Mental Health Services: Samaritans Ireland

Apologies have been received from Senator Annie Hoey. We hope Senator Dolan will join us at some point. Before we commence, I have one piece of housekeeping to deal with. Are the draft minutes of the joint committee meetings of 14 and 21 September 2021 agreed? Agreed.

This morning we will meet with representatives of Samaritans Ireland, who will provide us with an update on access and continuity of treatment for those in need of mental health services and the impact of Covid-19 on demand and delivery of services. I welcome the witnesses from Samaritans Ireland to today's meeting: Mr. Niall Mulligan, executive director, Ms Sarah Stack, communication and policy manager, and Mr. Rory Fitzgerald, volunteer and regional director in the Republic of Ireland.

Members and all in attendance are asked to exercise personal responsibility in protecting themselves and others from the risk of contracting Covid-19. They are strongly advised to practise good hand hygiene and have at least one vacant seat between them and others attending. They should also always maintain an appropriate level of social distancing during and after the meeting. Masks, preferably of a medical grade, should be worn at all times.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I remind members that they are only allowed to participate in this meeting if they are physically located in the Leinster House complex. In this regard, I ask all members prior to making their contribution to the meeting to confirm that they are on the grounds of the Leinster House campus.

I invite Mr. Mulligan to make his opening remarks.

Mr. Niall Mulligan

I begin by thanking the Chair and members of the committee for inviting Samaritans Ireland here today to discuss the impact Covid-19 has had on our nation's mental health and on our organisation. I am joined today by Rory Fitzgerald, who is a Samaritans volunteer and regional director for the Republic of Ireland, and Sarah Stack, our communications and policy manager.

Samaritans is the only 24-hour freephone emotional support helpline covering the entire island of Ireland. We are a volunteer-led organisation with more than 2,000 volunteers in 21 branches, and we have 12 core staff. We believe every life lost to suicide is a tragedy, and we work tirelessly to reach more people and make suicide prevention a priority. Coronavirus has undoubtedly been the most serious challenge Samaritans has faced in our 60 years in Ireland. When restrictions were enforced, volunteers and branch directors worked hard to adapt to new safety guidelines to ensure our branches could remain open and safe for all our volunteers coming in. At one stage of the pandemic, up to 40% of our volunteers were cocooning, either to protect themselves or to protect a family member. Despite this, we remained open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This achievement was down to our remaining volunteers signing up for additional shifts each week, sometimes two, three or four shifts. In the first 12 months of coronavirus restrictions, we listened for more than 100,000 hours. Our volunteers received approximately 1,500 calls and emails for help every day and without their dedication those calls for support would have gone unanswered, and our callers would have been left unheard.

Throughout 2020, and into 2021, loneliness and isolation remained among the top reasons people called Samaritans. We also supported people with a mental health crisis – some whose services were impacted by restrictions - and thousands of people with family or relationship issues, job or financial insecurity worries, people experiencing bereavement, and high levels of anxiety over the coronavirus pandemic. More recently, callers are discussing their anxieties over the easing of restrictions, their fears associated with this easing, and a return to the new normal. We have noted a number of key findings from our work in 2020. Samaritans volunteers answered a call for help every 56 seconds. While one in three callers mentioned coronavirus directly, our volunteers reported it was a feature in almost every call. Our busiest time of day was from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., when more than a quarter of our daily calls were answered. We maintained our listener support scheme in Irish prisons and will mark 20 years of supporting the prison population in Ireland in 2022. The way in which anxieties were discussed evolved over the pandemic from at first being primarily rooted in health concerns, that is, the caller, or a loved one, were going to contract Covid-19, to concerns around the lasting implications of the virus, and in particular the potential ongoing socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic.

While our 24-hour helpline and email service are core to what we do, Samaritans is also a lead agency in supporting and training other NGOs in their work with vulnerable people, particularly people who are at high risk of emotional distress, self-harm, and suicide. The impact of the pandemic on the public led to groups and organisations, not usually working in the area of mental health and well-being, beginning to receive distressing or suicidal calls. We responded to requests from numerous organisations to offer our support and expertise to their staff and volunteers on how to support their callers. For some organisations offering services over the telephone or virtually for the first time introduced challenges around meeting best practices on data protection and security, and we provided resources to meet these challenges.

We continue to work with the staff and volunteers of organisations who are working in areas such as addiction, homelessness, long-term unemployment, and domestic and sexual violence, and we work with members of the Traveller community, prisoners, members of the LGBTI+ community and with people living in rural isolation. We train staff and volunteers on how to listen and support people who are going through difficult times or those who are in crisis. Equally, we train the staff and volunteers to look out for each other and to look after each other.

Though our face-to-face training was suspended at the start of Covid-19 restrictions, we were able to adapt our training programmes to the online environment. While this was at times a challenge, an unexpected outcome of online training is that we are now able to support people and groups in some of the most rural parts of the country, whom we previously may not have been able to reach. While we look forward to returning to face-to-face sessions, we also recognise the value of being able to maintain an online training and workshop presence.

Even before the pandemic, we supported six different helplines to divert callers into our own freephone helpline, 116 123. When their lines close after hours, callers are invited to stay on the line to be transferred to a Samaritans volunteer if they wish. This was done to offer a more cohesive response to a person in distress and acts as a safety net for the caller. It has proven to be vital for someone who may need support when other agencies are closed.

In partnership with the Government's emigrant support programme, we also provide our listening service to the Irish diaspora living in certain countries overseas. We launched the service in 2018 in the United Arab Emirates, China, Hong Kong, and Poland, and this was extended over Christmas 2020 to also include Canada and Australia. These helplines have been especially helpful over the past 18 months to support those expatriates facing additional hardships from Covid-19 or who were unable to travel home due to ongoing restrictions.

Being there and listening to others in need is at the heart of what Samaritans across Ireland does. Our volunteers dutifully stepped up in this national crisis, they kept our services going when people needed us to be there for them, and they answered more than half a million calls in 2020.

We are immensely proud of the role that each every one of our volunteers has played and continues to play during the pandemic crisis. They were there to offer their support at every hour of every day to anyone who needed someone to talk to. For that, we thank them wholeheartedly. I thank the Chair and members of the committee for their time today. We welcome any questions they may have.

I thank the Samaritans very much for giving us a wonderful presentation today. I thank it for all the phenomenal work it does. If it is okay with Deputy Ward, I ask that Deputy Hourigan come in first, because she has to leave early. Is that okay with everybody else? Agreed.

I call Deputy Neasa Hourigan from the Green Party.

I thank the Chair and Deputy Ward.

I thank the witnesses. It is lovely to see people in the committee room. Maybe I will start going into the committee room, although it is strange moving from the Covid-19 restrictions to in-person sessions again. I would like to echo the Chair's words. I, too, thank the Samaritans for its hard work over the last year. Ireland has never needed the work that the Samaritans do more than during such a turbulent time. We are all well aware of the crucial supports that the Samaritans give to people.

