A mental health problem can feel just as bad (or sometimes worse) than a physical illness, but you can’t see it, and sometimes the stigma of admitting you have a mental health problem can be the hardest thing of all.
Former business woman and Chairperson of the GFSB, Marie Lou Guerrero, started Gib Sams – a member of the Befrienders Worldwide charity organization – because of the high rise in the numbers of people taking their own lives in Gibraltar in 2016. “I knew four of them and it triggered something in me. I had to take action to stop this happening,” she says. “I get a gut feeling that something is needed and I know that if I can, I have to act.”
Marie Lou sought the help and advice of Dr Rene Beguelin and together they founded Gib Sams which launched in October with a £10,000 grant from the Gibraltar Government. 0000“Now we rely on private funding, charity events and fund raising,” Marie Lou states. “We have had an unbelievable response since the launch of Gib Sams, but we still need more volunteers and anybody can be part of Team Sam, whether they become listeners, help with awareness or with fund raising.”
Marie Lou urges anyone who is interested to come along to a selection day. “There is no commitment,” she explains. “Join in some workshops and then have a one-to-one session with a trainer.” There are two things that the trainers look out for: “Our first priority is to look after our volunteers, so if they are vulnerable in any way themselves, we may say that they are not quite ready to become a listener yet but that they could help us in other ways.” Going on to explain that not everybody is able to listen, Marie Lou says that Gib Sams does not give advice or tell people what to do; they learn how to get people to open up their feelings and talk.
The Gib Sams logo was designed particularly with Gibraltar in mind. Marie Lou explains that she wanted something that portrayed exactly what they aim to do. “The tortoise shell is being held by a hand that is being supported by Gib Sams.” At a presentation in a local school, Marie Lou asked why the tortoise would be hiding. Was it because it was shy, introverted or feeling sad? “One of the students said that it looked really hard on the outside but that if you dropped it, it would break,” Marie Lou says, “and that is exactly what we are trying to portray.” Appearances aren’t always what they seem and you can’t always tell from the outside what is going on inside. “We have to get across that ‘it is okay to talk’ and we want people to know that everything is totally anonymous.” The calls can’t be traced and they won’t show up on any phone bill. There is also a concern that people in Gibraltar may be talking to somebody they know. Marie Lou addresses this by stating that there are always two people manning the phones, and if either the listener or the caller recognizes a voice they can ask to talk to someone else.
Gib Sams has also initiated an outreach programme to help others in the community with awareness skills. “Going forward we are looking to bring out specialised trainers for our prison and police work,” Marie Lou confirms. “We are also working with the schools to get across the fact that young people can talk to us about any sort of problem.” This could include sexual orientation, bullying, cyber bullying or self-harming. “Whether they are gay or transsexual or whether they want to come out, we want young people to understand that we are here to listen, and we want them to know that they have got a friend in Gib Sams.”
The helpline is currently available on Mondays to Fridays from 7 pm to 10 pm with the hours increasing soon from 4 pm until 10 pm and on Fridays until 1 am. One of the benefits of working with a global organization is that people in other parts of the world help each other out. “After 1 am we switch over to Australia who take the calls for us, allowing us to offer a 24/7 service, and in exchange we will be taking some of their calls.”
The service will expand as more volunteers are trained. “At the moment they undertake a three hour shift once a week at an office space where the phones are manned.” Once the listeners have finished their training they go straight on the lines, but with a mentor. “There are always two volunteers together, but at the beginning the mentor will pick up the phone until both the volunteer and the mentor are confident that they can be on the lines on their own,” Marie Lou states.
You could make an amazing difference by volunteering so if you would like to support Gib Sams in any way, please get in touch by email at: [email protected]. If you or someone you know if suffering from a mental health problem, call SAM on 116123.
BY JO WARD