The teenage Samaritan

JPCT 17-01-13 S13040309X Samaritans. call centre operator -photo by Steve Cobb
JPCT 17-01-13 S13040309X Samaritans. call centre operator -photo by Steve Cobb

When considering the best person to confide in about a serious problem, a teenager is not going to rank at the top of your list.

If you’re like me, you’ll sniff out the friend or family member with the most life experience, seeking all-knowing wisdom delivered without judgement.

But 19-year-old Samaritan Olivia Catchpole is proof that good listening doesn’t come with age.

The charity worker fields a range of calls, emails and text messages from Horsham locals who tell her about their plights with emotional trauma including loneliness, the breakdown of marriage and death.

Alarmingly though, in recent months the Denne Road-based centre has been hearing more and more from Olivia’s generation, who fear for their future in the wake of university fee hikes and a saturated job market.

So had Olivia - who never went to university - ever been tempted to contact a Samaritan?

“I didn’t even know the Samaritans were here,” admits the teen, who stumbled across the role whilst taking a ‘what job are you best suited to’ test at college.

Failing to find full time employment, the former Collyer’s and Millais student immersed herself in the charity - a 24 hour confidential emotional support for people who are experiencing feelings of distress, despair or suicidal thoughts.

“Instantly I thought it was something I could connect with, I’ve always enjoyed listening to my friends,” continued Olivia.

“There was nothing that ever stood out for me at university, and I didn’t want to go for the sake of going. It’s a lot of money to hand over if you’re not too sure.

“It’s definitely tough for jobs out there though.”

And it’s one of the reasons Gill Ross, director of the Horsham and Crawley Samaritans, has seen an increase in the number of youngsters contacting them.

“Young people are worried in a way that they weren’t before,” she explained.

“A lot of them haven’t gone to university because it’s too expensive and yet the job market is so depressed I think that - certainly when we go out to schools - there is a slight feeling of hopelessness.”

Last week the centre began to communicate via mobile text messaging for the first time.

The idea to have a private conversation in public - while long overdue - has been met with much success.

“It is another form of communication, but the evidence suggests it will be the young people who use it,” said Gill.

“We’ve had people texting who are in a group of people who are maybe in school, at a rock festival. You can have a Samaritan conversation without anyone over hearing.”

It dawned on me that the photograph we took of Olivia was very stereotypical.

The telephone is just one weapon in the growing armoury of media at the Horsham office. In addition doors are open to any walk-ins.

A normal shift will see Olivia darting backwards and forwards across a room which is surprisingly cosy and welcoming considering it’s probably played host to some of Horsham’s most harrowing stories.

“We always work in twos to support each other,” said the teen, who has been fielding calls for around a year and a half now.

“We all have our judgements in life, but you have to leave them at the door.

“It’s giving people that space, where as if you’re talking to a friend they might turn around and cut in.

“Some calls can be quite sad, but the brilliant thing is support system we have here. You never feel alone.”

Olivia says she owes her listening skills to her family, who have always been more than supportive.

“It makes you feel good that you have been able to help someone, but I always feel very privileged that someone will let me know how they’re feeling,” she added.

The Horsham and Crawley branch is currently looking for ‘Night Owls and Larks’ - volunteers who are willing to stay up all night during the centre’s peak times between 9pm and 6am.

Gill said: “The type of call we get is very very varied.

“What we do is allow people to talk about specific feelings.

“Sometimes the problems you’re experiencing can be overwhelming and we lose resilience because it all piles up. And what we do by talking honestly and openly about these feelings - which can be difficult - is act as a safety valve.”

The number to text Samaritans is 07725 90 90 90. Trained Samaritans aim to read and answer all messages within 30 to 40 minutes.

The phone contact number is 01403 276276. For more information about the charity visit