There are a few aspects of Mr. Mulligan's presentation in which I was very interested. He sent us an excellent document which outlined all of the work that the Samaritans does. There are a couple of areas that I would like, if possible, the witnesses from the Samaritans to expand upon. Maybe they can outline the particular challenges of those aspects, and how we can support them. First, I was interested in the Samaritans' co-operative initiative with ALONE. That is an interesting thing to do, that is, to co-operate with a group that speaks to a particular group in society. Could they expand on that and say whether they have considered taking that model and applying it to different groups? What were the particular challenges in reaching out to older people?

Mr. Niall Mulligan

I thank the Deputy for her question. The partnership with ALONE came about because we were aware from our conversations with it, as well as from seeing some social media coverage of the levels of suicidal ideation and distress that were being experienced by people who had been ringing ALONE. We reached out to ALONE to see if there was anything that we could do to help it. The partnership with ALONE is twofold. First, while some of our volunteers were cocooning, they could do some volunteering with ALONE because they could work and volunteer from home. That was not an option within the Samaritans. We came to an arrangement with ALONE.

The second part was in relation to some individuals who had been ringing ALONE volunteers, and who were under severe distress. We entered into a memorandum of understanding, MoU, between ALONE and the Dublin Samaritans branch, whereby if those individuals wanted to, they could be contacted by the Samaritans. That was a real help in terms of using our expertise and experience in the areas suicidal ideation and deep distress, so that we could support those individuals. There are lots of positives around this partnership.

The only challenges that arose were ensuring that the protocols that were set up - for instance, ALONE's protocols around confidentiality, etc. - would match with our own protocols. The challenges arose within the processes, rather than in any deep issues around value bases, or anything along those lines. Would Mr. Fitzgerald like to add to that comment?

Mr. Rory Fitzgerald

No, that covers it all.

Thank you very much. Of all the groups during Covid-19, it was particularly challenging for older people, who had been asked to cocoon for such a long time. On a similar issue, I see in the documentation that the Samaritans works with prisons and with those who are in prison. I can imagine that was particularly challenging during Covid-19, as access to prisons was less available. Obviously, technology is also constrained in prisons. Would the witnesses like to outline what those challenges were, and what are the next steps in relation to that?

Mr. Niall Mulligan

I will take that question. It was a challenge, there is no doubt about it. There were no Covid-19 cases in the Irish Prison Service or in Irish prisons for a long period of the pandemic. One of the reasons behind that was that the access that we would normally have as an organisation was not available, and rightly so. It left us in difficulty, because the scheme we operate in the Irish Prison Service is about training up inmates to give peer support to their fellow inmates. However, the inmates carried on doing that anyway. Over a period of time, we organised supporting our listeners within the prison via the medium of Zoom, etc. While it was not ideal, it was the best that we and Irish Prison Service could do. The Irish Prison Service was hugely supportive of us trying to be innovative in how we supported listeners in the prisons.

Another thing that came about was a pilot scheme within some of the prisons around having in-cell phones, from which prisoners could ring the Samaritans and seek support. We saw in the impact report that there was a significant increase in prisoners calling the Samaritans.

Ms Sarah Stack

The figure was 400%.

Mr. Niall Mulligan

It was a 400% increase. We will monitor that as we go along. We are beginning to open up more now. We would like to see the listener scheme get back to the way it was. Was there anything else, Deputy?

I thank Mr. Mulligan for his interesting answer. The ability to harness technology in a challenging environment like a prison is a progressive way of doing it. Prisoners are a group of people who really need that kind of support. My final question is also on the technology issue. I have met Mr. Mulligan before. I have been impressed over the last 18 months with the innovation of online chat. Many people, particularly younger groups, might find online chat to be an easier format for contacting the Samaritans, easier to get their head around, and easier to engage with. Has the Samaritans found that online chat is particularly interesting to particular groups? Does it have the technological support to roll out that technology? Does it have sufficient technological support to roll that out to all the groups that they would like to?

Mr. Niall Mulligan

The Deputy is correct about the online chat. The Samaritans has piloted it. As the Deputy knows, the Samaritans is part of a wider organisation across the UK and Ireland. There have been a number of online chat pilots in the UK. Three branches in Northern Ireland have signed up to online chat as well, if I am correct. It is has been a success. We have not yet introduced in the Republic of Ireland. We are in the process of doing that. There are two main challenges. The first is the technology side but we are on top of that. It is in our work plan. We had hoped to have it in place before the end of this year. However, other things have taken precedence, certainly from a Covid-19 perspective. The second is a resource issue in terms of volunteer time. Again, there has been pressure on us. As mentioned earlier, there is pressure on our volunteers.

Having said that, it is key to provide additional supports particularly to younger people, but also to other groups of people. We met with the Irish Deaf Society, IDS, a year ago. It would be a crucial area of support for that particular group of individuals. It opens the for door us to be more accessible to as many people as possible. It is a plan.

It would be a great service to offer to people. As Mr. Mulligan said, there are particular groups that would get a huge amount out of it. I wish the Samaritans well with this.

I call Deputy Mark Ward.

I thank the Samaritans. I have referred a number of people to the Samaritans because they were not getting the services they needed at the time.

I thank the Samaritans for being there and for listening to others in need. I thank the staff for going above and beyond in their work during the challenging times brought about by Covid-19 right across the Thirty-two Counties.

It was mentioned that the busiest time is between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. That stood out for me. We heard several times from witnesses appearing before this committee that problems with mental health and emotional distress do not just occur between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. and then take a break for the weekend. Such problems can occur at any time of the day and on any day of the week. If a service is not open to people when they are experiencing emotional distress, it can be quite a frightening place for them. Had people calling between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m., and it was mentioned that a quarter of calls were received during those hours, tried to contact other services? I refer to other mental health, eating disorder, suicide and counselling services. I would be interested to know if the people calling had indicated whether they might have tried to contact another service before calling the Samaritans and were unable to do so.

Mr. Rory Fitzgerald

No, they would not have relayed that information at that time. One of the interesting things during Covid-19, however, was that the release of the daily figures during the news between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. resulted in a large spike in calls. There was huge anxiety then. We were telling people to limit their news intake because that was certainly fuelling and magnifying the issues they had.

Regarding other organisations, we tend to hear those mentioned later in the night, because we work right through the night and 24-7. Early in the morning, therefore, around 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., when people are at a low ebb, they tell us that we are the only organisation that they could talk to and that there were few other alternatives. The callers talk to us more about their problems rather than not being able to access services outside of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

I thank Mr. Fitzgerald. That is interesting, especially about the news aspect. We met young people who said that they were sitting down in anticipation when new restrictions were due to be announced by the Taoiseach or the Tánaiste, because they knew that information would impact their daily lives. It would impact on whether they could return to playing Gaelic games, go back dancing or go back to school. It was possible to see increased anxiety among young people when the news was coming on. I know from my children that it is a big thing for them to be interested in the news and to be sitting around waiting for announcements to be made by the Taoiseach. It was possible to see the impact that was having.

