The Best of…Call the Samaritans for a Shoulder to Lean On

Published on December 24, 2001, Pawtucket Times

             Chestnuts roasting on the fire.  Green wreaths with red ribbons. Soothing Christmas music coming from speakers in shopping malls.  Houses decorated with long strands of brightly colored lights.  Decorated evergreen trees.

            Got the Christmas spirit?  Many do, but many don’t, especially if they are seniors.

           With Christmas tomorrow, not everyone is feeling the holiday spirit.  The  holidays may be a very difficult time for seniors, particularly the elderly who have lost spouses and friends, have painful chronic illnesses or feel isolated or powerless, says Cynthia Barry, M.S.W, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Rhode Island.  At this time “some may feel depressed and even suicidal.”

            Even drinking during the holidays can put seniors at a higher risk of experiencing depression and thinking about suicide, Barry adds.

            Even drinking during the holidays can put seniors at a higher risk of experiencing depression and thinking about suicide, Barry adds.

            But the stigma of mental illness will keep older persons from seeking out needed treatment for their depression or suicidal thoughts, Barry says.  Those who feel that they have a problem with depression should visit their local mental health care, neighborhood health canter, the family physician or even private practitioners re commended by their health plan, she says.

            Carolyn Pellegrino, deputy director of Self Help, Inc., a nonprofit community action agency in the East Bay that provides senior case management to all upper East Bay communities and both Pawtucket and Central Falls, , notes that 60 percent of her older clients usually involve  persons who just worry to those experiencing severe clinical depression.

           “There’s a lot of depression out there,” Pellegrino says, adding that today’s seniors, who grew up in a different era, were told not to dal with their feelings of depression, “just get on with your life.”

          Although depression, like heart diseased, is an illness, seniors will get treated for their heart disease, but not their depression, Pellegrino says.  Oftentimes, a combination of medication and therapy can do wonders about a person’s depression, she states.

          A newly released Public Service Announcement (PSA) tells seniors to seek out another resource to fight the holiday blues.  Last week, WHJJ and B101 played a PSA featuring well-know songwriter Bill Withers who, after singing a few lines of his popular song, “Lean on Me,” urges his radio listeners “feeling low with nowhere to turn to contact The Samaritans.”

        Directed to the lonely, the depressed and suicidal, the PSA is intended to raise the awareness of the existence of The Samaritans of Rhode Island, a nonprofit program dedicated to reducing the  occurrence of suicide by reaching out to the despairing and lonely.

          Denise Panichas, serving as The Samaritans’ interim executive director states the communication-based program, established in Providence in 1979, teaches volunteers to effectively listen to people who are in crisis.  Conversations are free, confidential, most important anonymous.

         A rigorous training program teachers volunteers to feel and think without expressing personal judgements or opinions, Panichas says, noting that the listening technique, called “befriending,” calls for 90 percent listening and 10 percent talking.

          Last year, more than 20,o00 Rhode Islanders called The Samaritans, Panichas said.  The Samaritans, Panichas said.  “It doesn’t matter what the problem is, be it depression, suicidal thoughts, seeking resources for mental health services in the community or being  lonely and just needing to talk,” she said.

          Panichas notes that The Samaritans also offers other needed resources to caregivers and older Rhode Islanders. “We do community education programs and also have our peer-to-peer Safe Place Support Group for those left behind by suicide.

          For seniors who are looking for something to do with their time, the art of “befriending” is something that anybody can do.  Becoming a compassionate listener to someone in need.

         Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-freelance writer who covers health care, aging and medical issues.  He can be reached at


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