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TEDMED 2017

Sophie Andrews: The best way to help is often just to listen

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A 24-hour helpline in the UK known as Samaritans helped Sophie Andrews become a survivor of abuse rather than a victim. Now she's paying the favor back as the founder of The Silver Line, a helpline that supports lonely and isolated older people. In a powerful, personal talk, she shares why the simple act of listening (instead of giving advice) is often the best way to help someone in need.

- Author, helpline advocate
Sophie Andrews is the CEO of The Silver Line, a 24-hour phone line that provides social connectivity for isolated senior citizens in the UK and receives approximately 1,500 calls per day. Full bio

After cutting her arm with a broken glass,
00:12
she fell into a fitful, exhausted sleep
on the railway station platform.
00:15
Early in the morning,
when the station toilets were opened,
00:21
she got painfully to her feet,
and made her way over to them.
00:24
When she saw her reflection in the mirror,
00:28
she started to cry.
00:30
Her face was dirty and tearstained;
00:32
her shirt was ripped and covered in blood.
00:34
She looked as if she'd been on the streets
for three months, not three days.
00:38
She washed herself as best she could.
00:42
Her arms and stomach were hurting badly.
00:45
She tried to clean the wounds,
00:49
but any pressure she applied
just started the bleeding again.
00:50
She needed stitches, but there was no way
she would go to a hospital.
00:55
They'd have sent her back home again.
00:59
Back to him.
01:01
She tightened her jacket --
01:03
well, fastened her jacket tightly
to cover the blood.
01:05
She looked back at herself in the mirror.
01:09
She looked a little better than before
but was past caring.
01:11
There was only one thing
she could think of doing.
01:16
She came out of the station
and into a phone box nearby.
01:19
(Telephone rings)
01:23
(Telephone rings)
01:28
Woman: Samaritans, can I help you?
01:32
Hello, Samaritans. Can I help you?
01:37
Girl: (Crying) I -- I don't know.
01:40
Woman: What's happened?
You sound very upset.
01:42
(Girl cries)
01:46
Woman: Why not start with your name?
01:50
I'm Pam. What can I call you?
01:52
Where are you speaking from?
01:57
Are you safe?
02:00
Girl: It's a phone box in London.
02:02
Pam: You sound very young.
How old are you?
02:05
Girl: Fourteen.
02:08
Pam: And what's happened
to make you so upset?
02:10
Girl: I just want to die.
Every day I wake up and wish I was dead.
02:13
If he doesn't kill me, then, I think,
I want to do it myself.
02:17
Pam: I'm glad you called.
02:21
Let's start at the beginning.
02:24
Sophie Andrews: Pam continued to gently
ask the girl about herself.
02:28
She didn't say much;
there were lots of silences.
02:32
But she knew she was there,
02:35
and having Pam on the end of the phone
felt so comforting.
02:36
The 14-year-old
that made that call was me.
02:42
That was me in the phone box.
02:46
I was running away from home,
sleeping rough on the streets in London.
02:48
I was being sexually abused
by my father and his friends.
02:53
I was self-harming every day.
I was suicidal.
02:57
The first time I called Samaritans,
I was 12 and absolutely desperate.
03:03
It was a few months after
my mother had deserted me,
03:08
walked out and left me in the family home.
03:11
And the abuse I was suffering
at the hands of my father and his friends
03:14
had left me a total wreck.
03:17
I was running away, I was missing school,
03:20
I was arriving drunk.
03:22
I was without hope and wanted to die.
03:24
And that's where Samaritans came in.
03:28
Samaritans has been around since 1953.
03:33
It's a 24/7 confidential
helpline in the UK
03:36
for anyone who might be feeling
desperate or suicidal.
03:40
Which I certainly was.
03:44
Volunteers answer the phone
around the clock every day of the year,
03:46
and calls are confidential.
03:49
During my teenage years,
when I was most desperate,
03:53
Samaritans became my lifeline.
03:55
They promised me total confidentiality.
03:58
And that allowed me to trust them.
04:01
Disturbing as they no doubt
found my story, they never showed it.
04:04
They were always there for me
and listened without judgment.
04:08
Mostly, they gently
encouraged me to get help;
04:12
I never felt out of control with them --
04:14
an interesting parallel,
04:17
as I felt so out of control
in every other aspect of my life.
04:18
It felt my self-harm
was probably the only area
04:22
where I felt I had any control.
04:24
A few years later, I managed to get
some control in my life.
04:29
And I had appropriate support around me
04:33
to allow me to live
with what had happened.
04:35
I had become a survivor of abuse
rather than a victim.
04:38
And at 21, I contacted Samaritans again.
04:42
This time because I wanted
to become a volunteer.
04:45
Wanted to pay something back
04:48
to the organization
that had really saved my life.
04:49
I knew that the simple act of listening
in an empathetic way
04:54
could have a profound effect.
04:58
I knew that somebody
listening to me without judgment
05:00
would make the biggest difference.
05:04
So I caught up with my education,
05:07
found someone I could persuade
to give me a job,
05:10
and I enjoyed my volunteering
at Samaritans.
05:14
And when I say "enjoyed,"
it's an odd word to use,
