MICHAEL Joseph (Mike) Cantwell is one of a band of people who are on the front line helping others who are in despair, crisis or who need to hear a supportive voice at the end of a phone. Whether they want to call for a chat, face to face with someone in confidence about their lives or just want to hear a genuinely supportive voice at the end of a phone, The Samaritans in Kilkenny and Carlow offer a highly confidential service 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 365 days a year.
It is a huge commitment for those involved and one that is not undertaken lightly but for the volunteers it is a life-changing experience which they say makes them better people and more understanding of the plight of others.
One of those unsung heroes is Mike. The 27-year-old doesn’t look like your typical Samaritan and his serenity, coi fish, tattoo on his left arm certainly gets people talking, as do his facial piercings. The point being there is no standard type of person who gets involved and there is a great cross-section of people who are Samaritans. Mike Cantwell like all of us has been touched by suicide. One of his former school mates took his own life and it had a profound affect on Mike. It wasn’t the only reason he joined the Samaritans but it was a significant contributory factor. He has also come face to face with depression among his peers and again it’s something that leaves a lasting impression and poses the question, how can I help? At the time he started in the Samaritans he was unemployed and had a lot of free time and he wanted to use that time to make a difference. He kept his involvement quiet from his friends for a long time but now is more comfortable with them knowing and now one in his circle has expressed an interest in getting involved as well.
Mike is not a glory hunter and only agreed to be interviewed to help make people aware of the work the Samaritans do and to appeal to others to volunteer or help in some way with the running of the voluntary organisation.
He has found that it has brought a new kind of patience to his life but most of all it has been a source of inspiration. “When I came in first I thought I would be meeting up with older people with a possible religious angle to them but what I found was absolutely brilliant. The volunteers are inspirational and they support they give you is great. It makes you feel really comfortable doing what you do and making a difference, giving back something to society,” he said.
And that is one of the keystones of the success of the Samaritans, the support structure for those who answer the phone or those who meet the callers to the centre. Volunteers always work in pairs and they are never left isolated in dealing with a client in despair and discuss things between themselves. They cannot and never discuss calls outside of the office and this is one of the golden rules of the Samaritans.
The most important thing to Mike as a volunteer is the person at the other end of the phone. “That person is all that is all I focus on and giving them the emotional support when they ring is what it is all about,” he added.
The 27 year of who is doing a Level 5 horticulture course at the Castlecomer Discovery Park has been a volunteer for well over a year and said that it had been a hugely positive thing in his life and changing him, for the better, as a person. I try to understand other peoples’ situation and give them that support,” he said.
“We don’t give advice and we don’t express our opinions. We just listen and try to see things from the caller’s point of view,” he said. “It can be difficult. However, the fact that you, as a human being, are there to listen to someone else in their time of need is hugely reassuring and because we offer only support and not advice or opinion, it actually works,” he said. “We just try to understand the situation the other person is in.”
Mike makes the point forcibly that the only reason he is there is because he wants to help others, wants to share in their plight and somehow show them that there is hope at the other end of the line. That’s what makes being a volunteer for the Samaritans so rewarding.
He does one duty a week and that normally lasts six hours, which is about the average. He said it does not impinge on other parts of his life and said that it actually gives you a sort of patience to allow people the time and space they need to talk to you and that it is something that has flowed into the rest of his life in a hugely positive way.
He is excited about upcoming developments within the Samaritans like the “Feet On The Street” initiative where volunteers will take to the streets and try to make contact with people who might need help but might not think of ringing 1850 60 90 90 or calling to the Samaritans centre on Dean Street Monday to Friday from 2-8pm.
“We are hoping to reach out to those who might have the Samaritans at the forefront of their mind and who are in despair,” he said.
He said in particular they are hoping to encounter young people who may have problems over exams “fitting in” or body issues or issues over their sexuality. “Even though they have friends, they might not feel comfortable talking to them about it and that is where we come in,” Mike said.
He speaks of the huge privilege it is to help others and asked what is the vision of the Samaritans he said simply: “That fewer people die of suicide.”
He will be on duty this weekend and when the phone rings down at the Dean Street centre the first thing that Mike will say when he answers the call is: “Samaritans – can I help you?” And the person at the other end of the phone knows that Mike and the other volunteers mean it when they say it. Sometimes that is all the reassurance they may need to face the demons in their lives.
The Samaritans are at 1850 60 90 90; lines are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.