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A special interview to mark 40 years of the Samaritans saving the lives of troubled Scots

"CAN we help you?" says the strong, voice on the end of the phone. It is a voice like a lifeline, steady and real, reaching out to someone drowning.

"My name is Kay. What can I call you?"

On the other end of the phone, the young caller hesitates, then gathers confidence and begins to speak.

Kay McMillan has begun hundreds of thousands of conversations exactly the same way. What no one will ever know is how many lives she has saved with those simple words.

Over 40 years, since she helped to found the Samaritans in Scotland, this remarkable woman has spent the best part of a lifetime listening to desperate people and persuading them to stay alive.

This is crisis management in the raw. "I still get a little nervous when the phone rings," she admits. "There's always the fear of not saving a life, of not understanding properly, of missing something of importance.

"Every story is different, every story is new. You can't have a formula and every time you just hope you can manage it."

Young and old, rich and poor. The curse of depression crosses all barriers. She has had doctors, housewives, lawyers, celebrities, criminals on the phone... all ranks of society have at some point lifted the phone in despair to Kay and her fellow volunteers.

In a unique interview about an organisation normally shrouded in secrecy because of its strict confidentiality rule, Kay reveals the vast range of human life that has come to her.

"A nine-year-old child once called on behalf of her mother... and a 13- year-old who was being abused," she says, shaking her head in sorrow at the memory .

"Some calls are just two or three minutes, but you can be on for one and a half or two hours. We never hang up on our callers.

"Sometimes we ask callers if they would like us to call them back later. Particularly if they are suicidal, we would say, `Can we keep in touch?' and if they give us their number we will call them the next day.

"The thing is, we only do what they want. They are in control."

Sometimes the calls are silent - but the Samaritans never hang up.

"If the caller doesn't speak, you wait," says Kay. "Sometimes it's a long wait. I have sat for ten minutes, even longer, speaking gently.

"Occasionally I pause and ask, `Are you still there?' I might hear the sound of a sniffle or someone weeping that tells me they are still there. In the end, I've found, people will start speaking."

The saddest case this remarkable 78-year-old remembers was a bedbound woman who was left alone with a box of sandwiches and a thermos flask from Friday, when her home help left, until the Monday morning.

The old lady kept a newspaper cutting under her pillow about the Samaritans. One weekend, when she was particularly desperate, she phoned.

"I went to her home," says Kay. "The key was in the door, where it was always left, and I found the whole house covered in dust sheets except her room, where she was with her box of sandwiches.

"We befriended her until she died, which wasn't very long. She was elderly and all her family had gone. She was an island of isolation."

The other type of cases which particularly trouble Kay are the people suffering from depression who cannot be motivated to do anything for themselves.

"They are at the stage where they can't make themselves a cup of tea.

"They are the most difficult to deal with, because a lot of them are on medication and have already had a great deal of help. Depression is such a long, slow illness that it's hard to get them to believe they will ever be better.

Kay adds: "We never claim to have saved lives. We say they are feeling better."

It is not an exaggeration to say that few people have a better perspective on the troubles of the human soul than Kay McMillan. Or have seen more grim evidence.

"We used to have a drawerful of knives and, at one time, we had a gun in the office.

"They were from people who had come into the office, intending to kill themselves and the volunteers managed to talk them out of it and got them to leave their weapons. Over the years, we've had criminals admit things to us.

"As the service is confidential, we would never tell the police.

"If the thing they have done is ghastly,0 then we encourage them to make a clean breast of it."

It is a grim fact that, in the age of the call centre, the Samaritans provide Scotland's most vital call centres of all.

As the organisation prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary next month, the need for its services has never been greater. Forty years ago, there were 360 calls a year. Now there are 28,000.

The number of people under 25 struggling with relationships, violence, drink, drugs, homelessness and depression seems to be increasing all the time.

Suicide rates among young people - especially men - have never been higher. She says there is a misconception that suicidal people are usually mentally ill.

"Most callers are cold-blooded and organised about wanting to commit suicide."

Kay was a 38-year-old housewife, with a prosperous husband and two young children when she helped launch the Samaritans in Glasgow.

She had time on her hands, but did not fancy the staple diet of late Fifties middle-class wives - golfing and bridge. And her late husband, Donald, a businessman, also became a Samaritan.

Forty per cent of the work then was with unmarried girls who had become pregnant. The problems that haven't changed over four decades are the constants of marital dispute and alcohol.

Kay, an MBE, still does a four-hour shift in the Samaritans office once a fortnight.

"I was talking to a man not long ago. I said: `I'm probably old enough to be your mother.' He said: `That's impossible.' At a pinch, I could have been his grandmother, but it really cheered me up, and made me realise I don't come across as old as I am."

Horror of the Ugandan kids

MELANIE REID'S article on the Ugandan mass murder last week was offensive.

She should know that this massacre included children who probably didn't know what `cult' meant, yet their lives were taken.

I was devastated by this news and I am sorry that you feel the way you do. - Iain Andrew, by e-mail.

Robbed of right to life

DOES Melanie really believe that the murders of innocent children caught up in the Ugandan cult did the world a favour?

These children did not "choose to follow a tin god". They were given no choice.

I hope that, when discussing the joy of childhood in future articles, Melanie Reid may remember that these children were given no right to enjoy theirs. - Lindsey McKenna, by e-mail.

Green light for Robson

MELANIE REID said last week Robson Green carried on as if he was a sex symbol.

Robson Green is a very down-to-earth person who has worked for years to get where he is today.

How does Melanie know he's a "skinny little tart"?

She always seems to have something bad to say about people. Why don't you look for the good in them instead? - Gemma O'Hagan, by e-mail.

Sean is my dream man

AT last, I thought I was the only person mystified by the success of Robson Green.

He's a fairly limited actor, bland and ordinary. Maybe that's the secret of his attraction.

I now know that when all other women swoon at his feet, Melanie and I will still have each other to talk to.

Sean Connery is at least 30 years older than me, but he's an actor with real charisma. - Rhona McGlasken, Edinburgh.

Let Harry be a grown-up

GET real, Melanie. Everyone has to grow up, even the fictional Harry Potter.

Harry can't stay locked forever in a pre-pubescent limbo. If more children's books treated life like it really is, then fewer kids might stumble blindly into teenage pregnancy or drugs.

There has to be writing which bridges the gap between childish fantasy and stuff like Trainspotting. - Eilidh Johnstone, Aberdeen.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Reid, Melanie
Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Apr 9, 2000
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