Meaningful calling: SOS volunteers help people in distress to cherish life

(Getty Images file photo)
(Getty Images file photo)

SINGAPORE — A man was at his wit’s end in a hotel room when he desperately sought help by calling the 24-hour Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) hotline.

Jane* (not her real name), an SOS volunteer in her 30s, happened to be on shift at its office in 10 Cantonment Close, when the man called 1800 221 4444 around midnight. Over the phone, the man admitted that he had checked into the room alone for a reason: he planned to end his life by overdosing on pills.

Having been affected by the suicide of a university acquaintance years back, the SOS volunteer for three years empathised with the man’s plight and knew the importance of showing support for someone in emotional distress.

During the next hour, Jane listened intently to the male stranger as he spoke about the issues he had faced that led to him making the difficult decision. He also expressed concern for his family who might have to deal with his death. Fortunately, Jane managed to convince the man to give himself a chance and seek help.

Jane is among a pool of some 200 volunteers at the non-profit suicide prevention agency, aged between 25 and 81 years old, who take turns to man its 24-hour helpline.

The SOS helpline is one of the few helplines in Singapore that provides round-the-clock assistance to those in distress, including the Institute of Mental Health’s Crisis Helpline (6389 2222).

Others, including Care Corner Counselling Centre (1800-353 5800) – which provides counselling in Mandarin – and ComCare Call (1800-222 0000) – which provides help to those who need financial, social and employment assistance -, do not operate 24/7.

Committed volunteers needed

Apart from English and Mandarin, SOS volunteers can converse with callers in other languages, including French and Tagalog.

To become fully qualified, they are required to complete a comprehensive pre-service training that can last from nine to 12 months.

Upon completion, these volunteers need to dedicate three to four hours a week and one overnight duty a month. They must also commit to volunteer for at least two years.

As such, the high level of commitment required for the volunteer work, as well as its “unique nature”, can deter interested individuals, said SOS senior assistant director Wong Lai Chun. The agency, which turns 50 this year, accepts volunteer applications throughout the year.

“More than half of trained SOS volunteers are holding full-time jobs. Coping between a full-time job and committing to volunteering at SOS can be a difficult task,” said Wong. “In addition, the demanding nature of a full-time job may mean volunteers having less time to do voluntary duties.”

The need to rope in more trained volunteers at SOS is borne out by the high volume of calls that it receives each year.

In FY2017/2018 alone, the helpline received 33,604 calls, approximately one call every 15 minutes. But there are ones that go unheard, given the manpower restrictions.

“As SOS aims to keep as many lines available as possible throughout the day, we encourage anyone who may be seeking a meaningful, long-term volunteering opportunity to step forward to lend a listening ear to those in distress,” said Wong.

Of the over 33,000 calls, 52 per cent were screened for suicide risk, 18 per cent had expressed suicidal thoughts or plans and 3 per cent were assessed to be of medium to high risk. Professional staff from the SOS will supervise and follow up on critical cases.

38 per cent of calls were made by regular callers with weak social connections who relied on the SOS hotline for social support.

44 per cent were made by individuals relating stressful life events, such as the death of a celebrity, but did not indicate having suicidal thoughts.

For instance, several callers cited feeling upset by media reports on the passing of local actor Aloysius Pang earlier this year, said Wong.

Change in legislation

The common problems discussed by callers include issues with mental health, family relationships, and loneliness. While more male callers typically spoke about job and family problems, more females reported issues with romantic relationships.

More youths also call the helpline during certain periods of the day, specifically from midnight to 3am when social activities and interactions dip, said Wong.

“It is also a time when people are left alone by themselves to reflect. Rumination of negative events and emotions may be amplified due to the perception of a lack of support and companionship during this time,” she added.

Given the challenges of helping such individuals, the SOS welcomed the proposed move to decriminalise attempted suicide, which was among the sweeping amendments in the Criminal Law Reform Bill tabled in Parliament in February.

Wong said the legislative amendment is a step toward improving the current system, with more professional attention on distressed parties who require mental and emotional health assistance rather than prosecution.

The move can also help encourage loved ones who contemplate suicide to become receptive to receiving emotional support “rather than hide it in fear of judgement”, she added.

‘Most meaningful work’

In 2017, there were 361 reported suicides in Singapore, the lowest since 2012, statistics released by SOS last year show. Despite the drop, the number of elderly individuals aged 60 and above who took their own lives rose to a record 129 in the same year.

Vernon* (not his real name), a 15-year volunteer with the SOS, noted that those with suicidal thoughts often do not want to end their lives. The repeal may make them more receptive to seeking professional attention, he added.

Given the challenging nature of the calls, volunteers are encouraged to leave behind “emotional baggage” before heading out of the SOS office. Thankfully for volunteers like Vernon, the SOS staff and counsellors are very helpful and are readily available for a discussion after a difficult call.

“For me, I will feel okay after a good night’s rest and hence, I am better able to recompose myself after a difficult call,” Vernon said.

The experience, on the whole, has allowed Jane to see things from different perspectives, even if the conversations are intense enough to linger in her mind long after the calls.

“I don’t sweat the small issues…It is refreshing in a way to step into the SOS phone room once a week to get away from my regular life, and use the time on the phone to fully focus on supporting somebody else,” she said.

Some volunteers have been around for three or four decades and even their children have volunteered alongside them doing some of the “most meaningful work” of their lives, said Jane. “I hope to be here that long too,” she quipped.

“I hope someday a person with a mental health condition will not hesitate to share their pain with a loved one or seek the help of a doctor or counsellor, just as they would not hesitate if they had a broken arm.”

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