FEATURE17 May 2021

Samaritans CEO Julie Bentley on wellbeing, working together & imposter syndrome

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Charities Features Impact People Wellbeing

With a passion for social justice, Samaritans chief executive Julie Bentley believes we need to change the systems that damage wellbeing, she tells Jane Simms.

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Samaritans has had a busy year. Between 23 March 2020, the day the UK went into the first Covid-19 lockdown, and 20 December, volunteers from the suicide prevention charity answered a call for help every seven seconds, providing support more than 1.7m times and spending over one million hours on phone and email conversations.

The charity also launched a self-help app, and, in collaboration with Mind, Shout, Hospice UK and the Royal Foundation, introduced a new service, ‘Our Frontline’, giving targeted support to NHS and other keyworkers.

Yet, despite growing demand for its support, volunteer numbers fell – by up to a third at one point – largely because of self-isolation and social distancing measures in its 201 branches.

So, have the past few months felt like a kind of baptism of fire for Julie Bentley, who joined as chief executive in November 2020?

On the contrary, she says. “Obviously, it’s a bit challenging joining an organisation during lockdown when you are stuck in your spare bedroom and can’t go out and meet people. But I found that the charity had responded extraordinarily well to the pandemic. It had managed to sustain our 24/7 service throughout, which is a great testament to the central staff team who support our volunteers, and to the volunteers themselves, who stepped up and did extra shifts to keep the service running.”

Bentley is a highly experienced charity chief executive. Samaritans is her fifth top role in 17 years: most recently, she was at Action for Children, and before that she led Girlguiding, the Family Planning Association and the Suzy Lamplugh Trust. She’s been a trustee of Shelter and is currently co-vice-chair of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. She began her career in the sector as a youth worker specialising in drug and alcohol addiction.

A fierce advocate for those whose interests she represents, Bentley has waged a number of high-profile campaigns – including calling for the right of people with learning disabilities to have a sex life, and helping girls speak out on issues including equality, sexual harassment and the media’s distortion and sexualisation of young women’s bodies.

Difficult conversations

“What stands out about Julie for me is her courage,” says Simon Blake, chief executive of charity Mental Health First Aid (England). “She is always willing to have conversations others might find difficult.” In late 2020, the two published a book, Sisters and Brothers, based on the deaths of their own much-loved siblings, with profits going to bereavement charity Cruse. They wrote the book to fill a void: “We should talk more about end of life, to demystify it, to normalise it,” wrote Bentley in a personal blog in December.

She is also a fierce advocate for the sector. In an earlier blog, she upbraided chancellor Rishi Sunak for his use of the word ‘gentle’ in relation to charities. She wrote: “On a daily basis, charities are supporting women terrorised by abusive partners; they are caring for people in the final stages of terminal illness; they are supporting people considering ending their own life; they are protecting children who have suffered unimaginable abuse; and, not least, they are feeding people who otherwise would be going hungry because of the abject inequities in our country.

“These are not ‘gentle’ matters. They are hard, cruel, painful, unfair, messy and ugly matters and it requires strong, determined, driven, resilient people to respond to them.”

Passionate about justice and equity, Bentley chooses her roles carefully. “I only go into charities where I genuinely believe in what they do and to which I have something valuable to add,” she says. She also thinks carefully about when to leave. “I am privileged to be a custodian for a period of time, during which I have a job to do, and when I feel I’ve done it, it is time to hand over the baton.”

She’s a long-time admirer of Samaritans: “To be able to support people when they are really struggling emotionally, and help them feel more optimistic and hopeful, just by listening to them, is very powerful.”

How does Bentley see her job here? “I’ve not come in with some amazing ‘eureka’ vision; I want to build on the momentum that already exists,” she says.

Samaritans rebranded in 2019 in an effort to appeal to younger people and convey its full range of services. Its many and varied fundraising and awareness initiatives include Brew Monday, which aims to turn ‘Blue Monday’, the third Monday in January, on its head by encouraging people to have a chat and a cuppa (it happened virtually this year).

Last year, it launched the Feel Good Book Club, to encourage self-care and raise vital funds. This year, it hopes to launch the fifth phase of its ‘Small Talk Saves Lives’ campaign, together with the rail industry, to empower the public to save lives on the railways and beyond. It is also planning the next phase of ‘Real People, Real Stories’, which focuses on encouraging men to open up.

For all this, says Bentley, “there are things I want us to get better at”. She has three key priorities.

“We need to be available to people where and how they want us,” she says. People can now contact Samaritans via email, and it is trialling a webchat service.

With service demand unlikely to wane any time soon, the charity is also seeking to attract new volunteers (there are currently around 20,000 ) by offering less onerous time commitments – such as fortnightly or monthly shifts.

Bentley also wants to address public perceptions of Samaritans, which is still widely believed to be a telephone helpline service for people who feel suicidal. In fact, just one in five calls comes from people who have suicidal thoughts, with the majority experiencing a range of emotional distress, from loneliness, isolation and hopelessness, to fears about losing their jobs, to feeling unable to cope, to being a burden on family and friends. “The aim of Samaritans is to stop people getting to the point where they want to take their own life,” she says.

