By Dame Esther Rantzen, Founder of The Silver Line and ChildLine
As the winter nights draw in, and the candles are lit, it’s tempting to believe that families around the country are all gathered together with our arms around each other, keeping those we love physically and spiritually warm.
But of course it’s not like that for every child, and not for our older people either. For millions of them, home is a cold and lonely place.
There is no lonelier sound than a child describing her feeling that life is not worth living, because she believes that nobody loves or cares about her. And, sadly, since we launched our special helpline for older people, The Silver Line (0800 4 70 80 90), I have heard that echoing loneliness in their voices too.
Some ring the helpline just to say goodnight to somebody. They tell us their greatest fear is that if they die, nobody will find them for days, or even weeks. Why? Child Line (0800 11 11) has always heard from desperate children who have rung the helpline because they had nowhere else to turn.
Now that we take one million telephone and on-line contacts a year from children and young people, the biggest single problem they talk to us about is serious unhappiness at home.
I asked some young people who came to visit our counselling room why that is.
“Because,” a boy told me, “We have nobody to talk to.”
They feel alone, and I believe they are physically and mentally more alone than ever.
Tragically, there have always been children who suffered terrible cruelty. Twenty-nine years ago, when we launched ChildLine children told us terrible stories of abuse, neglect and bullying which they had been suffering for years.
Today cruelty of all kinds still happens to children, usually at the hands of those closest to them.
A week ago the Children’s Commissioner for England announced a survey estimating that 450,000 children are suffering abuse, but only one in nine of them ask for help.
The rest are imprisoned in silence, threatened and intimidated, too afraid to disclose the abuse they are suffering.
But alongside abuse, and neglect, and violence at home, and bullying, and all the various forms of cruelty children have always described to ChildLine, thousands of young people today are suffering profound depression. Self harm, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts seem to be at epidemic proportions.
Is it because the old extended family has been shattered? Is it due to the fact that so many families live many miles apart? Is it caused by the pressures of social networks and the internet? Is the precious Jewish tradition of families meeting around a table, praying, eating and talking together, dying out? Does life today create such frantic pressure that families have no time to sit down, turn off their screens, and listen to their own children?
It’s not just the children, old people too are casualties of the way we lead our lives.
The Silver Line (free, confidential, open 24/7) in its first two years has taken more than 600,000 calls. Most of the callers are over sixty-five. Nearly all live alone.
They ring the helpline for information, friendship and advice, but most of them simply need to hear a friendly voice. So we train volunteer Silver Line Friends who work from their own homes, are matched with a caller and ring them every week. Over time they really get to know each other, and it becomes a real friendship.
As one caller told us: “When I get off the phone I feel like I’ve joined the human race.”
And another said: “It’s so good to speak to someone who really seems to value my opinion. and my memories.”
I have asked some of our Silver Line callers why, when many of them have families living close by, they are still alone so much of their time.
The word that constantly recurs is “busy”. “ My daughter is so busy.” “My son has so little time.” “I never see my grandchildren because my daughter is busy running her own company.”
Once again, the picture they draw is of a society so pressured, so stressed, that we have run out of time for the little things, like making a phone call, or taking that short drive to visit granny.
The hopeful lesson I have learned from ChildLine and The Silver Line is that the telephone can break through this intense loneliness. And when we do, we can transform lives.
So as this is the time of year to light our candles, why don’t we make a pledge at the same time.
Let’s regularly make time for the crucial little things.
Because to our children, to our old people, that phone call and that short visit is the proof they need that we do love and value them, and that we really do care.
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