Friday 26 April 2019

Samaritans volunteer: 'I had always been good at school but I dropped out due to my depression'

Depression forced Cork fisherman Emmet Cunningham to drop out of school. Today, he's a Samaritan's volunteer, because he knows from personal experience that talking can be a lifeline

Fisherman and Samaritans volunteer Emmet Cunningham suffered from depression as a teenager
Fisherman and Samaritans volunteer Emmet Cunningham suffered from depression as a teenager

When I was a teenager, I suffered with depression. I felt it was unusual, something different from the norm. I tried to deal with it myself, on my own, but I couldn't. I never had any reason in my mind to feel this way. I felt like I was some kind of imposter because I had a loving, open family that I could talk to and nothing bad had ever happened to me in my life.

I found it hard to deal with myself, even with the help of my friends and family, and I found the routine of school hard. Even though I had always been good at school (especially at the subject of history, which I still love), I eventually dropped out in fifth year due to my depression. I struggled on for a few years trying to feel 'normal'.

When I left school, I became a fisherman, which is more of a lifestyle than a living. There is a lot of time to think and work things out on a boat. It's something I often think about when I'm working, that people don't always have the time or space to think these days. People seem to be under so much pressure from work, family, social media and their own expectations of how life should be. That's what I love about being a Samaritan. We give people the space they need, that everyone needs, to work out what's going on, and we truly listen.

When I met my partner Kasia at the age of 20, something just clicked for me.

I felt that I could cope with myself for once and deal with anything. I feel really lucky to have someone like Kasia who listens and gives me support, but I know that many people don't have that kind of person in their lives.

Looking back, I know that if I had talked to someone like the Samaritans when I was going through my struggle to be happy and 'normal', it would have helped me.

Four years ago, when we had our daughter, I really started to think about what kind of country I wanted her to grow up in and what kind of person I wanted to be in her eyes.

I had thought of volunteering many times in the past, but always backed out because I said to myself: 'Why would anyone want someone who doesn't have a Leaving Cert, who can't drive and has no qualification?'

When I went to an information night at Samaritans, I found that I was exactly what they wanted - someone who was prepared to listen without judgment and to give a person in distress empathy and the time to say what they need to.

I find volunteering with Samaritans has been, for the want of a better word, fun and extremely rewarding. I had expected it to be gruelling and hard - and it can be at times - but I hadn't anticipated to make so many new friends or to do so many interesting and unusual things.

For the last year, I've been the publicity officer for my local branch in Cork. I've achieved a lot, from organising a candlelit ceremony on December 21, the shortest day of the year (which has gone from strength to strength and has become a national annual event), to commissioning a 500ft sand-art installation with the words 'Life's Worth Talking About' in west Cork to raise awareness of the services that Samaritans provide.

The next big event we're working on is a car show in Ballincollig on Easter Monday, April 2, to reach young men in particular, an important group for us to contact.

I love the work that Samaritans carry out in the community. It was something that I hadn't really known about before joining, but it's really valuable work. Samaritans volunteers in branches across the country visit schools to promote emotional wellbeing. We go to festivals to offer on-site support to anybody that may need to emotional support, we visit prisons, and collaborate with organisations like the GAA and football clubs, including Cork City FC.

But first and foremost, we are volunteer listeners, manning the phones 24/7 every day of the year from 21 sites across Ireland.

When people ask me, 'What is it that you actually do with the Samaritans?' I tell them that I listen to people. Then they ask: 'But what do you do?'

I understand what they mean - listening sounds like very little, but it is so powerful. Without the ability to listen effectively, messages are easily misunderstood.

If there is one communication skill you should aim to master, then listening is it.

In fact, most of the training volunteers receive is on how to listen. Once learned, it's something I think you can't help but bring into your own life. I definitely listen and support the people I know better now than ever before.

Years later, now I'm 32, I know that my experience as a teenager was far from unusual. Likewise, there is no 'norm', including for Samaritans volunteers in general. We are all so different, all ages, genders, classes, religions and none.

Everyone has bad days, months, years - you can't feel 'grand' all the time, but you never need to feel alone, like you're the only one who feels this way. There is always someone at the end of the phone who cares and wants to help you. All you have to do is call.

One thing you learn as a volunteer is that everyone has a story to tell and it's important to tell it, and even more important is to have it listened to.

In Samaritans, I have found a passion and discovered what I'm capable of, but mostly, I have the honour to listen to those who need to tell their stories.

You don't have to be suicidal to call Samaritans.

Whatever you're going through, call us free, any time, from any phone on 116 123 (this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill), text 087 260 9090 (standard text rates apply), or visit to find details of your nearest branch.

* Established in Ireland in 1962, there are now over 1,800 active volunteers in Samaritan branches across Ireland on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. To find out more about becoming a volunteer with Samaritans Ireland visit, call 1890 200 091 or contact your local branch for more details on information nights.

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