I have one more question. I apologise for having to pop off then because I have another meeting to get to. I read the comprehensive impact report that the Samaritans sent to the committee entitled, Always Here No Matter What: A Year of Listening. It was a good report. I am always interested in the evidence-based research that any group is carrying out. One point that struck me concerned the stigma associated with mental health problems. The report refers to such stigma, stating, "A number of participants volunteered examples of feeling judged, feeling concerned about confidentiality and being mistreated." Has that stigma increased or decreased in recent years? Anecdotally, I hear many younger people talking about mental health issues and I can see stigmas being broken on that level. On another level, though, it is possible to see people who are anxious about coming out and seeking health for their mental health issues. How does the organisation think that we can best combat stigma in this regard and make it easier for people to come forward?

Mr. Rory Fitzgerald

The world is improving when it comes to attitudes to mental health. The key is educating our young people and working in schools and third-level colleges. This is the generation of young people who will change all this. We do outreach in schools and in some third-level colleges as well. There are still people who have a fear of admitting to having a mental health issue. That is particularly the case in the workplace because that can be viewed very negatively. Therefore, it behoves us all as a society to continue to get the message out in this regard. If someone were to break his or her leg, he or she would go and get that injury fixed. If someone has a mental health issue, however, that can be looked at differently. The situation is improving, though.

That is fine. Great stuff. I thank everyone.

Ms Stack would like to respond to that question as well.

Ms Sarah Stack

Regarding stigma, we are starting part two of that self-harm research and it is going to focus on stigma. It will examine the stigma that people face and why they feel stigmatised and the barriers to break down. That body of work will be starting before the end of this year. Hopefully, then, by next year we will have more detail available on this issue.

That is fine. It is welcome. I thank Ms Stack for letting me know.

Mr. Niall Mulligan

The Deputy asked a question about stigma and this issue is close to our hearts. I have worked within the community and voluntary sector for 35 years in many different areas. Stigma is always a key barrier to people accessing services. That includes external stigma, which might relate to mental health, addiction or people's background or upbringing. Internalised stigma is a whole other area. Even if external stigma is cleared away, internalised stigma brings people in on themselves. It is crucial for us to deal with that issue through the provision of services and to recognise it and to name it. Stigma, therefore, is a major issue. It is one of the key areas that has been recognised within the mental health strategy as something that we must do something about. I thank the Deputy for raising this issue.

That is fine. I thank everyone. I appreciate those answers to my questions.

I warmly welcome our guests. The Samaritans is a long-established organisation held in high regard that has provided supports to many thousands of people in this country for many decades. I come from Clare and I know where the office of the Samaritans is in the county. The organisation has a strong presence in Ennis. The feedback on the work done by the Samaritans, from the volunteers working within the organisation and people who use the service, is strong.

I would like some more data concerning the number of calls the organisation receives. How many calls are repeat calls or is there any way of establishing that statistic? In addition, are there any statistics on the age profile of callers or their nationalities? The new Irish are a major part of our population now. Are they struggling more than others? I ask that question because they may have only arrived in Ireland recently, been away from their families during a pandemic and been unable to travel home on holidays or to visit their loved ones since. How much data does the organisation have in this regard?

Mr. Rory Fitzgerald

I thank the Senator for his question. We do get quite a number of repeat callers. We do not have statistics on that though, because the information we collect is basic. Regarding the age profile, we only categorise callers as being aged over or under 18. We get people calling us who are teenagers and then right up to people in their 90s. Our callers come from right across the mix of ages and from across the spectrum of society. We also get non-nationals calling us who may be struggling because they have been away from home and were unable get back to their own countries during Covid-19. Our callers, therefore, represent a huge mix of people and circumstances.

That is fine. Turning to the organisation's volunteers, the Samaritans have many volunteers and they do wonderful work. Are there statistics concerning the length of time that a volunteer stays with the organisation on average? It is clearly not an easy role. Is there much turnover among those to whom training is provided? Do the volunteers tend to remain with the service for a long time or is there a high turnover?

Mr. Rory Fitzgerald

That is another good question. There is turnover. It is said that if a volunteer stays for two years, he or she will stay for a long time. In my branch in Waterford, we have one volunteer who has been there since we opened in 1976. There is turnover, though, and that might be estimated at 20%. We struggled through Covid-19 because, as was mentioned, about 40% were out and we were not training new people. There was a gap of more than a year in that area. It is a tough role. One of the important issues for us is to mind our volunteers. We have good systems in place in respect of daily supports in the branch and we also have day leaders outside the branch. We must mind our people because they are no good to anybody if they are not fit to take calls and to support people.

Of the number of people that Samaritans train, what percentage stay less than a year?

Mr. Rory Fitzgerald

I cannot give the Senator a figure on that. Sometimes the training weeds people out because it is not a role for everybody. If people went home after taking calls and could not get them out of their head, they will not do the role. Our initial training lasts eight weeks and often, if 20 people start off, we might end up with 14 who go on to start taking calls. That is an important process too because we do not want people in there who cannot cope with it or find it will upset them the whole time.

I agree completely.

Mr. Niall Mulligan

I was interested in the question asked on the data and the age profile. We conducted a survey recently on how well known Samaritans is across Ireland. It is the first time we have ever done it. We were pleasantly surprised that we were very well known among the general population. We expected to see a dip in a younger age group and higher percentages in the higher age group. In fact, it was consistent. It was anywhere between 85% and 90% from the 16 to 25 age group right up to those aged 65 years and over. Whether that translates into people calling us, we do not know but we are better known among the younger age groups than we thought. It is good for us to know that.

Ms Sarah Stack

On the calls, I have been a volunteer in Dublin as well taking calls from young and older people. While we talk about repeat callers, it can be somebody ringing at 6 a.m. to say "Good morning" because I might be the only person he or she will speak to for most of that day. At night, someone could call the helpline to say "Good night" because, again, the volunteer might be the only person he or she speaks to for the evening. While we have repeat callers, they are all for different reasons. Going back to Deputy Ward's question earlier about the services being closed, some of the repeat callers might be over a weekend when the statutory bodies that support them are closed.

In terms of repeat calls and demographics, it is so varied. We hear from every age group, and for every reason. There is never a bad reason to call Samaritans. The volunteers just love to be there to be with people for the moment they need them.

I have a final question on funding. How did they manage throughout the pandemic in terms of funding? Obviously, like many other voluntary organisations, they were not able to fundraise. It must have been particularly challenging for Samaritans.

Mr. Rory Fitzgerald

I suppose we have an unusual set-up. We have 13 branches and they are all separate companies limited by guarantee. They all run their own operation within and fundraise in their own locality. We are grateful to the stability fund. We received in excess of €100,000 between a number of branches; that was not for one branch.

We coped okay because we have a reserves policy in each branch of 18 months. That would take a branch through a period. People were good. There was fundraising done online on Facebook and things like that.

I see a challenge going forward in that the days of collecting money on the street, I would have predicted a couple of years ago, were numbered and that maybe five years would see the end of that, but Covid has sped that up in that coinage is disappearing. Many of our branches could depend on church gate collections or street collections for 20% of their income. We have a big challenge around how we will manage that and new technology.

Did Mr. Fitzgerald say Samaritans has 13 branches?

Mr. Rory Fitzgerald

Thirteen in the Republic. We have eight in the North.

In those 13, obviously, the phone lines are all interconnected.

