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/ 19 May 2023

Mental health awareness week: life as a Practice Manager and Samaritan

This Mental Health Awareness Week we caught up with our Practice Manager and Samaritan Mary Stewart to find out more about her role as a Samaritan and how she has brought her learnings into the workplace.

Mary Stewart


Practice Manager

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What is the most rewarding part of being a Samaritan?

Ending a really challenging call with the caller in a different headspace to the one they were in when they called.  Some calls can begin with people in a really horrible place and they can’t see anything positive. I’ve had calls that have started like that and ended with both of us laughing as we close the call. That is why we do what we do and when it happens, it’s really worthwhile. Also being surrounded by so many people who want to make a difference to the world. I have never ended a Samaritans shift thinking it was a waste of time even at 2 in the morning when all I want is to sleep and have work the next morning! I have learned so much from my fellow Samaritans just from our chats outside the calls.

What is the most challenging part?

When it goes the other way.  Some people aren’t ready to see the way out and just want to tell us how awful things are. We will respect that and let them stay in that space if they want, but it can be really hard when you want to help someone and you don’t make that connection or can’t get through. We as Samaritans often blame ourselves for not being able to reach the caller and we have to hope that they call back and speak to someone they click with better than us. It can also be hard when your caller really wants you to tell them what to do.  We don’t give advice and sometimes callers can be frustrated when they think you’re not trying to help them.

This year’s mental health awareness week’s theme is ‘Anxiety’ – is this a common theme in the calls you take? Do you have any recommendations for people who are suffering with anxiety?

We take calls from people who are feeling anxious about all sorts of things.  Sometimes people feel anxious about everything and sometimes they can cope with all the huge issues in their life but one thing that they think they should be handling easily is causing them huge problems.  You can never predict what’s going to upset someone or where their ability to handle it stops.  Often the more anxious people are, the more they  are cross that they aren’t handling it  better and that leads to them being anxious again. I find that being able to talk it through with us and realising that they aren’t “being silly” or “worrying about nothing” is often all people need to be able to find something that helps them.

What do you find is the most popular form of communication – phone, web chat or email?

I’m not trained in online chat, but it’s definitely not as popular as calls. Emails, however, are pretty popular as people seem to find it easier to open up without having to speak to someone. I find it harder to answer emails than to answer calls as I tend to overthink the written word! I find it much harder to predict how my words will be taken when I can’t control the tone they’re read in or clarify something if I don’t communicate it properly!

Are there ‘do’s and dont’s’ of being a samaritan?

We will never advise our callers. We are here to hold your hand while you walk your path and to support you as best we can. Open questions are the way forward and the “listening wheel” is your best friend as a Samaritan.  Listen to your caller, they will usually tell you how they want the call to go if you listen to their words and respect their silences. It’s still the callers load to carry, but for the duration of the call, we’re here to help lighten the load even just a little. At the beginning of my training my mentor spent a long time telling us not to tell our callers that we understand, because it is impossible to really understand how a caller feels about what they’re going through. How one person handles any situation is going to be different to how the next person does.  All we do is sit with our caller while they tell us about their experience.

Is there anything you have learned during your time as a Samaritan that you have since implemented in your role as a practice manager at a busy law firm?

Yes! Empowering people to fix things for themselves is so much better than fixing everything for everyone. I am a “fixer” and the temptation to jump in when people are struggling to get things done is often pretty hard for me to ignore. As a Samaritan we are taught from the beginning that we are not there to fix people or to tell them how to fix their issues. Almost all the time, people know what to do to help themselves and we are trained to help them work that out for themselves. I’ve found people respond better when you help them fix their own problem and it gives them the control back in their lives. I have also learned to try and work out when people want you to listen or to help. I was honestly surprised at the positive response I got when I was talking to someone who was struggling with a situation, and I asked if they were telling me so I could hear them or help them. As a fixer, my immediate go to, was “this is how you fix this problem”  but she already knew that and all she wanted from me in that moment was to be heard and acknowledged.

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