05:17
because no one would want
to think of anyone
05:20
being in absolute distress or pain.
05:22
But I knew that that profound impact
of that listening ear
05:25
and someone being alongside me
at that desperate time
05:27
had the biggest impact,
05:31
and I felt a great sense of fulfillment
05:32
that I was able to help people
as a Samaritan.
05:34
In my years volunteering at Samaritans,
I was asked to perform many roles.
05:38
But I guess the peak came in 2008,
05:42
when I was asked to chair
the organization for three years.
05:45
So I had actually gone
from that vulnerable caller
05:48
in the phone box, desperate for help,
05:50
to being the national lead
for the organization
05:52
and responsible for 22,000 volunteers.
05:55
I actually used to joke at the time
05:59
and say if you really
screwed up as a caller,
06:00
you might end up running the place.
06:02
(Laughter)
06:04
Which I did.
06:05
But I guess in a world which is dominated
by professionalizing everything we do,
06:06
I really understood
that that simple act of listening
06:12
could have such a life-changing effect.
06:14
I guess it's a simple concept
06:17
that can be applied
across all areas of life.
06:19
So in the 1980s, when I called Samaritans,
06:22
child abuse was a subject
no one wanted to talk about.
06:24
Victims were often blamed,
victims were often judged.
06:28
And it was a topic of shame,
and no one really wanted to talk about it.
06:33
Today, judgment and shame
surround a different issue.
06:38
There's a different stigma
that's out there.
06:41
And the stigma that's there today
is to talk about loneliness.
06:44
Loneliness and isolation
have profound health impacts.
06:50
Being lonely can have a significant impact
on your own well-being.
06:53
Recent systematic review of research
06:58
actually said that it increased
the mortality rates,
07:00
or premature death rates,
07:02
by up to 30 percent.
07:04
It can lead to higher blood pressure,
higher levels of depression,
07:06
and actually aligned to mortality rates
07:10
that might be more associated
with alcohol abuse or smoking cigarettes.
07:12
Loneliness is actually more harmful
that smoking 15 cigarettes.
07:17
A day.
07:21
Not in your life, in your day.
07:23
It's also associated
with higher levels of dementia.
07:25
So a recent study also found
07:28
that lonely people are twice at risk
of Alzheimer's disease.
07:30
Of course, there's many people
that live alone who are not lonely.
07:35
But being a caregiver for a partner
that maybe has dementia
07:40
can be a very lonely place.
07:44
And a recent landmark study gave us
a very good, clear definition
07:47
of what loneliness is.
07:50
And it said it's a subjective,
unwelcome feeling
07:51
of a lack or loss of companionship.
07:55
And it happens when there's a mismatch
07:58
between the quality and the quantity
of relationships that we have
08:00
and those that we want.
08:03
Now in my life, the best help
I've ever received
08:07
has been from those personal connections
08:09
and being listened to
in an empathetic way.
08:11
Professionals, and I'm conscious
I'm speaking to a room of professionals,
08:15
have a very important place.
08:19
But for me, a volunteer
giving up their time
08:20
and listening to me without judgment
in a confidential way,
08:23
had such a huge,
life-changing effect for me.
08:27
And that was something
that really stayed with me.
08:30
So as you will have gathered,
in my teenage years,
08:33
I was off the rails, I was going every day
wondering if I'd even live the next day.
08:35
But that profound impact of the volunteer
listening to me stayed with me.
08:39
When I finally got to a point in my life
08:44
where I felt I could live
with what had happened,
08:46
I wanted to pay something back.
08:49
And in my experience,
08:51
people who have been helped
in a transforming way
08:53
always want to pay something back.
08:56
So I started paying back by my 25 years
volunteering with Samaritans.
08:59
And then, in 2013,
09:05
picking up on that whole issue
and the new stigma of loneliness,
09:07
I launched a new national
helpline in the UK for older people,
09:10
called The Silver Line,
09:14
which is there to support
lonely and isolated older people.
09:15
In our short history,
we've taken 1.5 million calls.
09:20
And I know we're having a big impact,
based on the feedback we get every day.
09:24
Some people might be calling up
for a friendly chat,
09:29
maybe some information
about local services.
09:32
Some might be calling
because they're suicidal.
09:34
Some might be calling up
because they're reporting abuse.
09:37
And some quite simply, as I was,
may have simply just given up on life.
09:40
I guess it's a really simple idea,
setting up a helpline.
09:46
And I look back to those early days
09:49
when I had the lofty title, I still have,
of chief exec, but in the early days,
09:51
I was chief exec of myself.
09:55
Which, I have to say, I had
the best meetings ever in my career --
09:56
(Laughter)
10:00
as chief exec of myself.
10:01
But things have moved on, and now in 2017,
10:02
we have over 200 staff
listening to older people
10:06
every day of the year, 24/7.
10:10
We also have over 3,000 volunteers
making weekly friendship calls
10:12
from their own home.
10:16
We also, for people
that like the written word,
10:18
offer Silver Letters,
and we write pen-pal letters
10:20
to older people who still enjoy
