Anglia Ruskin University announced as the first ever Samaritans 'hub'

A Cambridge University will be the first-ever Samaritans "hub", the charity has announced.

The hub at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) in Cambridge will be manned by students who will respond to messages solely on the charity's new online chat service which is available to people across the UK who are struggling to cope.

Gareth Germer, chief operating officer of Samaritans, said the initiative will help give health and social care students "very valuable" skills.

"For Samaritans obviously it allows us to grow our volunteer numbers which

then allows us to take more calls," he added.

Student volunteers receive training before volunteering in the hub, with around 20 to have completed this by early February and more to be trained in groups of around 10.

The hub opened for its first online chats in late 2021.

"We're in a pilot phase for our online chat service so it's limited opening hours at the moment, just evenings," said Mr Germer.

"But the plans are that we'll be scaling up the opening hours for online chat ultimately to 24/7 to mirror the opening hours for our telephone service which is probably what we're best known for."

He said there is one other hub at London Bridge that is solely providing the online chat service.

"We've launched these services in the pandemic," said Mr Germer.

"Certainly the overall trend is one towards where people are increasingly seeking support through digital means."

He said this may, in some cases, be because people struggled to find a private space to make a phone call.

The online chat service is accessible through the Samaritans website.

"You enter a waiting room then you have a very simple interface where you are able to write to a Samaritans volunteer who will then correspond with you in real time," Mr Germer said.

"On average I think those sort of interactions can last up to 40 minutes or so, they might be longer they might be shorter, we certainly don't put a time limit on them."

He said that in time students may want to take on additional responsibilities within the hub, such as rota planning, becoming a mentor for new student volunteers, or even take on management responsibilities.

"That will take us three years to probably build up the cohort to the point where the university hub is mature," he said.

"But I hope that's a good example of how it will give those students skills for life but also employability.

"It's a competitive market out there."

He said that Samaritans hopes to establish a second hub at ARU's Chelmsford campus, and to open hubs at more universities.

Colin Hill, Anglia Ruskin Samaritans hub service director, said: "There is a growing need for people to have a variety of options if they are struggling and need to reach out, and the pandemic has only made this need more urgent.

"That's why it's vital we test and develop our online chat pilot, through initiatives such as this Anglia Ruskin University partnership, so eventually Samaritans can offer more digital, written-word choices for those who prefer communicating in that way.

"I hope the success of this university partnership will be the first of many."

Professor Nigel Harrison, pro vice chancellor and Dean of the Faculty of Health, Education, Medicine and Social Care at ARU, said: "We are honoured to be supporting such an important charity and the presence of the Samaritans Hub on campus will also hopefully help to further normalise conversations around mental health amongst our own students and staff."