Owen Ryan talks to the director of the Ennis and Clare branch of the Samaritans on the eve of her departure from the position
THE ending of a decade is a landmark for everyone, but New Year’s Day 2010 will have extra significance for Mary Lynch.
As of January 1, her three-year term as director of the Ennis and Clare branch of the Samaritans will be at an end. While Mary says she has found the unpaid role very fulfilling, one would understand if she felt like a load was being lifted from her.
The branch has more than 100 volunteers, operates 365 days a year and fields more than 500 contacts a week from the public. Obviously, there’s a good bit of work involved in keeping things going and, while Mary doesn’t run everything on her own, there’s a lot of responsibility resting with the director.
The Samaritans operate a three-year rule for officers and Mary admits that she had a little self-doubt when she stepped up in January 2007.
“I suppose I had reservations in my own self as to whether I was the right person to do it and whether I could do it in a proper manner, that would satisfy the branch. It is an honour to be asked but you have to be satisfied that you can do it appropriately and to the best of your ability and that you will satisfy what people want from a director.”
The Samaritans aim to offer confidential, emotional support to people who are experiencing feelings of distress and despair, including feelings that may lead to suicide.
This is provided mostly (but not exclusively) by phone and Mary feels that it’s very important for people to have a chance to talk about their feelings.
“I think it’s very underrated. It’s extremely valuable to people and it’s only when we go through troubles in our own life that you realise how valuable it is to have someone to listen to you. Most of the time we don’t want people to tell us what to do, what we want is somebody to listen to us so we can say what’s on our mind and maybe clarify where we go from there. Probably one of the most undervalued things in society is having a listening ear, that’s not going to tell you what to do but is going to be there for you and will give you space and time. I think people who come to us realise the value of that.”
Around one in five people who ring the Samaritans are having suicidal thoughts of some kind. The number is even higher for people who make contact by email (about 36%), and Mary believes that if people discuss their feelings, some of the despair may pass.
“I think when you speak to someone, it lowers your distress level; that’s the immediate help. Sometimes people want to work out for themselves where they might go, or to clarify what they think about something. When people listen to you or maybe gently ask you questions or explore your feelings, you clarify in your own mind what’s a priority for you and then it enables you to work out where you might go with things. Sometimes that might be all you need, other times you might go from there to get other help but you might know what you need from the conversation. We can’t tell people what to do or tell people what might be appropriate for their circumstances but often when you speak to people and gently explore what’s causing them distress, they can work it out for themselves,” she says.
Ireland is a different place to January 2007 when Mary became director, and while she believes that the basic feelings that lead to people calling the Samaritans don’t change, there is an increase in the numbers of people talking about financial or employment problems.
“Feelings don’t change over the years, you may be anxious, fearful, isolated, lonely, those feelings don’t change much as time goes by. I suppose on top of that there is an extra layer, particularly in the last year, with people being anxious around jobs and the future. There is a lot of anxiety and fear that’s coming to the fore in the calls.”
She has been involved in the Samaritans since the early ’90s and feels that a few problems are quite prevalent. “What I have noticed is the amount of loneliness, isolation and depression in society that comes across in our contacts. Often people feel they don’t have a lot of emotional support in their own lives.”
The Samaritans deals with highly sensitive issues and with people who may be going through extremely hard times. Given the seriousness of its work, the organisation needs to be well-structured and organised, with confidentiality being one of its core values.
That all efforts would be made to do things properly is the least that callers can expect, Mary believes; “Because of the nature of what we do it has to be well run and we’re very conscious of confidentiality and the reputation of the organisation. We have to be very careful in the volunteers we select, in the training that we give and the support that we give. All those things need a huge effort and we have to be very efficient in the way things are done. It’s a very well-run organisation and I think it’s well respected.”
The Ennis branch has increased its number of volunteers over the past three years and Mary says that while she enjoyed her time as director she will feel a little relief, when she finishes up.
“I suppose I will in that I’ve got through the three years and the branch is still going very well. I found it very rewarding, it was an honour to be asked to do it and I took it on with some fears. I’ve got great support from the volunteers and from the community,” she said.
Anyone experiencing feelings of distress or despair can contact the Samaritans on 1850 609090, by email at email@example.com, or by calling to the Samaritan’s centre on the Kilrush Road between 12 noon and 10pm.