Mr. Rory Fitzgerald

Yes. It is 116 123. It is a central hunting-line system.

If someone rings that number, he or she could end up talking to somebody in Enniscorthy or Ennis. It could be anywhere.

Mr. Rory Fitzgerald

Yes.

I thank the witnesses.

I thank Mr. Mulligan, Ms Stack and Mr. Fitzgerald.

It was going lovely. It was nice to have a good news story until they came to the latest exchange with Mr. Fitzgerald on funding. I am amazed at the coverage that they have managed to maintain, even over the pace of 2020. I read some of the reports and I noted that. Often, when we talk to younger people, it is about doing things outside the box. Samaritans, a long time ago, would have been perceived to be run by the church or something, and people did not have much confidence in it. That has changed, with face-to-face meetings, Zoom and Teams calls and even emails. It is amazing. I read the statistics. They show nearly 11,500 emails in the Republic of Ireland and nearly 12,500 in Northern Ireland. It is probably the only all-island organisation. I was delighted to see that it is in collaboration with other groups and it is looking at piloting more, which was a barrier in this country. Many different groups, volunteers and NGOs were all trying to do the right thing but they all had different plans. That joined-up thinking certainly is the way to go.

They covered the prisons, the Traveller community, and of course, the older people during Covid. However, I was also thinking about people with disabilities and the farming community as well. During the pandemic, we have received many calls from these people. Samaritans offers a 24-7 service which, as many of us in recent meetings have said, should be a priority for any Government, no matter who is in power.

Mr. Mulligan also mentioned schools. My main questions are on schools because education is key. By educating people, the stigma can be removed because they will know what they are talking about and fear of not knowing is normally an easy way to stigmatise something.

Mental health in the workplace was mentioned. There are significant difficulties in this regard. We have had it over the years. The best example is somebody serving in the Army who is due to be deployed, say, to the Lebanon, and use live rounds. If that individual mentioned any inkling of a mental health difficulty, his or her chances of promotion or overseas work would be gone for telling the truth and being honest. That is a big worry.

Has the organisation met resistance in any school to going in and talking about this because it has been mentioned in previous meetings? I can recall going into schools well over ten years ago. One would have to be careful of which age group one was dealing with. I met a lot of resistance. The perception was that if we spoke about mental health, it put ideas into people's heads and I always countered that by saying if you give somebody €20 to put petrol or diesel into the car it does not mean necessarily that he or she will crash it. How can that stigma be broken down? A great deal of money - in Australia, it is over €1 billion - has been put into mental health provision. What would be the Samaritans' Christmas wish list or Christmas present for this year? I suspect that this is only the tip of the iceberg when people are coming out of Covid and realising they have lost jobs. They could have lost marriages, homes and so on. There could be a tsunami of mental health issues and Samaritans needs support. If they could respond on the education question, the workplace, prisons and their wish list, I would be delighted.

Mr. Rory Fitzgerald

I thank the Deputy. Schools is a passion of mine in that I have run a number of workshops in the south east in the past seven or eight years where we work with a drama company. That introduces the subject. The children are very open. We deal with 15-year-olds, 16-year-olds in transition year up to the leaving certificate class. Schools are very welcoming. That would be a workshop for approximately an hour and a half and we would have a mental health expert with us on the panel. It helps because a kid might hear something and five years down the road, when he or she is struggling, say there is help to be got wherever. Unfortunately, there is a cost to it. It probably costs a tenner a kid to run those workshops. Within our funding in local branches, we do not have access to those funds. We have to find them elsewhere. It is something I would like to see developed nationally, particularly in third-level colleges. The third-level colleges is a key area as well where we need to be more visible. Our challenge is that we have 1,600 volunteers in the Republic and we would struggle to run a workshop in every school in the country.

One of our asks is for members of the general public to join, and we ask public representatives at all times to encourage people to join us, because the more volunteers that we have then the more we can do. The Deputy is right. From my experience of working in schools I know that we are getting through to people because a feedback sheet is completed after a workshop and most of the comments are positive. One child in Enniscorthy wrote, "I now know more about my mental health than I did an hour and half ago". Even though mental health is a subject that is all over the place one still needs a direct initiative. We have found that drama engages students and we use a professionally written script. Yes, we do need to put funds into those areas.

Mr. Niall Mulligan

The Deputy mentioned workplaces and prisons. We work in both places. We can only do so much, and certainly within the workplace, due to resources. The Samaritans have developed various apps for well-being in the workplace, which we work with companies around. We work with staff, encourage them to look after their own mental health and show them how to pick up signs that a member of the staff team or an employee is struggling. It is an important part of our work that the general public probably do not know about.

There are a number of general wishes. As the Deputy mentioned earlier, the Samaritans organisation does not work on its own. We work as part of a wider network. There are other organisations like ourselves that work in the area of mental health. We very much work together as much as we possibly can.

There are certain asks in terms of the forthcoming budget, which will be familiar to members. The Samaritans and others have called for an additional €85 million to be allocated towards mental health services with that sum to be divided whereby €65 million is for new services and €20 million is for existing services. By 2024, which is not far away, we want 10% of the overall health budget to be allocated towards mental health. At the moment the spend is between 5% and 6% but the World Health Organization recommends that it should be 12% of the overall health budget.

In terms of the overall mental health services, we need a comprehensive community-based approach that ranges from prevention to treatment and recovery. I refer to the relationship between State-run and HSE-run clinical services, alongside community-based organisations and projects that are either directly involved in mental health work, or indirectly, and by their very existence and nature they support the mental health of people so I am thinking of community-based initiatives. I am sure that people here will be familiar with the impact that addiction has on families. There are very good examples of family support networks that really need funding and, by extension, they help the mental health of people and families who are impacted by addiction and, similarly, in the area of homelessness, etc. I could list a whole stream of initiatives but they are all involved in some way or other with mental health services. It is hugely important and really good to see within the mental health strategy, other strategies and the legislation from Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, that everything is underpinned by human rights and the right of somebody to have access to good, free healthcare ideally, and a safe place to live. All of these things are intersectional and interconnected but lead to better mental health for the community and overall. That is the wishlist sought by the Samaritans. We are not unique in that ask and it is not rocket science. These asks have existed for quite a long time and one can verify that by asking anybody who has worked in this area of work for a long time. We feel like we are repeating ourselves but these supports are key and Ireland can do it. I hope that the wishlist is okay.

Mr. Rory Fitzgerald

We conducted a trial with transition year students in a second-level school in Waterford. We spent a couple of weeks training the students as listeners and they rolled out the initiative within their school. They even printed tee-shirts and everything. Students could be trained to be mini-Samaritans or whatever so that they can help other people in their school who may be struggling. There is loads of stuff that could be done but time and resources are needed.

It is a gift when people want to give back and become volunteers. The Samaritans should be proud of what they do. I love the idea of creating mini-Samaritans because such an initiative breaks down stigma. If there is anything that I or we can do in the future the witnesses have my email details. On a personal and public level, I am there for the Samaritans if there is anything that they need. Finally, I thank the Chairman for giving me so much time to contribute to this debate.

