As he walked into an austere interview room at Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) over a year ago, Shawn Lai had absolutely no idea of what he was getting himself into.
“I was quite clueless in terms of the kind of work I would be doing. I was aware that SOS was a helpline but beyond that, I wasn’t sure what else I would be tasked to do,” he tells Thir.st.
As a former Youth For Christ (YFC) staff, Shawn’s expertise was in working with young people. Suicide prevention was a new realm for him.
As Shawn was soon to find out, this people group was certainly growing and in need.
According to an SOS press release from July, 429 suicides were reported in 2016, 20 more than the year before. There was an average of about 6 suicides a month among young adults aged 20 to 29 – the highest among all age groups.
SOS is playing its part keeping this number down: It gets 100 to 120 calls a day. Who knows how many lives may have been saved by that one phone call?
Today, as a counsellor with SOS’s Client Services, Shawn supervises the volunteers who man the 24-hour hotline at SOS. He also directly intervenes when high-risk cases come up.
Shawn also supports those contemplating suicide through one-to-one counselling and offers grief support to “survivors” — those who have lost loved ones to suicide. As part of his work with SOS, he also offers professional consultation to fellow social services professionals dealing with those who are suicidal.
This all sounds like a lot for a reserved man who looks deathly shy at first glance.
“I got anxious quite easily and lacked self-confidence. I really had to grapple with my own anxiety and inner struggles,” says our hero in question, speaking softly. “But where there’s discomfort, there’s growth”.
It’s a hopeful outlook in a field which wars against hopelessness. I begin to see a spark in Shawn, and understand why he’s suited for the job.
I realise I had a lot of preconceived notions about how a Samaritan would look like or behave. For some reason, I thought someone chirpy and irrepressibly joyful would man the phones. Shawn isn’t quite those two things, but he’s proving to be another two: Willing, and a good listener.
It’s the main skill Shawn has learnt on the job, he tells me: Be quick to listen, slow to speak.
“The Bible is spot on in James 1:19, about being quick to listen and slow to speak and become angry. We need to practice active listening; it helps the caller feel understood, so he is more open for you to help him,” says Shawn.
“Too many people want to talk, but not many people are patient enough to listen.”
The paucity of open and honest conversations is a big contributor to the issues many of the callers to the hotline face, says Shawn, who is mature beyond his 27 years.
“Many of the family-related cases we come across stem from a lack of open and honest communication about issues in the family. Most people find it the hardest to talk to family, where they feel most vulnerable, and many family members can be quick to criticise.
“It’s really sad to see that many people are not willing to face their family-related issues, and would rather choose to flee from them.”
Working in a profession which daily tackles despair head on, Shawn tells me he’s come to see that “true joy can only be found in knowing Christ and being satisfied in Him”.
As I hear this spoken with an unashamed conviction, somewhere in me I commend someone like Shawn, who speaks life through the phone lines — into someone whose spirit is close to death.
I find the notion heroic until I catch myself. Why do I find it heroic? Shouldn’t this be normal?
What would the world around us look like if every Christian was a Samaritan? Each of us living out Proverbs 15:4 – soothing tongues serving as trees of life – or Proverbs 18:21?
In a culture of death, we need to be a shifting force that brings life. We’re called to love. We’re called to bring life to a parched land.
If you know anyone in distress or contemplating suicide, call the SOS hotline at 1800 221 4444, or email [email protected]. Visit their website to find out more about SOS or their campaign for World Suicide Prevention Day 2017.
You can also seek help at the following numbers:
Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800 283 7019
Institute of Mental Health’s Mobile Crisis Service: 6389 2222
Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800 353 5800
Tinkle Friend: 1800 274 4788