Sophie Andrews
1,659,079 views • 14:23

After cutting her arm with a broken glass, she fell into a fitful, exhausted sleep on the railway station platform. Early in the morning, when the station toilets were opened, she got painfully to her feet, and made her way over to them. When she saw her reflection in the mirror, she started to cry. Her face was dirty and tearstained; her shirt was ripped and covered in blood. She looked as if she'd been on the streets for three months, not three days. She washed herself as best she could. Her arms and stomach were hurting badly. She tried to clean the wounds, but any pressure she applied just started the bleeding again. She needed stitches, but there was no way she would go to a hospital. They'd have sent her back home again. Back to him. She tightened her jacket — well, fastened her jacket tightly to cover the blood. She looked back at herself in the mirror. She looked a little better than before but was past caring. There was only one thing she could think of doing. She came out of the station and into a phone box nearby.

(Telephone rings) (Telephone rings)

Woman: Samaritans, can I help you? Hello, Samaritans. Can I help you?

Girl: (Crying) I — I don't know.

Woman: What's happened? You sound very upset.

(Girl cries)

Woman: Why not start with your name? I'm Pam. What can I call you? Where are you speaking from? Are you safe?

Girl: It's a phone box in London.

Pam: You sound very young. How old are you?

Girl: Fourteen.

Pam: And what's happened to make you so upset?

Girl: I just want to die. Every day I wake up and wish I was dead. If he doesn't kill me, then, I think, I want to do it myself.

Pam: I'm glad you called. Let's start at the beginning.

Sophie Andrews: Pam continued to gently ask the girl about herself. She didn't say much; there were lots of silences. But she knew she was there, and having Pam on the end of the phone felt so comforting. The 14-year-old that made that call was me. That was me in the phone box. I was running away from home, sleeping rough on the streets in London. I was being sexually abused by my father and his friends. I was self-harming every day. I was suicidal. The first time I called Samaritans, I was 12 and absolutely desperate. It was a few months after my mother had deserted me, walked out and left me in the family home. And the abuse I was suffering at the hands of my father and his friends had left me a total wreck. I was running away, I was missing school, I was arriving drunk. I was without hope and wanted to die. And that's where Samaritans came in.

Samaritans has been around since 1953. It's a 24/7 confidential helpline in the UK for anyone who might be feeling desperate or suicidal. Which I certainly was. Volunteers answer the phone around the clock every day of the year, and calls are confidential. During my teenage years, when I was most desperate, Samaritans became my lifeline. They promised me total confidentiality. And that allowed me to trust them. Disturbing as they no doubt found my story, they never showed it. They were always there for me and listened without judgment. Mostly, they gently encouraged me to get help; I never felt out of control with them — an interesting parallel, as I felt so out of control in every other aspect of my life. It felt my self-harm was probably the only area where I felt I had any control.

A few years later, I managed to get some control in my life. And I had appropriate support around me to allow me to live with what had happened. I had become a survivor of abuse rather than a victim. And at 21, I contacted Samaritans again. This time because I wanted to become a volunteer. Wanted to pay something back to the organization that had really saved my life. I knew that the simple act of listening in an empathetic way could have a profound effect. I knew that somebody listening to me without judgment would make the biggest difference.

So I caught up with my education, found someone I could persuade to give me a job, and I enjoyed my volunteering at Samaritans. And when I say "enjoyed," it's an odd word to use, because no one would want to think of anyone being in absolute distress or pain. But I knew that that profound impact of that listening ear and someone being alongside me at that desperate time had the biggest impact, and I felt a great sense of fulfillment that I was able to help people as a Samaritan.

In my years volunteering at Samaritans, I was asked to perform many roles. But I guess the peak came in 2008, when I was asked to chair the organization for three years. So I had actually gone from that vulnerable caller in the phone box, desperate for help, to being the national lead for the organization and responsible for 22,000 volunteers. I actually used to joke at the time and say if you really screwed up as a caller, you might end up running the place.

(Laughter)

Which I did. But I guess in a world which is dominated by professionalizing everything we do, I really understood that that simple act of listening could have such a life-changing effect. I guess it's a simple concept that can be applied across all areas of life.

So in the 1980s, when I called Samaritans, child abuse was a subject no one wanted to talk about. Victims were often blamed, victims were often judged. And it was a topic of shame, and no one really wanted to talk about it. Today, judgment and shame surround a different issue. There's a different stigma that's out there. And the stigma that's there today is to talk about loneliness. Loneliness and isolation have profound health impacts. Being lonely can have a significant impact on your own well-being. Recent systematic review of research actually said that it increased the mortality rates, or premature death rates, by up to 30 percent. It can lead to higher blood pressure, higher levels of depression, and actually aligned to mortality rates that might be more associated with alcohol abuse or smoking cigarettes. Loneliness is actually more harmful that smoking 15 cigarettes. A day. Not in your life, in your day. It's also associated with higher levels of dementia. So a recent study also found that lonely people are twice at risk of Alzheimer's disease. Of course, there's many people that live alone who are not lonely. But being a caregiver for a partner that maybe has dementia can be a very lonely place.

