Getting through

Curriculum Vitae

Name: Debbee Arthur.
Job: Helpline manager.
Qualifications: Certificate in counselling, diploma in counselling and psychotherapy (Dip Psych).
Last job: Supporting the director of People First – a national self-advocacy organisation for people with learning difficulties.
First job: Actress.

In 1953 a young vicar and founder of Samaritans, Chad Varah, working in a City of London parish, set up what he called a “999 for the suicidal”. He was, in his own words, “a man willing to listen, with a base and an emergency telephone”. From the first call made on 2 November that year helplines were born.

And the idea has engaged generations since. The Telephone Helplines Association directory lists nearly 1,300 helplines. This is perhaps unsurprising given the advantages of availability and anonymity. The phone is also less intrusive and the caller has control, allowing them to disclose issues at a time and pace comfortable for them.

The charity Respond runs a helpline for people with learning difficulties who have been abused or who have abused others, and for their carers and professionals. “It became clear from analysing the types of calls taken that a more specific service tailored for children and young people was needed,” says helpline manager Debbee Arthur.

“We know that if we can put in intervention early on, there is less chance of the abuse or trauma affecting their life. If you have an adult disclose to you something that happened 30 years ago you know that for those 30 years they have in some way been blighted by either having to suppress those emotions or having their behaviour misunderstood. So often the behaviour of people with learning difficulties is put down to the fact that they have learning difficulties rather than what might be the case: an emotional reaction to trauma.”

As with any venture, success is buried in the planning. “The first thing I did was to review all the existing policies and procedures to see whether there was need for updates or changes or whether there were any gaps that needed filling,” Arthur says. “To do this we also did research on the latest legislation in terms of working with children and identified where there are differences; for example, between child protection and protection of vulnerable adults policies.”

Networking to find out about others’ experiences was a crucial and valuable step also. “Through the Telephone Helpline Association I contacted other helpline managers and workers and found that the sharing of good practice is generally open and alive in the field,” she says. “This was gratifying considering you can come across organisations being very protective of their own knowledge and working practice.”

Arthur cites the example that has led her to consider updating the call monitoring system from paper to a computer database. She adds: “A worker I met from Rethink happily sent me an example on disc of their database for me to work from. True sharing!”

The challenges now facing Arthur in managing the helpline include raising its profile among a client group that is traditionally difficult to reach. “I have to extend the helpline use by young people. We will try to reach our audience through accessible posters and leaflets targeted at special schools and colleges and professionals who work with young people.”

However, Arthur believes that taking the message and information out personally will be more powerful. “Outreach will be crucial,” she says. “A worker and I will be talking to people in schools and colleges and letting people know.” But with only two staff (soon to be three) this will be a limited activity. “We will need to look regionally initially. We are based in London but don’t want to just target there. We will, through necessity, have to go where the largest numbers are.”

Arthur has already recognised that the opening times (1.30-5pm, Monday to Friday) need expanding. “Schools close at about 3.30 – so we will be open until 7pm twice a week. Also, as young people might not want to make calls from home, we need to be available at lunchtime – so three days a week we will be open at midday.” And only time will tell how successful this innovative and unique helpline will become. 

The children and young people’s helpline number is 0808 808 0700


  • Don’t re-invent the wheel. Build on the experience already there.
  • Include other helpline staff and young people in planning.
  • Network – most helplines are happy to share best practice.

  • Hold the information needed for every Helpline query in your head. You can always call back.
  • Expect qualified counselling staff never to react emotionally to stories they hear.
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