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Loneliness and isolation - the helpline providing support for English-speakers in France

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Loneliness and isolation - the helpline providing support for English-speakers in France
Photo: maxxyustas/Depositphotos
10:36 CEST+02:00
A major global survey judged France to be one of the hardest countries in the world for foreigners to settle in. So what are the problems that people encounter when moving here?

From practical difficulties in making your way through a new country to the loneliness that comes with being the outsider, it's not always easy making the move.

But for people who are really struggling there is help - founded in 1974, SOS Help is a voluntary support telephone line for the English-speaking community in France. Linked to the Samaritans, it provides anonymous and confidential emotional support. 

We spoke to one of the volunteer listeners about the type of problems that they hear from English-speaking immigrants in France.

“The main problems people call us about are solitude and loneliness.

"We have people calling who have gone for days without speaking to anyone. So we provide company as well as comfort” says Ben*. 

There is one telephone line and it is open daily from 3pm - 11pm. The line is manned in shifts by a team of volunteers and they try to keep the call duration at less than 30 minutes unless the person is in severe emotional trauma. 

“Volunteers are called ‘listeners' because that's what we do,” says Ben.

SOS Help has between 25 - 30 ‘listeners' and they take more than 5,000 calls each year on everything from depression and bereavement to trouble making friends, though this number is rising.

Ben has volunteered with SOS Help for 13 years, ever since he went to an expat event and saw a stand advertising the group. He ‘listens' three times a month on four hour shifts and there is also a monthly debrief meeting for volunteers, to make sure they themselves are not affected by the suffering they encounter. 

“These sessions are very important for 'listeners'. They're held with a psychotherapist and they help us to watch out for any transference, if volunteers start to take on the problems of callers.”


The main nationalities of callers are British and Americans, though there are also a surprising amount of French callers. 

“We don't really know why they call, but some admit that they call us because they can't get through to SOS Amitié (the French telephone helpline). I think people also feel at ease talking to a foreigner rather than a fellow countryman, it creates a little distance.” 

Ben says there are three categories of callers: one-off callers who are in the middle of some crisis; short-term callers going through a distressing experience over a period of time; and regular callers.

“Crucially, there is no way to know who you are going to speak to. Listeners are encouraged to volunteer on different days of the month, so it is impossible for someone to try to speak to a specific person. It's very important that no one develops a dependence on a particular 'listener'.”

Apparently, more women than men use the service and the average age of callers is between 40 - 65 years old. “We do also have student callers, but they are normally one-off calls just after they have arrived in France about difficulties settling in and meeting people.”

Ben notes that Brexit has not produced any noticeable difference in calls. 

“We have been a little surprised by this. But I think this is because people are calling in to us with mental distress about emotional issues.

"Brexit, on the other hand, is too big and too concrete, people struggling with it need practical help .”

If you need help and support, SOS Help can be reached on 01 46 21 46 46.

*Ben is a pseudonym to protect the volunteer's anonymity.

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