Her voice is sweet, calm and reassuring, encouraging callers to talk openly.
It is a skill that saves lives.
Sherry (not her real name) is a Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) helpline volunteer.
Behind that gentle voice is a person who has experienced great pain from knowing people who committed suicide.
She said that memory reminds her to never let it happen again and pushes her to convince people that suicide is never the right option.
Sherry is one of about 200 volunteers at SOS who are unsung heroes who must remain anonymous. (See report at right.)
In a phone interview, Sherry, who is in her 50s and married, told The New Paper why she became a volunteer.
She said she has had more than one loved one who attempted suicide. And when she was a full-time teacher – she is now part-time – she had students who killed themselves.
Although the incidents happened more than 10 years ago, she said they are still too painful for her to talk about. But rather than demoralise her, the tragedies motivated her to volunteer with SOS.
She believes that life is precious and suicides can be prevented.
“They go on to live a good old age. Although there were setbacks, they can actually turn them around and live a fulfilling life,” she said of the people she speaks to.
She declined to reveal more information about her personal tragedies and how some of them were prevented. She doesn’t want to relive the pain.
One case stands out for Sherry in the five years she has been volunteering with SOS.
The helpline caller had thoughts of throwing himself out of an office building over a relationship problem.
“The person wasn’t at the edge yet, but he was going through a deep emotional struggle, despite being very successful at his work,” recalled Sherry, adding that the caller spent more than an hour talking about his pain and anguish.
“It helped him because he could not express his true feelings to any other person. If he had talked to a friend, he would have been judged.
“He was able to talk and think through his problems, and he felt better after that.”
The man got over the struggle and lived on while accepting the circumstances he was in, she said.
In most cases, there’s no way to track whether anyone she had spoken to over the helpline managed to resolve their issues, as some callers may or may not call again to update her.
She would actually prefer not to know what happened to them.
“Knowing for the sake of knowing, which you can’t do very much about, affects you in executing and fulfilling your role,” said Sherry, who said that speaking to a depressed person can be emotionally draining.
“I just want to do my best for the callers. At the moment a person needs my support and I’m there for him or her, that’s good enough for me.
“The callers are usually rather distressed and I need to be attentive to them and help them without being drawn into their despair.
“After a call – especially a long one – it can be very draining emotionally as you feel the emotions that they were going through.”
She has learnt to cope with it by taking breaks in between such calls. And SOS has an internal support system where volunteers can talk to one another or to SOS employees any time of the day or night.
“Because of the confidentiality issue, we don’t discuss the calls we receive with anyone other than those in SOS,” Sherry said.
Sherry, who volunteers about once a week for four to six hours each time, makes a conscious effort not to take home any emotional baggage.
When all is said and done, she feels that her volunteer work is worth all the emotional fatigue.
She said: “It gives me a lot of satisfaction to be there for them – without judging – when they are facing crisis.
“It makes me feel good to be able to contribute.”
Support from her family is also very important, said the mother of a son and a daughter, who are in their 20s.
“It can be very tough, since the commitment required by SOS is unlike that of other organisations,” she said.
“It took some time to get my family to buy it. They were concerned over whether I could cope.”
When asked how her family benefits from her involvement with SOS, Sherry said: “I don’t know, I’ve never asked them.
“It’s hard because my kids see less of me and I don’t earn money.
“Maybe they nag less.
“Maybe they see mum as a better person.
“Maybe in their own private ways, they are proud of me in my mission of suicide prevention.
“The benefits are intangible. They may not get Prada or Ferrari, but they have a mum to talk to – especially when they were in their teens – when they need a friend who is not judgmental and when they need support.”
Importance of anonymity
Staying anonymous is crucial in helping callers feel more comfortable when talking to a Samaritan, said Samaritans of Singapore’s (SOS) executive director Christine Wong.
She added: “For example, if callers happen to know someone who volunteers at SOS, they may not contact SOS to share openly about their feelings.”
Anonymity helps keep the focus on the caller and not the Samaritan, and it protects the volunteers.
“People may expect Samaritans to use their skills outside of the phone room, which may lead to burn-out,” she said.
Furthermore, Samaritans like the idea of a selfless experience, doing something purely for the sake of helping without expecting any public recognition.
On average, there are about 200 volunteers with SOS. The youngest is 25 years old and the oldest is 76. Most are working professionals aged 30 to 60.
From April 2011 to March 2012, 6,407 of the 40,387 calls received by SOS carried suicide risks.
How to be a volunteer:
The required minimum age to volunteer at SOS is 23. If you are keen, you can contact the organisation via its website at www.samaritans.org.sg or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org for a volunteer package.
– Volunteer duties for at least two years upon completion of volunteer training.
– Besides weekly duties, Samaritans do one overnight duty per month and take turns to be on stand-by for emergencies once a month.
– Volunteers are expected to respect the confidentiality of SOS work and must be willing to abide by its policy of anonymity.
– New volunteers will be trained to listen to and empathise with callers, prevent suicides and handle callers who have experienced a loved one being involved in a suicide.
The pre-service training is held weekly over nine to 12 months. They will be supervised on a one-on-one basis to prepare them for their duties.
Samaritans of Singapore (SOS): 1800-2214444
Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-2837019
Sage Counselling Centre: 1800-5555555
Care Corner Mandarin Counselling: 1800-3535800
Source: The New Paper