We await Deputy Gino Kenny and Deputy John Lahart has arrived. The Samaritans do phenomenal work but I imagine that it is difficult to manage so many volunteers. How does the Samaritans train volunteers? What are the challenges for the organisation?

Mr. Rory Fitzgerald

I thank the Chairman. We start off with induction so people come to a meeting, go through a process and we screen them. Believe it or not, we train ourselves. In each branch there is a training team of five or six volunteers whose role is to train two or three groups of up to 15 people a year on average, although Dublin is the exception. All the training is done in-house and is fantastic.

When I joined 11 years ago I would have considered myself as a fixer in life but we, in the Samaritans, do not give advice, which is an approach that must be knocked out of everybody. It is a great life skill to learn because when a friend asks for advice then no matter one says, whether it is right or wrong, one is doing the wrong thing. We are trained to reflect that question back to callers and say, "What do you think you should do?" thus helping them to tease out any issues.

A branch director is appointed for three years and he or she runs the branch. Of our 13 branch directors over half of them have a full-time day job so they give a huge amount. I have great admiration for them because they give another 14 or 15 hours a week to the organisation, at a minimum. The branch directors have a leadership team around them to manage different aspects. Running a branch is like a little business because there is finance and a building to manage as well as volunteers. This is very challenging because each volunteer commits to doing three hours of duty a week and a six-hour overnight every five or six weeks. It does not always happen that people will do what they are supposed to do. It is not like in the workplace where one can threaten somebody because they rely on their salary but one must work with volunteers. It is very challenging but we have great people. I have great admiration for the volunteers, particularly through Covid because we all went through the same things as everybody else, we all struggled because things were taken away from us, yet we still had to listen to people who were struggling as well. I cannot praise our volunteers highly enough. Some volunteers, outside of the branch director, have day jobs. Some volunteers are housewives, retirees or unemployed. We have all strata of society as volunteers but what they give to their fellow humans is phenomenal.

I thank Mr. Mulligan and his team. We have ten or 11 fantastic staff. Ms Stack will take calls at the weekend and at nighttime. Technically, her hours are supposed to be 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. as are Mr. Mulligan's but the hours that they put in show their commitment to the organisation. I am very proud of what they do for us as well.

I want to discuss the asks with Mr. Mulligan and I totally hear what he said. I am involved with an organisation that works with families who have been impacted by addiction. The underlying trauma, anxiety, stress and worry that happens is completely soul destroying but there are unbelievable and amazing organisations to help. Do the Samaritans have specific asks?

Mr. Niall Mulligan

There are a number of areas of work that the Samaritans could expand upon and I shall follow on from what Mr. Fitzgerald said about funding.

We are a resilient organisation and our branches are resilient and well experienced, but we do not know what is coming down the line. If it becomes necessary to move our fundraising from being community based, on the street and at church gates, to a more online-focused model, then there will be a cost to doing that. That is the first aspect and it affects all our branches in Ireland. It is not only an issue in the Republic of Ireland, but it specifically affects our branches here.

Several questions were posed about evidence-based research and data. It is crucial to ensure that what we are doing is backed up by evidence and by research. Again, that is an area of work for us. We have been involved in research involving men’s health and men’s mental health, for example. It is important that we really know what the key issues are in Ireland and we want to expand our endeavours in this area. That brings me to the question of how accessible we are and web chat. Our phone line is accessible to the public, but there are people who are less able to access it. That could be because of language, hearing or ability barriers. We must examine that issue. There are 18 key priority groups identified within Connecting for Life. We must ask ourselves if our service is accessible to all of them, and if it is not, then we must determine what we can do to ensure that our service is accessible to as many people as possible. We do not have a particular financial request to undertake that work, but it is something that we want to do which will ultimately cost money. Would Mr. Fitzgerald like to add anything?

Mr. Rory Fitzgerald

We appreciate that the HSE gives us good support financially. It is important to state that. I refer to central funding and some of our branches also getting a small grant. The HSE funding is important, therefore.

I thank the witnesses. Would Ms Stack like to comment?

Ms Sarah Stack

On support, we work closely with organisations such as the National Office for Suicide Prevention, NOSP, and the National Suicide Research Foundation, NSRF, and we get statistics from them. We also work with other organisations at a lower level with peer-to-peer training. We trained many people in organisations where calls suddenly started coming in. They might have a different type of helpline, but the calls that they were getting suddenly became crisis calls. The staff and volunteers of those organisations would not necessarily know how to deal with crisis calls and those where suicidal ideation was being expressed. We were able to train those volunteers in how to handle those types of calls and how to mind themselves and each other after dealing with those calls. The Samaritans is almost like an expert guide in this area for other organisations.

We also found that many other organisations have had to go from offering face-to-face support to providing such support via telephone or online. Those organisations would not normally have done that before. We were able to go in and give expert advice on data protection, safeguarding and even on the technical side of how to manage a bigger phone line. All the calls that we receive come into our freefone 116 123. Calls from many different organisations come through to that number, though, including from charities. We take calls from Alone after hours, and we also do that for five other organisations. In addition, we also take calls through the Department of Foreign Affairs and offer support overseas in that context. Therefore, we manage a large phone network and we have experience in this area. We got support for that overseas phone line from the Department of Foreign Affairs. We go into partnerships, then, with statutory and other organisations. The volunteers give their time for free and that would be a staff cost somewhere else. We would be lost without the volunteers, as Mr. Fitzgerald and Mr. Mulligan said. We would not be here if they had not been picking up the phone over the last 18 months and the previous 60 years as well. They are amazing.

I thank Ms Stack. I call Deputy John Lahart.

I thank the Chair. I was watching the earlier proceedings and I noted down a few points. I like the report submitted to us from the Samaritans and the presentation was interesting from several perspectives. I am not judging, but, as Ms Stack was just saying, the Samaritans organisation brings a certain amount of expertise to the partnerships into which it enters compared to many other organisations. The Samaritans deals with serious partners and I suspect that a quid pro quo is expected from those partner organisations to allow the Samaritans to follow through in its services. I was not aware of the contact with the Diaspora, for example, and I am interested in that aspect. What better partner could there be in that regard than the Department of Foreign Affairs and how they approach things? I refer to the Department ensuring that things are done professionally and I imagine that it would not take on something like this in haste. It would be a well thought through undertaking.

In addition, while some organisations come and go, the Samaritans have been with us for 60 years. I did not realise it was quite that long. It is, therefore, an enduring organisation. It is still rather unsung and quiet, which I guess is the way the organisation likes it. I was intrigued about the mental health of those working with the Samaritans, but Mr. Fitzgerald addressed that issue. I was also interested in another point raised. I do not know if this is a particularly Western thing, but when people ask if we might be free for a chat there is a tendency to automatically assume that advice and solutions are being sought. I practised as a psychotherapist and active listening is something that we could all learn. It can actually be a terrible burden when you think someone is coming to you for advice and looking for a solution as opposed to them just looking for an ear to listen. That can be so therapeutic in itself, without the listener saying anything and perhaps just nodding his or her head. The most significant aspect in this regard is knowing that the person on the other side of the phone line, or the web chat in this case, has the skills, training and ability - and if they are really good, it will not be possible to even know it - to contain whatever issues are raised.

