‘Extraordinary’ Samaritans to get a Mid and East Antrim Council civic reception

Mid and East Antrim Borough Council has agreed to hold a civic reception for the Samaritans charity in recognition of its “extraordinary efforts” during the Covid pandemic.

The event will also raise awareness of the charity’s ‘Longest Night’ initiative on December 21 to highlight the Samaritans’ availability 24-hours per day, 365 days a year.

It will also provide an opportunity to seek more volunteers in the borough including Carrickfergus and Larne and to develop local hubs.

During 2020, the first year of the pandemic, the Samaritans answered 121,444 calls on issues relating to Covid, isolation and loneliness, family concerns, mental health or illness and relationship problems.

Councillors Bobby Hadden (left) and Andrew Wilson.

People can phone, email and there is a pilot using web chat for those who don’t like to talk on the phone.

Councillors were told the Samaritans are not just there for those who have suicidal thoughts, they are available to everyone no matter the issue.

The proposal was made by Knockagh Ulster Unionist Councillor Andrew Wilson who explained the role of the charity which has eight branches in Northern Ireland and more than 600 volunteers.

The branch in Mid and East Antrim is located in Ballymena and has around 60 volunteers. It was established in 1974.

Cllr Wilson said: “This volunteer support is to be commended and I think it is totally appropriate that this council joins as one to recognise their work in the area over decades, but especially during the pandemic.

“This important work will carry on as the cost-of-living crisis continues to impact on energy, household bills and overall physical and mental health.

“Gas, home heating oil and electricity prices are sky-rocketing while inflation appears to be out of control and uncertainty remains over the timing of the financial intervention in Northern Ireland which will be delivered to homes in the rest of the UK next month.

Saved Lives

“I have no doubt that local volunteers have saved local lives through their specialised support and their important work will continue. As demand for the service has grown, so has the volunteers who come from all walks of life who offer endless hours freely, year on year supporting those who need a listening ear.

“During the pandemic, the volunteers were not immune to the issues brought on by Covid-19, with some volunteers having to step back from duties due to their own health or having to pause the face-to-face service. Having said that, all volunteers have gone above and beyond to ensure that Samaritans can continue to provide the invaluable helpline service.”

Seconding the motion, Knockagh Independent Cllr Bobby Hadden said: “There is absolutely no doubt we are in the midst of a mental health pandemic. This has been exacerbated by Covid and this is likely to worsen as the cost of living crisis worsens and we enter into the winter period. I certainly see it in in the community which I serve.

“We can be Samaritans for our constituents who need our support now more than ever. We are in a privileged position that we can help with issues that are impacting upon their lives on a daily basis. A kind word, a simple how are you can go a long way to help. Of course, mental health does not discriminate, so it is important that we extend these sentiments into our chamber and when dealing with our staff who have been through the mill over the past year. We may disagree on many things but we never know what people are going through in their lives.

“I would like to take this opportunity to thank the good Samaritans amongst the elected members and staff who reached out to my wife and I over the passing of my brother-in-law Victor recently. A special thanks also to the good Samaritans of Ballykeel who organised a funeral vigil for Victor. That was really well-received by our family and we are so grateful for that. It gave us so much support.”

Great Demands

Larne Lough DUP Alderman Paul Reid, who is Minister of the Old Presbyterian Church of Larne and Kilwaughter, said: “I know all too well the debt of gratitude that the people of Mid and East Antrim and the people of Northern Ireland owe to the Samaritans. Those who know the work of the Samaritans will know a telephone call could last 30 seconds or it could last three hours. Should nobody speak, they will never hang up they will hold that line open as long as the other person is on the other side.

“I know as a minister the good they have done for some of my parishioners. There is no doubt over the next few weeks, months and years, there is going to be great demands on the Samaritans.”

Larne Lough Ulster Unionist Cllr Keith Turner said: “We are coming into a winter where a looming cost of living crisis is coming and we are going to have to call on our agencies including the Samaritans and other to help with our community groups to provide places of warmth and friendship.

“This council stepped up to the mark in a remarkable way through the Ukrainian refugee crisis and is continuing to do a fantastic job and I see it as our job as councillors to pull together our community groups, our churches, our community centres to provide during this winter places of warmth, friendship, a cup of tea – anything that can help to alleviate what is going to be a very difficult time. Let us not wait until we are in the middle of that time until we do something.”

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He called for the council’s director of Communities to see if community centres can be opened to give people a place where they can go to keep warm.

Michelle Weir, Local Democracy Reporter