When a caller threatens suicide during a live phone-in

Thursday 25 October 2012, 15:00

Charles Miller Charles Miller edits the College of Journalism blog and produces documentaries for BBC History and Business. Twitter: @chblm

Iain Dale at work One call on Iain Dale’s phone-in show on LBC last week stopped me in my tracks. The washing up had to wait.

When I spoke to Dale (above) about the call afterwards, he said he’d been aware that “one word out of place and you could provoke something very dramatic that could lose you your job”.

The subject of the phone-in was depression, and the caller’s name was Bill. Before being put on air, Dale told me, Bill had said he had recently tried to end his life. But once he was live on air the story became more immediate: “I’ve even tried today to end it,” Bill said.

What’s more, he said he still intended to kill himself. He didn’t want to do something theatrical such as jumping off a bridge, but “I just want to stop feeling like this… I just want to end up in the ground.”

Dale told me his rule on this kind of subject is not to play the amateur psychologist. On air, he told Bill he was “not qualified to offer advice”. But he did urge Bill to call the Samaritans or another service for help.

Bill told him that the Samaritans were “absolutely wonderful”, and so was his local mental health group - but “I can’t waste any more people’s time”. There were others to whom these charities could more profitably give attention: “I need help but I don’t want it.”

Dale said afterwards that Bill’s cold rationality made the call all the trickier: a more emotional call would have given him “something to hold on to”. But here “there was nothing I could do to break through the armour.”

Indeed, Bill told Dale, as politely as possible, that he didn’t think he would call the Samaritans. Dale signaled through the glass to his producer that they weren’t going to interrupt this call for the travel news.

In handling an intense call like this, Dale told me he found he could at the same time be aware of it being so public (“London’s biggest conversation” is the station’s slogan) and also “kind of forget that you’re on air”.

He tries to respond to callers as he would if he were talking to them privately - partly because “the worst you can do is exploit the situation because it makes good radio.”

Dale was hired for his knowledge of politics but has developed a knack for covering more personal and emotional subjects, often in vivid detail, with shows on rape and abortion, for instance. He’s found himself choking up a couple of times on air, as when he agreed to do a show about grief soon after his mother had died.

And there have been plenty of callers who couldn’t carry on because they got too emotional. Dale says he has learnt to step in and talk for 30 seconds to let them compose themselves. Otherwise, he says, he tries not to speak unless he has something to say.

Iain Dale Iain Dale Dale’s coverage of these kind of issues has been recognised this year with not one but two nominations in the Mind Media Awards (in both the speech radio and news and current affairs categories). He is proud of how he’s been able to extend his work into these areas, and somewhat surprised: “It never occurred to me that I’d do this kind of thing.”

As for Bill, Dale and his producer called him back three times after the show and the producer had a long conversation with him.

The advice from the Samaritans about how to respond to someone in Bill’s situation is in line with how Dale handled his call: “Respect what they tell you, don’t pressure them. If they don’t want help, don’t push them. Sometimes it’s easy to want to try and fix a person’s problems, or give them advice. Let them make their own decisions.”

Without promising to take Dale’s advice about seeking help, by the end of his long call Bill was guardedly appreciative: “Thank you for taking the call. I’ve got a lot off my chest.”

Dale’s relaxed, genuine style must surely have helped, or at least avoided making things worse. He didn’t panic when he couldn’t get a commitment from Bill to do what he was asking him to do. Nor did he go overboard in trying to demonstrate, either to Bill or to his audience, how much he cared. At the end, he just acknowledged that it had been a special call by saying goodbye with “it’s been an emotional few minutes talking to you.”

It was for his listeners, too.

You can hear the call, starting at about 35 minutes into the show, on 17 October.

The BBC’s editorial guidelines on the portrayal of suicide are here. They recommend, among other things, use of the phrases “taking one’s life” or “killing oneself” rather than “commit suicide” which they say can be offensive to some people following the decriminalisation of suicide in 1961.



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