It was also mentioned that we were fighting for years and still are fighting against the stigma around depression. As a society, however, I think we are slowly coming to terms with articulating such experiences in a much better way than we did some decades ago. Another important issue is loneliness. Someone who used to be a colleague of ours, former Senator Keith Swanwick, undertook a good body of work on the subject of loneliness during the last Seanad. He is also a GP. Feedback would be welcome from the Samaritans in respect of what the organisation thinks it might be possible for us to do about loneliness.

The Chair asked what we could do to help the Samaritans. Curiously, the organisation does not have significant requests to make of us. That is a tribute to how contained the Samaritans is as an organisation. One aspect is resources, but the witnesses did not come in here to scream about resources. They came in to tell their story and the story of their organisation during Covid-19. I was intrigued by the technology aspect as well. It is vital. I was very taken with the overall presentation, the booklet and the comments. The Chair asked the witnesses what they need, but they do not have a great many needs. My question then is why have the witnesses come before the committee.

Mr. Rory Fitzgerald

We will not say no to money. There is always stuff that we can do.

Mr. Niall Mulligan

The sales-----

Mr. Rory Fitzgerald

As I said, our branches cost €1.3 million to run each year and that will become a challenge in the years ahead. We may need some support in that regard. What that support may involve I do not know. I suppose we are here to tell our story. While Mr. Mulligan said that people are aware of us, at the same time some people hear the word “Samaritans” and ask if we are a homeless charity or something like that. They might not know exactly what it is that we do. Therefore, we constantly want to get our message out there because our story is not a sexy one which will get onto all the high-profile programmes. It is an important story, though, and one that we must make everyone aware of.

Funnily enough, I did an interview on one of the radio channels during the year and afterwards a friend of mine, an intelligent man, said that was the first time that he knew what we did. While our telephone number is flashed up on every programme when there is a crisis or whatever, we still need to get our message out there and to get the right people to ring us. Again, there are cohorts of people, such as middle-aged men and young people in college, who may be struggling. We must get our message out that we are there for them when nobody else is, through the night or whatever the case may be.

That is important. On the issue of loneliness, I do not know the solution. There are 400,000 people in Ireland living alone. An awful lot of people living with somebody are still lonely. One does not have to be living alone to be lonely. As the saying goes, you can be in a crowded room and still be lonely. As mentioned by Ms Stack, we get an awful lot of calls early in the morning from people just wanting to hear a voice, who probably will not hear another voice all day. It is a societal issue as to how that can be supported in local communities and activities. The people who are struggling will probably not go to an activity. I do not know how we can help them other than to be there to at least give them another voice and to support them through the day.

Mr. Niall Mulligan

The Deputy's question as to the reason we are here is a very good one. We are here because we launched our impact report two weeks ago, which we circulated. On the question, first, we are very proud of what we do. Second, the Deputy is correct that the Samaritans as an organisation is not out all the time blowing its own trumpet. In the morning, if the Samaritans no longer existed what would be the impact of that on the mental health of society? I think it would be immense. It is beholden on us to, at times, engage openly about what we do and to ensure that people, policymakers and politicians are aware of the importance of the organisation. The 2,000 volunteers behind us go about their work quietly. They answer the telephone calls and they listen. That is crucial. If they were not doing that, the impact that would have on individual mental health would be immense. We are here to take the opportunity to talk about our work. We like to do that. We have some key messages and some key asks, which are not necessarily Samaritans asks but are key asks, because we are part of that wider collective of organisations that work within the area of mental health. We have our own needs, but there is a much wider picture. If we can contribute to that then hopefully in ten years, 10% of the health spend will be on mental health and people will have greater access to services. There are recommendations around free counselling services. If that exists in five or ten years, we will have contributed to that in some way. That is something we would be proud of.

Ms Sarah Stack

On the Samaritans being a humbling organisation, that comes from the volunteers. Last year, just before Covid hit we managed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Dublin Samaritans. One of the volunteers there on the night has been involved in that branch since it opened. The volunteers are humble about what they do. They do not brag even though what they do can save a life every day. It is incredible. Next month, the Belfast branch will celebrate 60 years in operation. Again, that is an incredible achievement. That branch was open throughout the Troubles. Its doors never closed.

The work of a volunteer is active listening. We are constantly trying to promote active listening on social media and on our website through the SHUSH programme. It is all about how to start a conversation and how to listen. To do that people have to put away the mobile phone and, perhaps, turn off the television and then turn to the other person and ask how he or she is feeling. It is important to allow the person to answer and to not jump in at that point and talk about what happened to you, as we all love to do. It is about active listening and being there for each other. Free counselling services would make a huge difference in society. Active listening would breakdown the stigma because if there are people within our circle or work colleagues who are struggling to cope we will have a bit more time for other people around us who are struggling to cope as well.

The task force on loneliness is up and running again and looking at what can be done. It is a huge issue that cannot be resolved by one organisation or one solution. For example, it covers the teenager who barely attended school in the past two and a half years because of Covid and is suddenly forced back into a school but cannot mix with his or her friends in other classes right up to the elderly person who might be at home alone every day. As I said it is a huge issue, which will require a great deal of work over a number of years to break it down.

Politics is a much maligned profession. It is the thing to do to knock the body yet there is not a politician in Leinster House who does not get up to half a dozen, and more, telephone calls to their offices from the same people every week or month. These people rarely have a query but they will manufacture one purely just to engage with someone. When house calls were permitted, a politician might often have been the only person to have called, reached out to or dropped a note to a particular household. We have a role to play there. We are familiar with that territory. I say that because our voice tends to get lost in this regard for some reason these days. The public have an awful lot of time on a one-to-one basis and they have positive things to say about their politicians but there is a general view that we do not bring any positivity to the table. As I said, we, and our staff, are familiar with that space of the common callers who, probably, do not have other people to reach out to. We are very happy to take those calls and to give time to them.

On the social media piece, as we know, in the past 24 hours Twitter had a field day. As everybody moved to Twitter a number of funny things happened. My question as to the reason the Samaritans is here today was rhetorical but slightly provocative. I am glad the witnesses are here. They are welcome to avail of the opportunity to do so once a year but they should not be afraid to reach out directly to individual politicians when it comes to the need for funding. Either they do or do not need funding. They should not hide their light under a bushel. What I have learned in politics, which I do not like, is that those who shout loudest are often the ones who are heard. Those who do the work quietly and diligently are easy to overlook because they do not create a fuss. I am not saying that the Samaritans should become an organisation that creates fuss, but it can create little fusses. It can create 160 fusses with individual Deputies in different constituencies. It can also create them with Senators. It does not have to be a big drama.

The contribution today was very good. It woke me up to the Samaritans, the role it plays and the work it did during Covid. The longevity of the organisation is testimony to its efficacy, because most organisations do not last that long. There are others who shout loud. There is something admirable about an organisation that goes about its work quietly, but in a world that is full of noise, it is important to make sure it is heard. We are here to help. The witnesses have been heard today.