Samaritans offers face-to-face help, too – in the community, at music festivals, and even in prisons, where listening is done by trained fellow prisoners.

Bentley has won numerous awards, including, in 2019, the Charity Times Outstanding Individual Achievement Award. The judges praised her “unique leadership style”, “honesty, humour and empathy”, “passion for social justice” and “the culture of transparency and trust” she engenders in the organisations for which she works.

Judith Moran, chief executive of Quaker Social Action, was one of those judges. She says: “Julie has no ego. She is very confident in her own leadership but characterises herself as ‘an Essex girl made good’. Her humour and humility help her broker relationships.”

Bentley believes her passion for justice was born at secondary school, when, “despite being terrified by the prospect,” she decided to stand for the position of head girl. From a working-class background, she was raised in “a very loving family” but spent most of her youth “extraordinarily insecure, and nervous of my own shadow”.

She stood for head girl to challenge the assumption among the students that the most popular girl would win the laurels. “That fired something in me: it didn’t seem fair. Surely it should be the person who would do the job best.” Being elected was a pivotal moment: “I felt I’d found my purpose, I made a difference – and I became a lot more confident.”

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Structural change

In the first quarter of 2020, MEL Research conducted a study on behalf of Samaritans to gauge how beneficial the helpline was to callers. While the majority felt less lonely, more hopeful, and better able to cope as a result of the call, there was little lasting effect on those with suicidal thoughts. Given the complex needs of many callers, this is unsurprising.

But it raises the question as to whether Samaritans can ever be more than a sticking plaster on the running sore of growing societal inequalities.

“We are so much more than a sticking plaster,” insists Bentley. “People tell us time and time again that reaching out to Samaritans has had a lasting and positive impact on their lives. But that is not enough on its own. We need to try to change the structures and systems that create the scenarios in which people’s wellbeing is damaged in the first place.”

Samaritans works closely with policy- and decision-makers in government, and the focus of Bentley’s conversations at the moment is the need for what she describes as “a properly-funded long-term recovery plan around people’s mental health”.

She says: “Everyone is affected by this pandemic – from young children, who are forming a concept of relationships through the lens of social distancing, to children and teenagers who are missing out on school, university students struggling with isolation, parents trying to juggle jobs with home schooling and looking after ageing parents, and so on. All these things take their toll.”

She pays short shrift to any suggestion that we are building resilience. “Lots of people are finding it extraordinarily difficult,” she says. “And people are not experiencing this equally. People who are already disadvantaged are struggling more.”

The mental health impact of the pandemic will be huge and long-lasting, she warns. Data suggests that suicide rates have not risen over the past year, “but we know that suicides increase during recessions”.

Any mental-health recovery plan needs to address a range of societal issues, she insists, including criminal justice, housing, employment – and, of course, mental health services.

Loneliness and unemployment are two of the most significant worries among people who have sought Samaritans’ help with pandemic-specific issues over the past year (around one in five of all callers), but lack of access to mental health services, just when they most need it, is also a huge issue.

“People with acute mental health needs ring us at 3 o’clock in the morning because they have nowhere else to go,” says Bentley. “We know that people with a diagnosed mental health condition are five to 15 times more likely to die by suicide than other people.”

The other two groups of particular concern are young adults (suicides among women under 25 have nearly doubled since 2012 ); and middle-aged men (particularly those on lower incomes), who are at the highest risk of suicide.


Firm foundation

To address the deep and complex root causes of the problems people experience, Bentley believes that working together with other charities is more powerful than ploughing a lonely furrow – despite growing competition in the sector for the ‘donor pound’.

“You have to collaborate and co-operate, otherwise you waste time and resources in duplicating effort, you lose focus – and beneficiaries suffer,” she says.

She works hard to forge alliances and foster synergies – and when she and her team develop the new strategy at Samaritans, they will focus not just on what they should be doing, but also what they shouldn’t be doing – “because someone else is doing it better”.

In forging such alliances, she builds on firm foundations. She’s always been at pains, says Moran, to “encourage, support and look out for people” – both those lower down the career ladder and peers in the sector: “There is a whole swathe of leaders who are very grateful for the support and encouragement Julie has shown them over the years.”

This support and collaboration are part and parcel of her humble and authentic leadership style. Bentley freely admits that the MBA she did, funded by a legacy from her mother, helped not a jot.

Before she died, more than 20 years ago, Bentley’s mum admitted to her daughter that she used to worry a great deal about how she would get on in life, given how shy and nervous she used to be. What would she think if she could see her now? “I think she’d be a bit gobsmacked,” she says.

Bentley is not at all shy these days. “But I still get anxious and suffer from imposter syndrome, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing because it keeps you humble,” she says. She’s open about this, to encourage others: “People might assume I find it all easy and natural, and often I don’t. Leadership is really tough and you have to be resilient – and it’s fine to acknowledge that, because we’re all human.”

This article was first published in the April 2021 issue of Impact.