receiving a letter.
10:23
And we also have introduced
something called Silver Circles --
10:27
you notice I'm owning
the word "silver" here --
10:30
put "silver" in front of it and it's ours.
10:32
Silver Circles are group conference calls
10:34
where people actually
talk about shared interests.
10:36
My favorite group is the music group,
10:39
where people, every week,
play musical instruments
10:40
down the phone to each other.
10:43
Not always the same tune at the same time.
10:45
(Laughter)
10:47
But they do have fun.
10:48
And "fun" is an interesting word,
10:51
because I've talked very much about
desperation, loneliness and isolation.
10:52
But if you came to our helpline in the UK,
you would also hear laughter.
10:56
Because at the Silver Line,
11:00
we do want to cherish
the wonderful lives of older people
11:01
and all the experiences that they bring.
11:05
So here's an example,
just a snippet of one of our calls.
11:07
(Audio) Good morning,
you're through to the Silver Line.
11:11
My name's Alan, how can I help?
11:14
Woman: Hello, Alan. Good morning.
11:16
Alan: Hello.
11:17
Woman: (Chipper) Hello!
11:18
Alan: Oh, how are you this morning?
11:20
Woman: I'm alright, thank you.
11:21
Alan: I'm pleased to hear it.
11:23
Woman: What a wonderful thing
the telephone is, you know?
11:24
Alan: It's a remarkable
invention, isn't it?
11:28
Woman: I remember
when I was a little girl,
11:30
donkey's years ago,
11:32
if you wanted to make
a phone call to somebody,
11:33
you had to go to a shop
11:36
and use the telephone of the shop
11:39
and pay the shop for using the telephone
and have your phone call.
11:41
So you didn't make phone calls
just whenever you fancied.
11:45
Alan: Oh, no.
11:48
Woman: (Coughs) Oh, sorry.
11:49
(Coughs)
11:51
Excuse me about that.
11:52
You had to, you know,
11:53
confine your phone calls
to the absolute essentials.
11:55
And now, here I am, sitting in my own home
in my dressing gown still,
11:59
and using the telephone,
isn't it wonderful?
12:04
Alan: It is. (Laughter)
12:07
SA: And that's not untypical of a call
we might receive at our helpline.
12:10
That's someone who really sees us
as part of the family.
12:14
So Silver Line, I guess,
are now helping older people
12:17
in the same way
that Samaritans has helped me.
12:20
They're there 24/7,
they're listening confidentially
12:22
and quite often not giving any advice.
12:25
How often do we really ever listen
without giving advice?
12:27
It's actually quite hard.
12:31
Quite often on the phone calls,
an older person would say,
12:32
"Could you give me some advice, please?"
12:35
And 20 minutes later, they say,
"Thank you for your advice,"
12:37
and we realize we haven't given any.
12:40
(Laughter)
12:42
We've listened and listened,
and we haven't interrupted.
12:43
But to that person,
maybe we have given advice.
12:45
We recently conducted
a survey at The Silver Line
12:48
to 3,000 older people, to ask them
what they thought of the service.
12:50
And one person quite simply
came back and said,
12:54
for the first time in her life,
12:56
she had what we would call
in the sport cricket a wicketkeeper,
12:59
and what you would call
in baseball, a catcher.
13:03
I've been here 48 hours,
and I'm talking American.
13:06
They will not recognize me
when I get home.
13:09
(Laughter)
13:11
But for the first time in her life,
she had that catcher,
13:12
which is really, really important.
13:15
And now it's come full circle,
because actually,
13:17
people that are calling Silver Line
and needing a catcher
13:20
are now becoming catchers themselves
by putting something back
13:22
and becoming volunteers
and becoming part of our family.
13:25
So I end my talk, really, where I started,
talking about my own personal experience.
13:29
Because when I talk about my life,
I often say that I've been lucky.
13:34
And people generally ask me why.
13:37
And it's because,
at every stage of my life,
13:40
I have been lucky enough to have someone
alongside me at the right time
13:42
who maybe has believed in me,
13:47
which in turn has helped me
13:48
just to believe a little bit more
in myself, which has been so important.
13:50
And everyone needs a catcher
at some point in their lives.
13:55
This is my catcher.
13:58
So that's Pam.
14:00
And she answered the call to me
14:02
when I was that 14-year-old
in the phone box, over 30 years ago.
14:03
So never, ever underestimate
the power of a simple human connection.
14:08
Because it can be and so often is
the power to save a life.
14:14
Thank you.
14:18
(Applause)
14:19

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About the speaker:

Sophie Andrews - Author, helpline advocate
Sophie Andrews is the CEO of The Silver Line, a 24-hour phone line that provides social connectivity for isolated senior citizens in the UK and receives approximately 1,500 calls per day.

Why you should listen

Sophie Andrews's harrowing childhood experiences, documented in her 2009 autobiography, Scarred, inspired her to become a local volunteer for the suicide prevention line Samaritans over 25 years ago, and she later served as the organization's national chairman for three years. Andrews makes regular appearances as a motivational speaker before a variety of audiences, giving talks about her life experiences and the importance of charity work.

More profile about the speaker
Sophie Andrews | Speaker | TED.com