an assessment of the suicide risk while we are talking to the caller."
If he needs additional support, there is a team of other volunteers and supervising staff from SOS on hand.
In some cases, the caller might need to see a counsellor and it is up to Donovan to convince him or her to approach SOS in person.
It's not all doom and gloom
Once, a man called the helpline to book a taxi as he was desperate.
"He was in town and had been trying to hail a taxi for more than half an hour. It was the evening peak hour and it was very frustrating for him. He asked, rather sheepishly I may add, if we are that kind of crisis line."
So how does one react to such a call?
With a gentle touch of humour, says Donovan.
He confesses that volunteers have limitations - they can provide emotional support, but not financial or material assistance.
Neither can they tell or instruct the caller what to do.
"Not all callers understand our limitations. The nastiest thing that someone said to me is, 'After all the talk, you are not helpful to me. I am wasting my time.'"
Despite their noble goal to save lives, volunteers like Donovan are in short supply.
SOS has called for more people to volunteer and man the phones, especially at night when calls are more frequent.
He explains: "(The manpower shortage) is because of that scarce commodity called time.
"This kind of work requires some firm commitment, not just for regular phone duty but also training."
He cannot recall how many lives he has saved or the number of calls he has taken.
While the job may sound depressing, Donovan insists he has never been negatively affected by the callers as the experience has taught him much about life.
"If anything, I'm more aware of the pervasiveness of negative thoughts, and I believe in the value of talking to someone about it."
SECRETS OF THE TRADE
1 Some callers can be overly concerned with privacy as they are sharing intimate details about themselves. To put them at ease, make sure you assure them of your organisation's privacy policies.
2 Know your options well. Other than providing emotional support, you can persuade them to stay safe, seek permission to call them back or arrange for a counselling session with a qualified professional.
3 While it is normal to experience anxiety when starting out as a volunteer, rely on your training and look to the organisation for support.
WHO TO CALL
- Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) (24 hours): 1800-221-4444
- Singapore Association for Mental Health (Monday to Friday: noon to 6pm): 1800-283-7019
- Touch Counselling & Social Support (Monday to Friday: 9am-6pm): 6709-8400
- Care Corner Counselling Centre (every day except for public holidays: 10am to 10pm) (only in Mandarin): 1800-3535-800
- Mental Health Helpline (24 hours): 6389-2222