Saving The Life-Savers of Beachy Head

There is a man on the edge of the cliff who looks distressed. He’s pacing up and down the line, just a few steps from the drop.

This is Beachy Head, where the ground falls away suddenly, hundreds of feet down to the rocks and sea below. These bright white chalk cliffs are beautiful but deadly.

“We need to get to him fast and see if he’s okay,” says Mark Pybus, director of the Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team which patrols here 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The chaplains don’t mince words: they say they are looking for the lost and the broken-hearted and trying to prevent suicide.

The director watches through binoculars as his colleague rushes to the man on the next headland, then suddenly slows. This is to make his breathing regular and his voice normal. “We don’t want the other person to become any more agitated than they are.”

The team was given the Queen’s Award For Voluntary Service in the Birthday Honours List in 2014. The chaplains had face-to-face encounters the previous year with 368 people who were considered to be at risk. Some had indeed come to take their own lives, but chose not to do so after meeting a chaplain who listened to their troubles and put them in touch with others who could help.

But instead of celebrating the royal accolade, the chaplains are facing a crisis of their own. The money has run out.
The four professional chaplains employed to work with a team of 14 trained volunteers have just been told they are to be made redundant. If no more cash comes in by the end of the month, their last wages will be paid by selling off the team’s Land Rover patrol cars, sophisticated thermal imaging cameras and other kit. That will mean the end.

“If you take the equipment away, then the volunteers will have nothing to work with. We will have to finish,” says Mr Pybus, a 57-year-old former financial sales adviser who is now director. That is why he is talking to me, breaking a code of silence that has been in place since the team was founded 10 years ago. The chaplains have always refused all interviews and publicity, until now.

“I do believe that more lives will be saved if we talk about this and get the financial help we need to continue.”

This hefty, confident man strides over the downlands in his red fleece and high-visibility jacket, both of which identify him as a chaplain. He shouts a warning to a young lad who has got too close to the edge. There are faded warning signs and a negligible fence made from a single wire, but only at the highest point. “We can’t stop people being stupid but we can make them aware of the risk they are taking,” says Mr Pybus. “The drop is 500ft and the edge is not stable.”

The lad realises his mistake, turns pale with fright and hastens inland. So the chaplain takes up his binoculars again to watch as his colleague – who wants to be known only as T, for the sake of his privacy – reaches the agitated man on the next headland.

“We usually ask an innocuous question about the weather or the view. The response will tell us a lot about the condition of that person.”

For a while, the two figures are silhouetted against a shimmering sea. These initial conversations can go on for hours, even in extreme weather. Some people refuse to respond at all. But if they are eventually willing to engage in conversation, the chances are that they will also come away and accept help.

“I’m told by people who know better than me that feeling suicidal is not a permanent state of mind,” says the team director. “Therefore, we will do what we can to help people to not take their lives at that point of crisis, which is not going to last forever.”

The Samaritans agree. Their telephone number is advertised at Beachy Head, but their help is available to anyone who calls from anywhere, at any time. Chantel Scherer-Reid of the Samaritans says: “When a person reaches a point where they feel suicidal, they often lose sight of being able to work through their problems. Talking can really help a person to see a way through this, and we would encourage anyone who is struggling to cope to reach out for help,” she says. “People can come to us knowing that we provide a safe space for them to talk and to be themselves.”

This is not a competition for souls. The chaplains would rather people found help from the Samaritans or any other source before they ever felt the need to go to Beachy Head. “If you are troubled at all, please try and find someone to talk to about it,” says Mr Pybus. “That is the best thing to do.”

If people do come to what he calls the Head, though, he wants to be there to help them. He also wants them to know the truth about jumping. “People say this is a certain way to die, but that is not true.” Some hit ledges on the way down and have to be rescued by the Coastguards, who risk their own lives to do so. Some survive the fall but are very severely and permanently disabled. “I believe it is something like 85 per cent of people who survive say they wish they had not jumped.”

The chaplaincy team was started 10 years ago after a pastor in the local town of Eastbourne had a vision he believed to be from God. To this day, you have to be a committed Christian to train as a chaplain, which upsets some people who are not. Mr Pybus is adamant. “We pray before every single session, to be in the right place in the right time with the right words. We believe you need to be Christian to do that.”

