Interview

Julie Bentley: 'Samaritans' services have been crucial during the pandemic'

The charity’s new chief executive on the impact of Covid on mental health and why it’s important not to wait until someone becomes suicidal

Samaritans chief executive Julie Bentley
Samaritans chief executive Julie Bentley: one in five calls in the past six months were from people who were specifically concerned about Covid.
Samaritans chief executive Julie Bentley: one in five calls in the past six months were from people who were specifically concerned about Covid.

Last modified on Tue 15 Dec 2020 15.42 EST

Being listened to without judgment is a “an extraordinarily powerful thing”, says Julie Bentley, the new chief executive of Samaritans, the suicide prevention charity.

“Just because somebody considers taking their own life, it is not inevitable that they will take their own life. That’s why it’s important that there are services like Samaritans where people can phone; not just because they’re feeling suicidal, but if they’re feeling troubled, distressed or concerned, they will find somebody who will listen, in a very real and meaningful way without judgment.”

Bentley, 51, who started in the job last month, says that the volunteer-led charity’s service has been “crucial” during the pandemic. Tellingly, Samaritans were designated key workers.

A survey with the charity’s listening volunteers offers a window into the impact of Covid on the national psyche: one in five calls over the past six months were from people who were specifically concerned about Covid, though volunteers surveyed suggest that the pandemic has affected every caller to some extent, with worries about isolation, mental ill-health, family and unemployment the most common concerns.

Perhaps surprisingly, early figures for England from real-time surveillance published last month by the National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Safety in Mental Health found “no evidence of the large national rise in suicide, post lockdown, that many feared”. But it warned that the early figures could change over time and that it is “too soon to examine the full long-term impact of economic adversity on mental health and suicide”.

Separately, provisional data for the third quarter of 2020 (July to September) published this week by the Office for National Statistics shows a suicide rate in England similar to rates seen in the third quarter of previous years.

Bentley says it’s important “not to take our eye off the ball”, since suicide rates in the UK were “already too high” before the coronavirus, with some groups particularly vulnerable, such as middle-aged men.

“One of the things that is a concern is that what we do know, based on history, is that in times of recession the rate of suicides tends to rise. So we need to be mindful of where we’re at in the country … particularly as a result of coronavirus and the financial impact,” she points outs.

“We need to be concerned about the numbers of people feeling high levels of distress and to keep pushing to ensure there is a good provision of service, she adds.

“One of the things that is a worry is that of those people who do take their lives, many of them were not in touch with any mental health services. And we know that people are waiting too long to access services. So, mental health concerns are significant.”

A lot of the contacts are from people feeling lonely, anxious, or distressed, rather than suicidal, who need to express themselves freely and be heard. “What we hope is that that will help somebody not getting to a point where they are considering taking their own life. Our ultimate aim is to reduce and stop suicide, but it’s not about waiting for somebody to be at that crisis point before support is offered.”

First set up in 1953, Samaritans now has a network of 201 branches across the UK and the Republic of Ireland. With just 196 full-time equivalent employees, the charity relies on 20,000 volunteers (according to the latest available figure in 2019) to provide support 24/7, 365 days a year service. This includes phone-based support, letters and emails, and other initiatives, such as running outreach activities in some areas.

Since March, Bentley says staff have been “entirely focused” on dealing with the pandemic. A self-help app was launched in response to the pandemic, along with a support line for NHS workers in England and Wales and a support service for health, care, emergency and key workers across Great Britain.

At the same time, the number of frontline volunteers dropped by a third to around 9,500 in April 2020. By October, the figure was back to 13,000 – but still 8% fewer than the same time last year. Bentley attributes the drop to people having to isolate, or branches being based in buildings that made social distancing difficult.

Nevertheless, the charity provided support to 1.2 million people, in the six months from 23 March to 23 September. “We’ve received a similar number of calls to the same period last year, but we are seeing more people accessing our services online,” says Bentley.

Volunteers answered more than a quarter of a million emails, up 37% on the year before and the self-help app has been downloaded 30,000 times. Volunteers tell her that this may partly be due to people lacking private space during lockdown. But Bentley believes that it also shows that the way people access services is evolving, notably younger people who “want to engage in a different way”.

Bentley is co-vice chair at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) and believes the charity sector has had to “swiftly embrace digital in a way that maybe we weren’t doing so well before”. She lauds Samaritans’ “agility” on this front. “We need to keep our foot on that pedal of progress so that we can make sure services continue to be very relevant for people.”

Born and raised in Essex, Bentley’s first job after leaving school was as a trainee photographic technician for Essex police, dealing with “horrific” scene-of-crime footage. She quit after three months. She then spent five years as a “postman” – as the job was then advertised – to help with the family’s finances after her father died suddenly, before training as a youth worker, with her sights set on the third sector.

She says she only applies for charity jobs where “I genuinely believe in what they do”. Bentley has won a number of awards, including ‘Britain’s most admired charity CEO (2014)’.

She applied to Samaritans after resigning as Action for Children chief executive in March for “personal reasons”.

For Samaritans to remain relevant and sustainable, Bentley signals plans to attract more volunteers who may not be drawn to listening on the phone but would consider supporting people through webchats, for example.

Expect Bentley to also speak up on behalf of the charity’s service users when needed, which she sees as an “absolutely crucial” part of her role. The Samaritans work closely with policy and decision makers in government, drawing on the charity’s “rich insight” into the issues and the difficulties that people are facing. But where Bentley thinks something is at odds with advancing good mental health, she says “then it’s equally our responsibility to respectfully point that out”.

Curriculum vitae

Age: 51.

Lives: Essex/Suffolk border.

Family: Partner of 18 years.

Education: Maldon county primary, Essex; Plume comprehensive school, Maldon, Essex; Central School of Counselling and Therapy, Hackney (Diploma in Counselling); Goldsmiths, University of London (diploma in management); Open University (MBA)

Career: November 2020present: chief executive, Samaritans; 2018-20: chief executive, Action for Children; 2012-18: chief executive Girlguiding; 2008–12: chief executive, Family Planning Association; 2004-08: chief executive, The Suzy Lamplugh Trust; 2000-04: director of corporate services ARP; 1993–2000; young people’s centre manager and assistant director, Charterhouse in Southwark; 1988 – 1993: Postal delivery worker and youth worker.

Public life: Trustee and vice chair, National Council for Voluntary Organisations.

Awards: Britain’s most admired charity CEO, Third Sector awards (2014); one of the 25 most influential CEOs in the charity sector (2019); Outstanding individual achievement award (2019), Charity Times.

Interests: Walking, reading, movies, long dinners and wine with loved ones.

• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. For more information visit www.samaritans.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for support. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counselor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org