I thank the witnesses for engaging with the committee and for their opening statements. The role of the Samaritans in this country over the past 50 years has been immense. The humility of the volunteers and their non-judgmental listening has had a major effect on those who seek the help of the Samaritans. It is testament to the Samaritans as well. There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of people alive today in Ireland because they reached out and people listened to them and changed the course of their lives. I thank the Samaritans for that.

As often happens when one is the last speaker most of the questions I had intended to ask have been asked and answered. However, I have one question for the witnesses. The pandemic has been traumatising for the world. It has had a significant effect on people.

What are the legacy issues of the pandemic in regard to loneliness and people who found themselves in that position? What issues have been encountered? Now that the pandemic is approaching an end, what legacy issues will still occur in regard to the collective in society, but also the individual? There is no individual without a collective and vice versa. That is important because what we have seen in the past 18 months, especially in Ireland, is people coming together, unlike at any time in our living memory. When people come together, they can do extraordinary things, and they have done extraordinary things. There is a collectivisation in terms of how we can overcome a terrible pandemic and that is the best of humanity. We have seen that, but there are also certain things that happened over the past 18 months that have left a serious chasm and a legacy. From the daily observations of those in the Samaritans, what are the legacy issues from the pandemic that we need to deal with?

Mr. Rory Fitzgerald

One of the legacies is that people who never had a mental health issue have struggled with mental health throughout the pandemic because of restrictions and because we were locked down for a period of time. It is particularly the case with the older cohort. A friend of mine in his early 80s, who is active, said that a year of his life is a huge chunk. Some people will struggle who did not struggle in the past. Some people are struggling to go back out into social situations because of fear. In terms of how that can be resolved, we have to help those people. We certainly get calls around those issues from people. All the things that happen, such as loneliness, isolation, anxiety, and depression, were magnified throughout Covid-19, and there is probably a fall-out to come from that, which we would be concerned about.

There are also people whose businesses are not going to survive or whose jobs are going to be lost. We need to mind those people. Our key message is to get people to talk and not bottle that up. If they do not talk about it, there will ultimately be a negative effect.

They are the key things, aside from the positives the Deputy mentioned, such as people coming together, which is the good side. However, there are people who will struggle, who perhaps never struggled in the past.

Mr. Niall Mulligan

To add to that, and thinking about what happens next and the potential impacts, we, as an organisation, and community groups know the impact of recession on the general population and on people's mental health and of people beginning to fall into poverty and everything that goes with that, including facing unemployment and long-term unemployment, so that will definitely be a concern. Other issues that have come up during the pandemic are an obvious increase in domestic violence and the impact that will have, and addiction, in particular alcohol use. How many people's alcohol intake has increased over the past 18 months? What will be the long-term impact of that on those individuals? We will probably only see that beginning to emerge over the next 18 months or two years, although we do not know for definite.

These are some of the things the Samaritans, as an organisation, is concerned about. We will probably see those stories coming through in regard to the helpline, so we will have to keep a close eye on that and on our responses to that as an organisation but also in terms of conversations with others. It is going to be a rocky road ahead in regard to mental health.

One of the positives that has come out of it is that the conversations are quite open, certainly more open in regard to mental health. We would call on mental health to be one of the key priorities, if not the priority, of Government going forward, and of everything that goes with that in terms of resources and so forth, which were mentioned. There is a kind of excitement about coming out of the restrictions but there is a concern around that also. Potentially we will see other areas emerge.

I have a final question, which may have been answered when I was absent. It relates to the volume of interactions for those who called the Samaritans over the past 18 months. Was the volume of calls and interactions higher in comparison to pre-pandemic times in regard to people getting in touch with the organisation?

Mr. Rory Fitzgerald

There is a double edge sword to that. As we said earlier, we were down 40% of our volunteers, so our capacity was well reduced. However, people were doing extra duties - two or three duties a week. Our call numbers might have been slightly down but our calls were longer and we did more hours on the phone. People needed us for a longer time than they would have pre-pandemic. We did 100,000 hours on the island and 77,000 hours in the Republic of Ireland. That is reflective of the fact there was more need among the callers whereas previously the calls were shorter.

What would the typical caller want to talk about? There is probably no typical conversation but what was the general narrative in the past 18 months?

Mr. Rory Fitzgerald

All life issues really. The issues did not change. They were the same issues, including isolation, loneliness, anxiety, depression, family problems, work problems, relationship problems, sexuality and every life subject, but they were magnified because people were not able to get out and they did not have any way of releasing tension through sport or activities. Issues did not change but they were certainly magnified.

Mr. Niall Mulligan

The other thing to add to that was that one in three callers was calling directly in relation to Covid-19 and the impact, worries and concerns around it. It featured in almost every call we had. Even if a caller was not ringing specifically in regard to Covid-19, it would come into the conversation at some point. It would be surprising if that was not the case over the past 18 months.

I thank the witnesses for their amazing work in regard to the non-judgmental listening exercise that their organisation does.

Our next speaker is Senator Aisling Dolan who had to run from another meeting, so I thank her for joining us.

This is a very important meeting. I had the opportunity to hear the start of Mr. Mulligan's opening statement which was absolutely fantastic. I welcome Mr. Mulligan, Mr. Fitzgerald and Ms Stack from the Samaritans. It is an honour to meet them and to know what they and their volunteers have done over the past 18 months. It is has been incredible. It is incredible also to think that they provide this service with only 12 core staff.

I wish to highlight some of the areas and ask a couple of questions. The witnesses mentioned that they are extremely busy from 6 p.m. until 10 p.m. Although they run a 24-hour service, these are the busiest hours. They also take calls through other helplines - in other words, they offer their number to other groups, so that people may contact them after other groups' 6 p.m. finish time. I would be interested to hear a little more about that. They mentioned 2,000 volunteers but Covid-19 caused a reduction in the numbers they were able to access. Is there anything we can do to help to support them in terms of a recruitment campaign or people becoming involved as volunteers? One of my key questions is on how we support them going forward.

I liked what the witnesses said about providing a service for people abroad. That was a wonderful thing to do, particularly when so many Irish people - the diaspora abroad - who have family in Ireland were not able to return home and may have been going through very difficult times, being isolated abroad and feeling very far from home.

At least for many of us here, even though we were isolated on our own, we knew we were very close to loved ones, which meant a lot.

With regard to rural areas, I am representing Roscommon and Galway, which is very much a rural regional area. The witnesses spoke about being able to deliver online engagement and how important that was. I always presumed it was over the phone. Do the Samaritans offer face-to-face online services or was that more for webinar and training sessions for its volunteers and staff?

Those are my queries. I thank the witnesses. Through the HSE and everything else, our main question is how we can look to support the Samaritans, even in terms of recruitment and campaigns for volunteers. I am very interested in that. Go raibh mile maith agaibh.

