How to call a helpline*

(CN mentions suicide & self harm)


The first time I called the Samaritans, I hung up before anyone answered the phone. I didn’t know what to say. It took me nearly a year to be able to stay on the line long enough to speak, and at first all I could get out was, “Stay on the phone with me.”

Now that I find talking a bit easier (some days), I know that whatever I go through from this point forward, I won’t have to go through it alone. I wish I had had that sooner; I think what’s changed is that I’ve learned  what to expect and how to use the support that Samaritans and other helplines offer, so I’ve written down some of the things I wish I could tell my past self (though knowing my past self, I probably wouldn’t have listened).

Contact details for the services I’ve used are at the bottom, but there are many many more around if you have a quick google.


1) It’s ok if you can’t talk straight away, but it’s easier if you tell them what you need. If you’re struggling to start talking, you can say so and ask them to give you some time. You can also just ask them to stay on the line with you without talking.

2) It’s ok if you don’t know what’s wrong. One of the reasons I found it so difficult to talk is that I felt like I had to understand what was upsetting me first. It got a lot easier when I realised that saying I didn’t know what was wrong, everything was just bad without reason or purpose – that was allowed too.

3) You don’t have to be sobbing your heart out to be worth their time. I used to worry that the person who answered the phone would think I was wasting their time if I wasn’t obviously feeling desperate. This comes largely from my experience of statutory mental health services who only seem to be willing to help when there is an immediate high risk, but it’s not how the Samaritans operate. They’re there for whatever you want to talk about – they generally ask you whether you’re suicidal, but I also call when I’m not. Sometimes I use a conversation with them as “practice” for therapy, when there’s something I’m nervous about bringing up in a session – knowing I never have to speak to the listener again makes it easier to say things I’m ashamed of or frightened by, so I can sort out my thinking a bit in advance and use my therapy time better.

4) Check what they offer. Some helplines have time limits on the call which it’s a good idea to bear in mind before you get too deep into painful discussions. Not being able to speak out loud (I can’t always when I’m anxious) doesn’t have to be a barrier either. Some services, such as TESS (Text and Email Support Service for young women who self-harm), offer text support, but only at certain times. You can also email the Samaritans and some of their branches have face-to-face drop-ins, which can be easier than phoning as your body language can communicate if you’re struggling to speak. If you’re going to email or text a service, check how long it’s likely to take them to reply as that wait can be very difficult.

5) Check the confidentiality policy, especially if you are calling about self-harm or suicide. Most helplines would not intervene to keep you safe against your wishes, but their might be some circumstances where they would have to (for instance, the Samaritans would have to get medical help for you if you were in one of their branches and were physically in danger).

6) There’s no such thing as calling too much. I have phases where I phone several times a day, and phases where I don’t call for months. Both of those things are allowed. In fact, you’re unlikely to talk to the same person twice, so they probably won’t even know, but if they did, they wouldn’t mind. It’s what they’re there for. Statutory mental health services are so overstretched and preoccupied with “dependency” that it often feels like needing very frequent support is not OK, that it’s too demanding – and what support you get is often someone else’s choice, based on the NHS’s financial resources rather than on your needs. With the Samaritans, that choice is yours.

7) It’s ok to hang up and try again. Helplines are mostly staffed by volunteers, and with such a huge number of people manning the phones, not everybody is going to understand what you need. If they don’t, this is not your fault and it’s ok to end the conversation. Sometimes I ring, panic, hang up, and repeat four or five times before I can stay on the phone, especially if a man answers the first few times. They are used to this.

For me, the most helpful thing about calling the Samaritans is that I am in control – they don’t see my number, I don’t have to give them my name, they have no idea where I am. I can decide when the conversation begins and ends and whether I explain why I want it to. This means so much to me because it is so different to interactions with mainstream mental health services, where there is always a power imbalance: professionals judge me before even meeting me based on notes which I have no control over, and there’s an underlying threat of either forced admission to hospital or loss of support if I do not have my crisis in an “appropriate” way. But with the Samaritans, if you end one conversation and call back, it’s going to be someone different who answers, probably in a completely different part of the country. You can start over whenever you want – the ball is always in your court, and it’s so reassuring.


Contact details

The Samaritans are FREE on 116 123. You can email The Central London branch in Soho has a drop in every day from 9am-9pm.

TESS runs text (0780 047 2908) and email support, Sunday – Thursday 7-9pm, for women up to 24 years old. There’s also a helpline but I’ve never called it so can’t tell you if I found it helpful or not. It’s a good idea to double check their Twitter for up-to-date info on opening hours before getting in touch.

*NB obviously the correct way to call a helpline is in whatever way works for you – I’m sharing my experiences but just really like alliteration.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s