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Hope to the vulnerable

Every community will have people who need a little bit of extra help to get by. Sometimes all that is required is some information about how to apply for social benefits to which one may be entitled. At other times, questions are more complex like a desperate cry for help from depressed individuals.

Helpline centres are often managed mostly by volunteers who are trained to listening empathically to distressed people and are capable of navigating a network of voluntary organisations to provide the necessary support. Volunteers must not only be publicly-spirited individuals who want to contribute to the well-being of their community but who also possess the skills to effectively help others who for whatever reason cannot help themselves.

It is, therefore, distressing to know that the number of volunteers who help to keep the national Support line 179 functional is dwindling. The good news is that the authorities have stepped in to help by authorising the recruitment of a team of full-time employees who, presumably, will be already qualified in social work or who will be offered training.

The chairman of the Foundation for Social Welfare Services, Alfred Grixti, confirmed that the recruitment of full-time staff has become inevitable if the support service is to remain meaningful to those who need it most. He expressed his gratitude to volunteers but also argued that the recruitment of full-time trained staff is now necessary.

The need for volunteer services will remain and continue to grow. Presumably, Support line 179 will need volunteers to help with everything from office assistance to youth mentorship. Continuous training of both volunteers and full-time employees will also be a constant feature of this support service.

Vulnerable people will never be a majority in any society. But this does not mean they do not deserve to be offered hope to cope with the challenges that life occasionally throws at them. The cases referred to helpline centres can be many and varied, including domestic violence, child abuse, suicidal tendencies, loneliness, emotional difficulties, behavioural problems, substance abuse and compulsive gambling. A quarter of a million “genuine” calls were received on the national Support line 179 during the 20 years of service within Aġenzija Appoġġ. That is more than 1,000 calls a month.

Most distressed individuals communicate with helpline centres through telephone calls. But many centres are nowadays also providing texting facilities as this means of communication is often preferred by younger people. With mental health problems becoming more prevalent, even among schoolchildren, the services of Support line 179 will always be in demand.

Some services require intensive training. For instance, the grief experienced by suicide loss survivors is unlike any other grief. Those left behind often struggle with guilt, shame and confusion. According to one US helpline centre, children who lose a parent to suicide are at four times greater risk of suicide than their peers. Helplines can play a unique role in the healing process in such cases.

Building an active network of government and non-profit voluntary organisations to offer hope to the vulnerable in our community will need physical, financial and emotional resources. Volunteers, as well as full-time workers, will always be the cornerstone of this philanthropic service.

Those who can make this system work will themselves experience higher rates of happiness by offering hope to others.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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