What happens when the crisis hotline fails you?

On Wednesday evening Chloe McClure, 21, from Scotland, was finishing up her shift at her local Tesco packing online orders for the vulnerable when she broke down.

‘It was so stupid,’ she tells Metro.co.uk. ‘I was just looking at someone’s grocery list and I just started sobbing.’

Recovering from anorexia in her teens left Chloe with a binge eating disorder (a dangerous compulsion to eat large amounts of food). Food had become a battleground, and after a bad morning of bingeing Wednesday morning, Chloe had felt like she lost. 

Chloe called the Samaritans hotline that night after work, a number that’s routinely shared every World Mental Health Day, but her experience was less than comforting.

After detailing her history with anorexia and bingeing, Chloe says the Samaritans volunteer asked her (four times) whether she had tried Slimming World.

She says: ‘I start thinking, “is this how it is?” It’s just going to be “You’re too fat. That’s all you can do.” And I just sat and cried for the rest of the night.’

She tweeted about the Slimming World comment that evening and immediately received hundreds of DMs – some echoing her experience with Samaritans.

‘People [were telling me] they called up saying they wanted to kill themselves,’ says Chloe. ‘And they were told “Have you tried sleeping?”’

Christy, 16, also from Scotland, attempted suicide in September. Overwhelmed by the situation, her mum advised Christy to call the Samaritans hotline for support.

‘I explained that I was autistic, and the [volunteer] asked if there was anyone with me.’ Christy tells us. ‘I said that my mum was on the floor but that she was crying and overall not doing very well. The [volunteer] said that she was glad I had someone with me and that she had to go, and hung up.’

The Samaritans website defines the helpline as a ‘listening service’, one that will lend an ear to those in need without judgement.

Annabel* applied to become a Samaritans listener in 2014, but after training she describes as ‘very informal’, she felt too ill-equipped to take up the post.

‘The role of the listener is very vague, as you simply aren’t given the tools to help but just to listen, which could be the difference between life and death, and saying the wrong thing could also mean the same to a vulnerable person’, she tells Metro.co.uk.

‘I feel it shouldn’t be open to people who have zero experience in the field.’

A spokesperson for Samaritans said: ‘Samaritans is a life-saving service, with a network of over 20,000 amazing volunteers giving more than a million hours of their time every year to help anyone struggling to cope. These conversations can change the course of someone’s life.

‘Last year we answered over three million calls to our phone line and our volunteers provide vital support in every conversation, but if anyone is not happy with the service we have a robust complaints procedure for investigating their concerns.

‘All Samaritans volunteers undergo rigorous, in-depth training to equip them to be there for the people who contact us. We urge anyone in need of support to call for free on 116 123, email [email protected] or visit www.samaritans.org.’

In recent years, volunteer-led hotline services have become a cornerstone of mental health services in the UK. In 2017, mental health trusts in England received £105 million less from the government than in 2011.

Between June 2017 and May 2018, equivalent to one eighth of the mental health workforce left the NHS. In 2018, the statistics were staggering: there was just one mental health doctor to 253 patients.

With professional help becoming increasingly hard to access, hotlines filled an important gap in treatment.

An evaluation commissioned by the Mental Health Helplines Partnership in 2012 says that 73% of GPs surveyed were aware of these services and felt they could prevent crises.

However, the report also stated that ‘concerns were expressed by some GPs about the evidence of the benefits of helplines and helpline staff expertise’.

But things are, thankfully, starting to change. In 2018, the government announced that it would increase NHS funding by £20.5 billion in 2023-24 – a spending jump of more than £2 billion.

As the budget for mental health services grows, hopefully we’ll start to see expert help become more widely accessible.

In the meantime, hotlines shouldn’t be written off. If professional help is out of reach, the next best thing could be a specialist helpline.

Services like the Beat ED hotline can provide targeted information and insight for those suffering with eating disorders. Similarly, the National Autistic Society’s Autism Helpline runs Monday to Friday at 10am until 3pm and might be more helpful for neurodivergent callers.

No one should suffer alone. It’s still useful to check what local NHS services are available in your area, as while some are oversubscribed this isn’t the case for all. If you feel like you are at risk, calling 111 or visiting A&E will give you access to mental health professionals.

*Name has been changed.

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