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Unfortunately Calling the Helpline Can Be a Bit Hit and Miss - So What Can Be Done to Improve the Service and Accountability?

I cherish, value and laud all those impeccably kind Samaritans. Maybe it's a question of training and getting feedback; I don't want to be cynical I want to believe that every volunteer who gives up their time genuinely cares and I believe the vast majority do.

Currently I don't have a GP or mental health support. Voluntarily, I am not on medication and I am far from home with little access to friends or family. For all these reasons the helpline can be a lifeline when, for example, I get into a bad cycle of sleep deprivation and mania/suicidal lows. In 2003 I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and although I understand my condition and complex array of triggers my biggest problem remains educating those around me. Despite my best efforts you can't make people be compassionate when often that is all you need to soothe the incessant mental pain. Sometimes I feel as though I am shutting down just in order to cope. With two small children, and the added pressure this brings, there are times when it all becomes too much for my brain; at the same time you just have to get on with it like everyone rest, as best you can.

Paradoxically, I would say I am high functioning outwardly, but battling continuously. There are also times I have to accept that my mental health condition is very disabling. Maybe to the world I appear normal, but inside I am moribund and on the floor - crawling.

If someone had no legs you wouldn't expect them to climb a mountain, but often that's what it feels like - trying to push back the sea with my hands. In the end the sea crashes through flooding your mind and you are left flailing in the deep end trying not to drown.

During moments when it seems as if everything is crashing around me this is when I call the helpline. Usually it's at night when I am at my lowest ebb and darkness descends in my head. As much as I need to talk often I just seek a kind voice, but sometimes this is not what you hear. Of course I could hang up and keep on trying, but what happens if each time you call the person answering is just not right. The tone of voice is wrong, they sound unempathetic, they are asking too many question. There have been occasions, despite my gut instinct, that I have not had the strength to hang up; if this happens staying on the line does more damage than good for your mental health.

From what I understand with the Samaritans (and most helplines) they are not allowed to ask personal questions or give advice - however, frequently this is not the case. I don't like it if they ask how many children I have, or how old they are, or which country are you calling from, or if I live with my husband, or if I work, or why I am not in the UK, or if I am on meds or not? I could go on but I think the worst was when someone asked me: 'Why do you stay with your husband?' When I took offence the Samaritan hung up. My marital affairs are no one's concern but mine. I really don't think any of these questions are relevant; the job of the Samaritan is to primarily listen. If I choose to divulge any of this information that's my prerogative and yet often the questions are intrusive and that's jarring. When you are vulnerable you might answer when really you don't want to; subsequently when you hang up you feel exposed, weak and worse than before.

A certain minimal level of engagement is important, but some of them don't say anything at all, you might as well be talking to yourself, or they make patronising sounds, which can be very vexing. It can be distressing if they end the call when you still haven't finished talking. Habitually, I stick to the 45-minute rule out of respect to other callers or end it earlier. I seldom ever exceed this time, but I have had a Samaritan saying fifteen minutes in, 'I have to end the call now' - that is unacceptable.

In some cases the Samaritan sounds bored and might even say: 'I don't know what to say or how to help you'. As I said often you just want someone to listen because I know I am broken and can't be fixed therefore it's not their help that I seek.

When the Samaritans learnt of my misgivings via Twitter they did email me, they were concerned that I had encountered, what I referred to as, a 'dodgy' Samaritan. They also specifically asked me to try to remember the name of the person I spoke to and the time of the call. I couldn't recall either, but I will try in future to keep a note and I appreciate them taking my experience seriously.

This article was written in response to people I know via Twitter who have had similar negative encounters when calling the helpline - clearly I am not alone, which is worrying.

Despite all my mental health battles I am a fierce warrior and keep fighting even though I know I can never win this war. Battling is something I have been doing since I was a small child, but someone else who is more vulnerable who calls the helpline might hesitate to call again after such a bad experience, even if they are feeling desperate.

For all the 'dodgy' Samaritans I have encountered there are many who are faultless, their tone of voice is gentle, low and soothing. They listen attentively, and when they speak they say all the right things; so much so that I write down what they say to remember and put their words in my artwork because, usually, when I call I am in my studio working.

3 postcards taken from my 1000 postcard series created with my two children, some of the tiny writing featured are the actual words spoken by good Samaritans (postcard, pen and ink, 2016)

I cherish, value and laud all those impeccably kind Samaritans. Maybe it's a question of training and getting feedback; I don't want to be cynical I want to believe that every volunteer who gives up their time genuinely cares and I believe the vast majority do.

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