The hardest thing to cope with is when a chaplain is talking to somebody and they jump anyway. That happened four times last year. “They are going to need TLC, tender loving care. The best place for that is within a small group in a local church.”

What about taking donations from unbelievers? “I have no problem taking donations from non-Christians. I might even be cheeky and say God owns it all, he can make it come from wherever he wants.”

Despite all this, he insists it is “most unlikely that Christianity or the Bible will come into conversation at the cliff edge. We have to show true humility. We have to show them that we care and that we are completely non-judgmental and that they can tell us things they can’t tell others.”

Sometimes information does have to be passed on to the authorities, though. “We had a woman tell us she was at the edge because she had taken a hammer to her husband and left him at home. There was no way we could keep that to ourselves.”

Each volunteer must complete 40 hours of training before going out with a more experienced partner. “We have safety standards. Chaplains need to be far enough away that if the client went to jump they could not grab them. Otherwise there are two people falling.”

Don’t people have a right to jump if they want to? “Sometime they will tell us in impolite language to go away. We don’t. They might say, ‘I want to jump, you can’t stop me.’ We might say, ‘I’d really like to try. I’d like to understand what’s got you here. I’d like to try and help if I can.’”

As we talk, his radio squawks. T says the man on the edge, who is in his fifties, has agreed to go with him to the chaplaincy hut by the Beachy Head Tavern. “They will have a chat over a cup of tea and probably a bit of cake,” says Mr Pybus, whose wife makes the cakes. Later, the man agrees to go with police to a local hospital to be assessed by a mental health nurse.

“Once we have made contact, we have a duty of care to that person,” says Mr Pybus. “We will not walk away from them until we know they are in the hands of someone who can help them, whether that is the police, health professionals or their family.”

It works both ways. They are the ones who ask the chaplains to look out for individuals who might be coming to Beachy Head. Five years ago, there was a surge in number, sparked by the publicity surrounding a desperately sad case in which a couple came here with the body of their deceased son in a rucksack. Despite the surge, the number of people taking their own lives here has remained stable, at around 30 a year. “We must have been doing something right.”

However, the volunteer chaplains at the time could not cope with the extra demand as well as holding down jobs, so four were employed permanently. “We have constantly struggled with the costs of that,” says Mr Pybus. “We are failing to raise the £10,000 a month needed to keep going.”

The plan now is to reduce the team to a director, administrator and two part-time chaplains as well as the volunteers, if they can find the cash. One of those faced with redundancy is the chaplain known as T, a former builder who joined the team after being helped through a crisis in his own life. “I look at the people up here and see a little bit of where I used to be,” he says. “I want to let them know that they are loved and cared for.”

The first person he ever helped was a young woman in her twenties on crutches. She was sitting right on the edge on a beautiful summer’s day. After 20 minutes trying to talk to her, he saw his chance. “She started putting her effects behind her on the grass. When she passed her phone back I reached out and grabbed her hand. I apologised for having to do it but I said, ‘I can’t let you go.’ I was able to pull her up to a safer place.”
That was dangerous. Wasn’t he breaking the rules and taking a big risk? “I felt on that occasion I was doing the right thing.” She did not resist. “The emergency services were already on their way. She went into their care and I went on with my patrol.”

There is no self-importance in T, no sense that he considers himself a hero. He just feels privileged to be allowed to do this. He is still on call at midnight when the police ring. A woman has told them her boyfriend is suicidal and driving to Beachy Head right now.

The chaplains have powerful spotlights and heat-seeking cameras that will help them find him, but the phone goes again before they can be put into use. The boyfriend’s car has been spotted by a number plate recognition camera on one of the only two roads leading in to Beachy Head and a police patrol has already managed to intercept him.

“If the police want to take over a situation we step back,” says Mark Pybus. “It’s a fantastic relationship. We are honoured that they are happy to work with us.”

So the chaplains can stand down, for now. Exhausted as he is after a demanding day, the director just hopes they can find a way to avoid standing down permanently. “We are out saving lives 24 hours a day,” he says. “Unless we can get some significant funds by the end of the month, this service will have to end and we won’t be here to save lives in the future.”

* This article first appeared in the Telegraph in June 2014. The response was inspiring: people gave enough money for the chaplains to keep going. There is still a need for regular financial support and for volunteer chaplains, however. The Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team is at Call Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90

Published by Cole Moreton

Award-winning interviewer, writer and broadcaster.

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