At the small York Samaritans office in Nunnery Lane, the phones have been ringing off the hook.

"They have been going all the time," says Samaritan Steve Angle. "As soon as you put the phone down following one call, you get another one."

That's not really surprising. We're not used to being cooped up in our homes for days at a time - many of us with little to do except watch box sets, follow online exercise videos, or skype friends and family in an attempt to keep some kind of personal contact with loved ones.

Add to that the threat of a deadly virus hanging over us all, and it is unsurprising many people are feeling stressed, anxious, lonely and even frightened.

The small team of volunteers who work from the Samaritans York office aren't experts in the coronavirus. They're not even counsellors, says Steve. They're just trained listeners who can offer a sympathetic ear to those who feel desperate or lonely.

As so many people clearly do at the moment. "This is such an anxious time," he says. "There were a lot of people upset at not being able to see their mother on Mother's Day. There are parents separated from their children; children unable to visit their elderly parents. It is particularly hard time for people who already have mental health issues. A lot of people just want someone to share their concerns with."

At a time like this, the confidential listening service offered by the Samaritans is more vital than ever. Yet earlier this week, when Boris Johnson announced details of a stricter lockdown across the country, it seemed for a while as though the Samaritans service might have to close.

Across the country, the Samaritans went into a 24-hour 'stoppage' while the charity desperately sought advice from the government about whether it could continue.

Thankfully, Health Secretary Matt Hancock quickly confirmed in the House of Commons that Samaritans had 'Key Worker' protected status so that they could travel into their local offices and keep the service going.

So that is exactly what the small team of volunteers in York is doing. They are observing all the distancing and hygiene measures needed to comply with the government's Coronavirus Standards. They won't be offering the 'face-to-face' service that they normally do, where someone who wants to meet a Samaritan for a face-to-face chat can call in at the office. They will be cleaning the office scrupulously, keeping as much distance from each-other as possible - and any volunteer with even a hint of a cough or sniffle will have to stay way and self-isolate at home.

But they will be there in their small Nunnery Lane office, answering those calls. "In fact, we've got volunteers booked up for shifts for the next three weeks!" says Steve.

Samaritans? They're heroes, all of them. Not that they would agree...

So who are these volunteers putting themselves out so that there's always someone there to listen to those who are lonely, desperate or feeling cut off?

They're just ordinary people who want to do their bit. There are 140 volunteers on the books at York Samaritans, all willing to give up time to listen. They are people like Paul Huscroft, a 57-year-old ex-RAF enlisted man who has been a Samaritan for six years; Stevie Richards, 59, a civil servant who works in HR; and of course Steve Angle, a 68-year-old semi-retired company director who has been a Samaritan for 25 years.

They all share that one thing in common, though: a desire to make a contribution. "I have had a pretty lucky life," says Steve. "I just felt that I wanted to give something back."

They are certainly doing that. The York Samaritans are part of a network of more than 200 branches around the country that, between them, provide a 24-hour listening service.

It is a service that fulfilled a desperate need even before the coronavirus struck. Across the country, the organisation received five million calls every year - that's a separate call from someone in distress every few seconds - as well as three million emails.

Even before coronavirus, the number of people taking their own life was on the in crease - in 2019 there were two suicides every day, an increase of 12 per cent on the year before. Seventy per cent of all suicides were men: in fact, the Samaritans say, suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. Men under 25 are the most at risk - a shocking waste of young potential, and a harrowing indictment of the pressures on younger people today.

Those pressures come from various sources: but the rise of social media is clearly one factor, says Steve Angle. It can be virtually impossible for young people to escape from constant peer pressure or even bullying. And yet at the same time, in another way, people are more isolated; interacting with others on social media rather than in person. In a time of coronavirus, that may be a good thing. But longer term, it cannot be conducive to good mental health.

Farmers are another high risk group: one farmer takes his own life every week on average, according to the Samaritans. But even worse is the situation in prisons. Someone locked up in prison is nine times as likely to take their own life as somebody not in prison.

At prisons like Full Sutton near York, there are inmates who themselves have Samaritan training, and who can see other prisoners face to face.

But there are also dedicated mobile phones which can be used by inmates to call one number and one number only - that of the Samaritans.

Most volunteers at the York branch have taken calls from prisoners.

"I had a call from someone who was spending his first night in prison, and he was frightened," Paul Huscroft says.

Stevie Richards, meanwhile, once had a call from a prisoner who had been placed in solitary confinement. He was in solitary for a reason. "It turned out he had beaten somebody up because they had disrespected him," Stevie says. "But at the time he needed to talk to someone. It is not our job to judge."

That is something Samaritans never do - judge the people who call them for help. Nor do they betray confidences, ever.

It is a matter of trust. People who call the Samaritans need to know they can talk in confidence, and say anything - and that it doesn't matter who they are. In a way, the fact that they are simply speaking to a disembodied voice down the phone makes that easier.

The same discretion and absolute confidentiality applies to someone who calls and says they are thinking of taking their own life. The Samaritans believe that if a caller has decided that that is what they want to do - well, that is their choice. The Samaritans will listen and support the caller. "We will do everything we can to try to make them see things in a different way," says Steve. "But without their permission we would not call an ambulance."

If the same person called back an hour and a half later and said they'd changed their minds and didn't want to die, it would be a different matter. And then the Samaritans would stay on the line, listening until the ambulance arrived.

You don't have to be feeling suicidal to talk to the Samaritans, however. People call for many different reasons - sometimes just because they are lonely.

Paul once had a call from an elderly woman whose husband had recently died. Every Saturday, her husband used to go out to buy bread, and would always ask 'what bread shall I buy?'

When he was gone, the bereft old lady called the Samaritans and got through to Paul. "What bread shall I buy?" she asked.

If you need to call the Samaritans, the number is 116 123