In these dark days of Covid, people from all walks of life in Thailand are facing desperate situations, with some even considering suicide as a way out. Offering them a lifeline are the Samaritans of Thailand, a group of volunteers who work tirelessly to make sure that those in difficulty always have someone to talk to.
Khun Trakarn Chensy, Chairman of the Samaritans of Thailand, has devoted most of his free time to the charity since 1997. In this inspiring article, he explains how the organization works and what it takes to become a volunteer.
What can I do? Where can I go? How can I feed my children? When can I go back to work? Why does no one care?
The torment caused by Covid-19 that has spread across the world does not only affect people physically, by becoming sick. It also affects us mentally. And the resulting stress and trauma can be even more debilitating than the disease itself … it affects whole families, from children to senior citizens – even if they have not caught the disease themselves.
Families in lower income groups have been particularly hard-hit. In Thailand many of them toil from day-to-day, in the subsistence economy; they sell their wares on the street; they wheel food-carts around; they work as taxi drivers; they work as maids, as cleaners in the hotel industry, as tour guides; they work in restaurants, in the entertainment industry, and more.
Much of this work has dried up over the last eighteen months, and so have the meagre savings they may have scraped together over the years. Many are in dire straits, and as things have recently become so much worse during the third
Thailand wave of Covid-19 infections they are in despair. Depressed. Hungry. Sick. Worried. Nowhere and no one to turn to for help. And in their desperation, as they hit the all-time low, many have chosen to take the final solution … suicide.
Chad was surprised and elevated to find that this simple strategy of just being there to listen, to be sympathetic, to be a shoulder to cry on, was very effective, and he saved many people from taking their own lives.
He recruited his friends and other members of the clergy to help, and within 20 years the network had expanded to cover the whole of Great Britain and Ireland. The Samaritans have now spread all over the world, under the original name, or in some countries under the name Befrienders.
Here in Thailand they are known as the Samaritans of Thailand, and were set up 42 years ago by Dr. Udom Srisaengam (later to become Minister of Public Health) who had traveled to study at university in the UK, and was impressed by the work he saw the Samaritans doing there. On his return he started to offer counseling services in the Bangkok area, to the English-speaking foreign community.
After he placed a classified ad in a newspaper, Dr. Udom soon began to receive calls from Thai citizens, and then gradually started to receive calls to the Samaritans’ call-centre from all over the country.
The callers were able to connect to a kindly and sympathetic listener in both Thai and English. Today, over 95 percent of the calls they receive are from Thais, although there is still a dedicated English language line. The Samaritans are currently training volunteers fluent in Burmese, to help out the large migrant workforce from Burma (Myanmar), many of whom have no work due to the closure of construction sites employing a large number of Burmese workers.
Some of these itinerant workforces receive scant support from their employers, and are not entitled to any government welfare, being reliant on the goodwill of charities or caring locals.
So what exactly are the Samaritans? What and who are they? Put simply they are a non-religious organisation which believes that every single life lost to suicide is a tragedy. The Samaritans of Thailand work tirelessly to make sure that there is always someone there for anyone who needs someone.
The knowledge that there is a friendly voice ready to talk with them, sympathise with them about the difficulties they are having, and to know that their conversations will always remain private and confidential, can go a long way to help people
rise up from the depths of despair they find themselves in.
In the past most of the problems that volunteers heard about on their phoneline conversations with desperate people were relationship related (family, love, work). Today, the ‘Covid Effect’ has resulted in a different set of difficulties.
The financial woes people started to experience are becoming ever more burdensome, as fear rises and the descent into abject poverty deepens week by week. People are calling the hotline because they feel they have nothing left to live for. So many jobs have been lost, and this is ongoing.
Employers in the vast tourism industry, from the smaller to the medium-sized have workers to pay, but with zero customers they can barely feed themselves, let alone their staff. And the business owners themselves are often not eligible for state benefits.
During the first lockdown, about eighteen months ago, everything just stopped dead, and everyone was completely unprepared. The situation since the onset of the third wave is even more urgent. The Covid Effect has seen the daily number of calls to Samaritans skyrocket, increasing threefold. From 10.000 calls per year to the hotline they have seen it spiral to over 30,000.
Although the Samaritans of Thailand are doing their best, the number of suicides has also risen. Not everyone knows about the Samaritans yet. As more people do become aware of them, and that there is someone willing to listen, they are certainly going to need more volunteers.
It is not only the poor that are suffering, even the middle-income and the better-off are also victims of the Covid Effect – it impacts us all. The Samaritans of Thailand are a non-religious, non-profit charity, and the people working on the helplines are all unpaid volunteers.
If a person feels like they want to help, they can contact the head office, and go through a short interview, and once accepted they will begin a comprehensive training course. Most of the volunteers have their own jobs, and are drawn from a wide spectrum of society, businessmen, doctors, housewives, students, etc.
The training is extensive, and will include basic psychology and role play, with a mentor who is an experienced volunteer. It takes about four to six months to complete, at the office, for about four hours every Sunday. but could be longer, depending on the individual. They will not be allowed to actively take calls until they feel comfortable and confident in themselves, and their mentors feel that they are ready. They are dealing with fragile people who may be in danger of losing their lives. The stakes are high.