Ms Sarah Stack

The support with other organisations has been ongoing since about 2012. They have different opening hours so one of them might close at 8 p.m. and if a person rings that helpline, they will get a message that the phone line is closed but if the person stays on the line, they can go through to the Samaritans. The caller has the option to hang up at that stage or they can come through to the 116 line. It is a safeguard for people. It is a successful service that we offer. Last year, we took nearly 1,400 calls through six different organisations, and that was listening for over 300 hours. Therefore, it is needed out there. Many people will want a specific helpline and will hang up and call the next day, but if they are in distress at that time, and it could be the middle of the night, some of the helplines are open overnight and we can be there during the day, so that is when we step in. The volunteers take those calls like they take any call from any organisation or any caller around the country. This is renewed quite often with many of the organisations, which can see the benefit of it, as we see the benefit of it. We are just there to support people when they need us.

On the partnership with the Department of Foreign Affairs, a memorandum of understanding was set up, although it took a while to set that up for technical reasons. We have these phone lines coming in from six different countries, so it took a while for it to be set up and for them to come in. They are advertised in the original country through the embassy staff. The Department of Foreign Affairs came to us because people were arriving in crisis at the embassies or were contacting local consular staff. While they were more than able to help and support them with legal issues, travel issues or anything like that, when people showed up in crisis, the staff wanted this extra backup. Our phone number is promoted in certain countries through embassies, the local GAA, Irish business groups and some magazines, and we have had pieces in local magazines for Irish people overseas. From all of that, I know that, last year, we took 61 dialogue calls and we were on the phone for over nine hours and, this year, there were 25 dialogue calls in the first six months of the year, supporting for over seven hours. We are not there for anyone who just fancies a chat with someone back home; it really is for people who are in crisis overseas. It was extended this year to other countries where people were actually being restricted in regard to travel and that was impacting on them. Again, they get the very same service if they pick up the phone to the Samaritans in Galway or in Sydney. The Department of Foreign Affairs phone lines are funded on the Department’s side.

A nice outcome from this is that we are also the official mental health partner of the GAA. Through the Department of Foreign Affairs and the GAA, we presented some mental health and well-being webinars to GAA members in Germany and in the Middle East, and that has been well received by people over there. It is just an addition that a staff member has done.

On training, the volunteers train themselves in the branches. Volunteer training and ongoing training in the branches stayed in the branches and that was done online by them. In terms of external training, we would always have been able to train face-to-face with groups. If it was staff at a homeless agency who were suddenly getting very distressing calls, by being able to put it online, we were able to go a bit further with that. It is about training staff and volunteers in organisations who may be dealing with the unemployed, with the homeless and with people in addiction services. During Covid, the homelessness and addiction issues suddenly became very much crisis calls, and we were able to extend our services in that way. It is something we will continue to do because it has been very well received on both sides.

Would anyone else like to come in?

Mr. Rory Fitzgerald

On the question of how the committee can help, I would ask the Senator and all her colleagues in politics to make people aware, within their local communities, of who we are and to encourage people to join us as volunteers. That is a very important message. The more volunteers we have, the more we can do. We have a reasonable queue at the moment because, as I said earlier, we could not train for over a year, so we have a good bank of people who want to join. However, we will always need volunteers, and if that message can be got into every local community, that would be a big thing for us.

Ms Sarah Stack

We always need volunteers so that, when people show up in distress, we are there to support them.

It is one of those things we are trying to promote very much in our regional areas. At the moment, I am trying to see if we can get people who will be able to help us with home help because it is a real crisis at the moment even getting home help hours for regional areas. I am very happy to do that. I have offices in a number of areas in the constituency. I am happy to promote that and to showcase the Samaritans helpline number and all the options that are there for volunteers.

I have one query on the webinars as they relate to rural areas. The witnesses said the Samaritans were conducting online sessions. I was curious about how those were taking place, so someone might be able to answer that query.

Ms Sarah Stack

I will come back to the Senator with more details on that. They are carried out by a member of staff. She works very closely with the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed, INOU, which has 200 member groups, and a lot of it is through those member groups.

That is perfect. It is just that I am very interested in this area. I think it is a good thing because, although I know it is anonymous, sometimes being able to see a face and all of that is very important. Many of our areas are so isolated that it can be very difficult, particularly with the lack of public transport, to get to urban areas to be able to sit down with somebody, if that was needed. I know it is very much a telephone service. I want to highlight the Samaritans number, which is 116 123. That is something we will be promoting an awful lot. Go raibh mile maith agaibh. I thank the Samaritans for all the work they have been doing.

The witnesses mentioned the isolation and the loneliness. I hope we are moving towards a safer and more engaged space. I know our day services and social services are opening up, and that is going to be a way to bring older people back in to connect with their friends. We are seeing our clubs and associations starting up and getting going again. However, many people are still struggling and I think the Samaritans service is crucial.

I have a couple of questions for Mr. Fitzgerald with regard to the volunteers. Is it three hours a week that they are asked to do, and then six hours over one night? Is that how it works?

Mr. Rory Fitzgerald

Yes, it is three hours every week and then, about once every five or six weeks, depending on the branch, one of the volunteer’s duties is a six-hour overnight. In some branches, it might be five hours, but it is generally six. I hate that; it is a tough stint. We do 11 p.m. to 5 a.m in our branch, so people are wrecked for a couple of days. Again, some of our volunteers cannot do overnights because of health or because they have a partner who needs minding. We are challenged on those night-time hours but it is very important for us. The branch director would put in a lot of time.

I point out that there are lots of other jobs that have to be done in the branch, so most volunteers are doing something extra and at least half the volunteers in a branch are doing other duties, as well as their three-hour duty. There is a lot of time commitment involved.

Ms Sarah Stack

If a volunteer felt listening was not for them, it is possible to give support in regard to publicity, fundraising and handy jobs around the branch. It is not that is all about being on the phone. There are other support jobs in the background. If people are interested and there is a local branch near them, they should get in touch.

Mr. Rory Fitzgerald

Since each branch is a company limited by guarantee, meaning it has a number of trustees or company directors, we are trying to encourage branches to bring in more external people for those roles. This would help to add to our skill sets. This was not done traditionally. Any board should have perhaps 30% external membership. This is something that I will try to promote over the coming years to widen our net. It will also increase our reach into local communities.

How can people access the impact report? Is it online?

Ms Sarah Stack

It is on our website, samaritans.ie. Printed copies are also available for people who want them.

That is good to know.

I thank the witnesses. There is no doubt that a tsunami of mental health issues is coming down the line. It is organisations such as the Samaritans that are picking up the pieces. I agree with Mr. Mulligan that it would be brilliant to see mental health being made a priority. I have no doubt that Covid-19 has created underlying post-traumatic stress for many people. It is difficult for them to understand it and to manage the anxiety, stress, loneliness, isolation and everything else that might not have impacted them before or has now been magnified in many different ways. As we all know, stress, anxiety and so on impact on physical health. If there was some form of intervention for people whereby that could be caught before it became a physical problem, it could save the health service a great deal of money.

Is there anything the witnesses would like to say before we finish? Do they feel they have covered everything?

Mr. Rory Fitzgerald

We thank the committee for giving us time to tell our story. The more people we can tell about it, the more we can do. We appreciate the support that the HSE gives us.

I thank the witnesses again for the wonderful work they are doing.

The joint sub-committee adjourned at 12.32 p.m. sine die.