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Julie Bentley: ‘Samaritans’ services have been crucial during the pandemic’

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Being listened to without judgment is a “an extraordinarily powerful thing”, says Julie Bentley, the new chief executive of Samaritans, the suicide prevention charity.

“Just because somebody considers taking their own life, it is not inevitable that they will take their own life. That’s why it’s important that there are services like Samaritans where people can phone; not just because they’re feeling suicidal, but if they’re feeling troubled, distressed or concerned, they will find somebody who will listen, in a very real and meaningful way without judgment.”

Bentley, 51, who started in the job last month, says that the volunteer-led charity’s service has been “crucial” during the pandemic. Tellingly, Samaritans were designated key workers.

A survey with the charity’s listening volunteers offers a window into the impact of Covid on the national psyche: one in five calls over the past six months were from people who were specifically concerned about Covid, though volunteers surveyed suggest that the pandemic has affected every caller to some extent, with worries about isolation, mental ill-health, family and unemployment the most common concerns.

Perhaps surprisingly, early figures for England from real-time surveillance published last month by the National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Safety in Mental Health found “no evidence of the large national rise in suicide, post lockdown, that many feared”. But it warned that the early figures could change over time and that it is “too soon to examine the full long-term impact of economic adversity on mental health and suicide”.

Separately, provisional data for the third quarter of 2020 (July to September) published this week by the Office for National Statistics shows a suicide rate in England similar to rates seen in the third quarter of previous years.

Bentley says it’s important “not to take our eye off the ball”, since suicide rates in the UK were “already too high” before the coronavirus, with some groups particularly vulnerable, such as middle-aged men.

“One of the things that is a concern is that what we do know, based on history, is that in times of recession the rate of suicides tends to rise. So we need to be mindful of where we’re at in the country … particularly as a result of coronavirus and the financial impact,” she points outs.

“We need to be concerned about the numbers of people feeling high levels of distress and to keep pushing to ensure there is a good provision of service, she adds.

“One of the things that is a worry is that of those people who do take their lives, many of them were not in touch with any mental health services. And we know that people are waiting too long to access services. So, mental health concerns are significant.”

A lot of the contacts are from people feeling lonely, anxious, or distressed, rather than suicidal, who need to express themselves freely and be heard. “What we hope is that that will help…

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