Keeping callers safe
When a caller in distress comes through to Kayleigh or one of her colleagues, set processes must be followed, but experience and intuition guide the judgements made to ensure that a person is kept safe.
Our Contact Centre based in Hastings is the front line of the organisation: support advocates handle hundreds of calls and emails each week.
At the start of each day, email enquiries and voicemails are triaged and allocated out to the team by supervising advocate Steve.
But a call from a person that causes concern could come in at any time. Safeguarding calls fall broadly into two categories.
“It could be an elderly person who mentions during their call that they haven’t got running water – that would mean we make a safeguarding referral to the local authority,” says Steve.
“The other sort of alert is a person telling one of the support advocates that they are having suicidal thoughts, or they are going to end their own life. We deal with the range of these sorts of calls in different ways.”
There’s a set process that kicks in in this instance. Hopefully, says Kayleigh, the support advocate will have already taken down details such as the person’s name and postcode, and established if they are already an existing client – and then will let them know the confidentiality policy.
“We’ll try and get consent to contact the person’s GP or key worker and to phone people for them.
“It’s also good to know where they are, and if they are at home.”
It might be that a caller feels more settled during the course of the conversation and in that case, a referral could progress as usual, together with signposting to other organisations such as Samaritans, as appropriate.
When there is serious cause for concern about a person’s wellbeing, the process escalates.
“If the incident isn’t happening right now we would normally call the police on 101 if we don’t know the person’s whereabouts, or call the NHS on 111 if we know where they are,” says Kayleigh.
“If there is an immediate danger: if we have asked the person do they plan to end their life now and they say yes, we call 999.”
Each call from a person in distress is different and advocates have to be skilled in making judgments along the way – but there is always support from others.
“You can’t really train perfectly for these conversations, there isn’t really a script, but there are questions that you’ll ask. It doesn’t always go from A to B, it will go off at a tangent and come back.
“In our team we get lots and lots of support, both afterwards and during. A call can be put on hold for us to consult with a colleague or supervising advocate (SA). If a caller has concerned me enough and I feel they’re at risk, normally I would speak with the SA or the team manager, just so there’s two heads on it.
“We would normally want to gain the person’s consent to raise a Safeguarding alert but if they refuse, and we have read the confidentiality policy, we will breach that if there is no other option, and it is always checked with a line manager.”
Steve explains why he has become more comfortable with being very direct with callers about their intentions.
“Suicide is a really taboo subject in our society. It’s partly I think because everybody has usually had those kind of dark thoughts at some time in their lives. Having to talk about it or raise it with another person on the end of the phone can be really, really difficult, because you’ve got your own stuff in your head, you have got to deal with theirs, and you might think ‘what if I say the wrong thing?’
It takes a long time to get over that. But once you realise it’s not about making mistakes, it’s just about the other person and you’ve just got to make sure that they’re safe, it becomes simpler to deal with."
“I know that in my role – and this is what I also want my team to feel – I know what we need to do, and I know what the boundaries are. As soon as I realised that, as a support advocate, it all slotted into place, and I wasn’t nervous about taking those sorts of calls anymore.”
Steve’s experience as a volunteer with Samaritans has also helped.
When a new support advocate joins the Contact Centre, they’ll spend a lot of time listening in to experienced colleagues taking calls – and no one is ever left alone with a call if they want someone else on the line.
Steve: “These sorts of calls are probably the most emotionally challenging thing we do, I would say.
“Other calls can be harder like when we have a really angry referrer or an angry client, but in terms of the suicide question, those are the calls that can stay with you and do negative things to you.
“I always try and chat with my colleagues after they have been on such a call, both for training and for mental health reasons.”
Advocates must reconcile the fact of being fully present and supportive for a caller during the call, with moving on afterwards, usually never knowing what the outcome for that person has been.
Staff in the Contact Centre have regular supervision, giving them a chance to talk through calls that may have been difficult. The team look after themselves with a weekly wellbeing half-hour, which could be going for a walk or a coffee, or having a discussion around a set topic.
“There are times when we are heads down bums up and just have to keep working but usually around 3oclock on a Friday someone might say something and everyone goes a little crazy – it’s about releasing that energy,” says Steve.
Dealing with the mix of emotions received from callers during a typical day is part of the role of support advocate.
“You might have a safeguarding call followed by an irate referrer, someone laughing or being kind followed by someone crying, and it’s not the one thing or the other that’s the more challenging, it’s the flipping between the two.
“The team bonds well together because everyone here understands that.”