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'There's a picture of unhappiness emerging with children ... and I'd like to know why'

 

Dame Esther Rantzen arrives in Belfast today, her second visit to NI in a week, to raise awareness of her Childline charity, now in its 31st year.

She talks to Stephanie Bell about her fears over childhood depression, the difficulty of dating again after losing her husband of 33 years, Desmond Wilcox... and why she's breaking her own rule about not dancing on TV.

A vibrant Dame Esther Rantzen arrives in Belfast this morning, just four days after flying into Londonderry for a whirlwind visit last Friday, where she joined volunteers and staff to celebrate 10 years of Childline in the city.

Local people were bowled over by the warmth of the 76-year-old broadcaster, who is as committed and enthusiastic today about the charity as she was when she first set it up over 30 years ago.

And that's why she has made the journey to Northern Ireland twice within just a few days.

She will spend today with Childline's Belfast team, discussing disturbing new statistics issued just this month, revealing the charity had received over 50,000 calls last year from children struggling with mental health issues.

When she first launched Childline in 1986, it was to reach out to children suffering sexual abuse - very much a taboo subject at the time.

Over the years, it has become a vital lifeline for kids dealing with a wide variety of issues, from bullying to family problems, depression and abuse.

Esther is best-known for presenting the hit BBC series That's Life from 1973 until 1994, and has remained a constant on our TV screens ever since.

Although famous for her charity work, she doesn't take herself too seriously and regularly reveals her playful side by taking part in popular entertainment shows, such as a recent appearance on Celerity First Dates and Strictly Come Dancing.

Tonight, she will be on our screens in a new More4 show dancing again - much, she says, to her mortification, as was her appearance on Strictly, which saw her make an early exit in week three.

Speaking exclusively to the Belfast Telegraph during her trip to Londonderry, she was very much determined to promote Childline, but talked too about her busy lifestyle and her continued career in TV.

She says issues facing our children have changed over the decades.

The Foyle base currently has 54 volunteers, but needs more and Esther was there to appeal for people to come forward and donate their time.

"We urgently need more volunteers, as we can't meet the demand at the moment. If people would go onto the NSPCC website, they will find volunteering opportunities there. We supply training and you don't have to have any previous experience.

"It is only four hours a week and we have two bases, in Londonderry and Belfast, where staff work 24 hours a day and you can work any time that suits you."

In its 10 years, the Foyle Childline office has offered tens of thousands of child counselling sessions.

Last year alone, dedicated volunteers counselled nearly 7,300 children from all over the UK about a range of issues, with the most frequent concerns being low mood, family relationships and bullying.

With the growth of the digital world, volunteers have had to adapt over time, with children now increasingly getting in touch to discuss online issues like cyberbullying and sexting.

The base has also seen an increase in other serious problems, such as self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

"It is wonderful to see Childline thrive. The charity protects so many children from pain, but we could not do it without the warmth and compassion of our Foyle volunteers, who are so skilled and committed," she says.

"There can be no doubt that in many cases Childline's intervention saved children's lives. The confidence and willingness of children to speak out when they are experiencing such lows in their lives should be welcomed, but ultimately it means that we have even more responsibility to ensure that we can be there for every child who contacts us."

Concern over the increase in children seeking help with mental health issues and the new problems of sexting led her back today to meet staff in Belfast.

In her 30 years with the charity, much has changed in terms of the pressures on young people and this is reflected in the issues that Childline volunteers are dealing with.

"We are finding many more children are talking to us about unhappiness. They are dealing with feeling suicidal, self-harming, eating disorders and anxiety - a whole lot of mental health issues," she says.

"The prevalence of sexting and how it has become normalised and how difficult it has become for young people to extricate themselves from it is a big issue. Many feel they have brought it upon themselves and they feel ashamed and we are dealing with a lot of very frightened young people.

"When we first launched Childline and got 50,000 attempted calls, we knew we had opened the floodgates. Back then, they only had a telephone and very often that was in a phone box on the corner of the street. Now children have tablets, mobiles and computers and they have so many other ways to get in touch.

"What worries me so much now compared to the early days, when sexual abuse was the biggest problem and very much a social taboo, is that we now also have this profound unhappiness and suicidal thoughts, which wasn't nearly so prevalent back in 1986.

"There is this picture of children's unhappiness emerging and I would like to know why."

Esther is a regular visitor to Northern Ireland and says she never ceases to marvel at the dedication and talent of people supporting her charity work here.

"The only thing I do find a bit worrying is that every time I come here, there seems to be an election.

"The last time it was the American election, this time it is the UK election, so I am not sure if I am an electoral jinx.

"I do love coming here, although I never have enough time to have a proper look around Belfast. I tend to come to the office and then leave, although one time I did get to visit the Giant's Causeway and see that wonderful coastline. That was amazing."

Her TV work these days does often show her lighter side. She is a regular on The One Show and says she was delighted that a recent appearance on The Celebrity Chase saw her and her team win £10,000 for Childline.

"I still do a bit of TV. I am in a fairly outrageous documentary, which I believe is showing on More4 tonight called The Baby Boomers' Guide to Growing Older.

"They forced me to learn the French jive and after my unbelievable results on Strictly - when I was voted out after three weeks and was lucky to last that long - I promised I would never dance again in public, so I broke my cardinal rule."

Esther left some viewers feeling emotional when she opened up about the death of her late husband, Desmond Wilcox, while appearing on Celebrity First Dates last year.

She was hoping to find love and admitted it was difficult to start dating again in her seventies, after being married for 33 years to BBC executive Desmond, who died in 2000.

She was matched with 68-year-old Irish lawyer John, who put his foot in it when he referred to her age.

Esther laughs about it now: "He blotted his copybook. How could he say such a thing? It was a lot of fun. He was absolutely delightful until he mentioned my advancing years. He was splendid company and quite funny, he did make me laugh.

"He did send me a very nice bunch of roses, but I am afraid there was no way back from that."

Today, it is her work with Childline and her newest charity, the Silver Line, a helpline to help combat loneliness in older people - which takes up most of her time. She has no intentions of retiring and is one of a band of popular female presenters, including Northern Ireland's own Gloria Hunniford, who continue to break the mould as strong women surviving in a field where ageism against women has been rife.

She says: "I think TV is learning that viewers enjoy older people if they are talented and are good at what they do. I am hoping that TV producers are now remembering that women don't have a sell-by date."

Pressed for time, she finishes by returning to the reason why she is here, and that is making sure people are aware of the great work of Childline and the urgent need for more volunteers.

"We know that this is a time where everyone is under more financial pressure than ever before, but as the figures show, Childline is still a much-needed service. The will of our ever-generous volunteers is there to do the work, listening to children and young people who have no one else to turn to.

"Now we need everyone else to play their part to help sustain the funding that enables us to be there for every child.

"With up to 90% of the NSPCC's funding coming from the public, we constantly need this support to keep vital services like Childline running, so that we can recruit, train and retain more volunteers who can be there, ready to provide support for every child who needs our help."

  • Anyone interested in volunteering with Childline should visit: www.nspcc.org.uk/volunteer. To donate to the Londonderry office, text FOYLE to 70744 to donate £5. Children and young people who wish to talk to Childline about anything that is concerning them can do so in confidence online, or by phone, at any time: www.childline.org.uk, or freephone 0800 1111

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