And a recent landmark study gave us a very good, clear definition of what loneliness is. And it said it's a subjective, unwelcome feeling of a lack or loss of companionship. And it happens when there's a mismatch between the quality and the quantity of relationships that we have and those that we want. Now in my life, the best help I've ever received has been from those personal connections and being listened to in an empathetic way. Professionals, and I'm conscious I'm speaking to a room of professionals, have a very important place. But for me, a volunteer giving up their time and listening to me without judgment in a confidential way, had such a huge, life-changing effect for me. And that was something that really stayed with me. So as you will have gathered, in my teenage years, I was off the rails, I was going every day wondering if I'd even live the next day. But that profound impact of the volunteer listening to me stayed with me. When I finally got to a point in my life where I felt I could live with what had happened, I wanted to pay something back. And in my experience, people who have been helped in a transforming way always want to pay something back. So I started paying back by my 25 years volunteering with Samaritans.

And then, in 2013, picking up on that whole issue and the new stigma of loneliness, I launched a new national helpline in the UK for older people, called The Silver Line, which is there to support lonely and isolated older people. In our short history, we've taken 1.5 million calls. And I know we're having a big impact, based on the feedback we get every day. Some people might be calling up for a friendly chat, maybe some information about local services. Some might be calling because they're suicidal. Some might be calling up because they're reporting abuse. And some quite simply, as I was, may have simply just given up on life. I guess it's a really simple idea, setting up a helpline. And I look back to those early days when I had the lofty title, I still have, of chief exec, but in the early days, I was chief exec of myself. Which, I have to say, I had the best meetings ever in my career —

(Laughter)

as chief exec of myself. But things have moved on, and now in 2017, we have over 200 staff listening to older people every day of the year, 24/7. We also have over 3,000 volunteers making weekly friendship calls from their own home. We also, for people that like the written word, offer Silver Letters, and we write pen-pal letters to older people who still enjoy receiving a letter. And we also have introduced something called Silver Circles — you notice I'm owning the word "silver" here — put "silver" in front of it and it's ours. Silver Circles are group conference calls where people actually talk about shared interests. My favorite group is the music group, where people, every week, play musical instruments down the phone to each other. Not always the same tune at the same time.

(Laughter)

But they do have fun. And "fun" is an interesting word, because I've talked very much about desperation, loneliness and isolation. But if you came to our helpline in the UK, you would also hear laughter. Because at the Silver Line, we do want to cherish the wonderful lives of older people and all the experiences that they bring. So here's an example, just a snippet of one of our calls.

(Audio) Good morning, you're through to the Silver Line. My name's Alan, how can I help?

Woman: Hello, Alan. Good morning.

Alan: Hello.

Woman: (Chipper) Hello!

Alan: Oh, how are you this morning?

Woman: I'm alright, thank you.

Alan: I'm pleased to hear it.

Woman: What a wonderful thing the telephone is, you know?

Alan: It's a remarkable invention, isn't it?

Woman: I remember when I was a little girl, donkey's years ago, if you wanted to make a phone call to somebody, you had to go to a shop and use the telephone of the shop and pay the shop for using the telephone and have your phone call. So you didn't make phone calls just whenever you fancied.

Alan: Oh, no.

Woman: (Coughs) Oh, sorry. (Coughs) Excuse me about that. You had to, you know, confine your phone calls to the absolute essentials. And now, here I am, sitting in my own home in my dressing gown still, and using the telephone, isn't it wonderful?

Alan: It is. (Laughter)

SA: And that's not untypical of a call we might receive at our helpline. That's someone who really sees us as part of the family.

So Silver Line, I guess, are now helping older people in the same way that Samaritans has helped me. They're there 24/7, they're listening confidentially and quite often not giving any advice. How often do we really ever listen without giving advice? It's actually quite hard. Quite often on the phone calls, an older person would say, "Could you give me some advice, please?" And 20 minutes later, they say, "Thank you for your advice," and we realize we haven't given any.

(Laughter)

We've listened and listened, and we haven't interrupted. But to that person, maybe we have given advice. We recently conducted a survey at The Silver Line to 3,000 older people, to ask them what they thought of the service. And one person quite simply came back and said, for the first time in her life, she had what we would call in the sport cricket a wicketkeeper, and what you would call in baseball, a catcher. I've been here 48 hours, and I'm talking American. They will not recognize me when I get home.

(Laughter)

But for the first time in her life, she had that catcher, which is really, really important.

And now it's come full circle, because actually, people that are calling Silver Line and needing a catcher are now becoming catchers themselves by putting something back and becoming volunteers and becoming part of our family.

So I end my talk, really, where I started, talking about my own personal experience. Because when I talk about my life, I often say that I've been lucky. And people generally ask me why. And it's because, at every stage of my life, I have been lucky enough to have someone alongside me at the right time who maybe has believed in me, which in turn has helped me just to believe a little bit more in myself, which has been so important. And everyone needs a catcher at some point in their lives.

This is my catcher. So that's Pam. And she answered the call to me when I was that 14-year-old in the phone box, over 30 years ago. So never, ever underestimate the power of a simple human connection. Because it can be and so often is the power to save a life.

Thank you.

(Applause)