I spoke to Khun Trakarn Chensy, Chairman of the Samaritans of Thailand. He is a businessman, but has devoted most of his free time to the charity since 1997. At their office in Bangkok, he is supported by the administrator and secretary of the organisation, Khun Taweewan (Toi) Tiangdee, who is the only paid employee, everyone else involved give their time and effort for free.
He told me that although suicide in Thailand is a problem, it is not as bad as recent statistics released by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which has reported a rate of about 12 per 100,000 of population. Khun Trakarn says it is more likely to be about six per 100,000. Still not good, but not as bad as the figures released by the WHO. In Southeast Asia, Thailand comes in about third, behind Singapore and Sri Lanka.
Khun Trakarn said that while he wishes that there was no reason for an organisation such as his, it is a sad fact of human nature that there will always be suicides. During the present times the Covid Effect has led to a surge in call volume, and the Samaritans would love to add more people to their ranks.
I asked him about the recruitment and training process:
“We look for several traits during our selection of volunteers. They must be kind-hearted, must be a person who understands the preciousness of another person’s life, who is more of a listener than a talker, who has empathy, who is non-judgmental. Who is willing to do good things without being recognised for it.
“Volunteers have to remain anonymous, and cannot talk about their work here. These are the basics. They might not have the skills, but we train them, a process that takes about four to six months. The first two days is theory, basic human needs, psychology, how to be a good listener. We follow this up by assigning them a mentor, who will be an experienced volunteer. They will look at case studies together, and conduct roleplay, with them sometimes swapping roles.
“Only when the mentor and the prospective volunteer are both happy and feel confident and comfortable will we allow them to go live, and take a call. We have to be very careful, we are dealing with people’s lives,” said Khun Trakarn.
I asked him about the differences between a Thai caller and an English-speaking foreign resident, and he expounded; “The vast majority of calls are from Thai people, naturally. Asian and Thai people have a ‘face culture’ and this means that it is not natural for them to open up and tell others about their feelings or problems. They keep it all inside them until they reach a breaking point.
“This is one way the Samaritans model really works for Thai people. They never see who they are talking to, and will not meet them. A caller can say, tell, or ask whatever they want, to the person on the other end of the line, secure in the knowledge that it will never go any further. They can trust in the anonymity.
“There are many instances in which a Thai person will call when they are depressed about something, although they may not actually be suicidal. But such a conversation with a sympathetic listener might well help them never to reach that endpoint.
“When we have a non-Thai English-speaking caller the situation is often a lot more serious. Our cultures are different, and a foreign caller to the Samaritans is often at a critical point, very close to taking their life. They see a call to the Samaritans as their final hope, their very last chance in life.
“In rare occurrences a volunteer will recognise just how critical the case they are dealing with is. After an urgent discussion with their team leader or the Director, they will offer the caller a chance to meet face to face. In a desperate situation we have to do everything that we can to save this life.”
There has been anxiety since the beginning that Covid-19 and the restrictions brought in to contain it could lead to a mental health crisis and an increase in suicide rates around the world. Alongside the fear of the disease itself, and potential bereavement, other features of a lockdown, such as isolation, loneliness, the loss of social support networks, unemployment, stress within the family unit, and financial insecurity all impact well-being and are destructive to mental health. And as expected the suicide rate has indeed risen.
I was worried about the effect on the volunteers that listening to so many harrowing stories day after day might have upon the volunteers themselves. Khun Trakarn assured me that the welfare of the volunteers is paramount. They cannot help if they are suffering in any way themselves. There are meetings and discussions between the people who take the calls every two months. And should a volunteer need help or support they have doctors, psychiatrists, and psychologists that are readily available, if they are suffering from stress or other issues.
In closing, Khun Trakarn offers this advice to people who find themselves in distress: “It’s OK to not be OK. Try not to lose hope, there is always a solution. Don’t isolate yourself and let your problems within grow. Let them out, excise them. If you feel that your problem is too awful, or too difficult, and that you can’t think of anyone to talk to about it within your family or group of friends, then call us … we are here, just waiting for your call. And we will be able to help you, somehow.”
Their credo is that every single life lost to suicide is a tragedy. Samaritans of Thailand work tirelessly to make sure that there is always someone there for
anyone who needs someone. The volunteers listen, non-judgmentally to what you have to say. And if the volunteers think a caller needs further help outside the call, they can put people in touch with organisations that address problems of domestic violence, give legal advice, LGBT support groups, addiction, unwanted pregnancy, HIV (Aids), etc.
If you, a family member, or a friend need someone to talk to, The Samaritans of Thailand are there for you.
Healing takes time, and reaching out to ask for help is a courageous step. Take it, and you are on your way.
The Samaritans of Thailand are a charity organisation completely reliant upon donations. If, after reading this
article you can see the value of what Samaritans of Thailand are doing, and
you would like to become a volunteer, or could help with a donation, contact them at their office, or via Facebook.
And if you or a friend need help, call the Helpline numbers below.
Reach out, they’ll always be there.
Telephone Consultation Helplines:
Bangkok Thai Line: 02-713-6793. Every day 12.00-22.00
Bangkok English Line: 02-713-6791 (With Inbox message of our call-centre system, we will contact you back within 24 hours)
Chiang Mai: 053-225-977 to 78. Every day 19.00-22.00
Office: for donation or volunteer
Office phone: 02-713-6790
Office phone 2: 063-516-3600