Samaritans is a registered charity aimed at providing emotional support to anyone in emotional distress, struggling to cope, or at risk of suicide throughout Great Britain and Ireland, often through their telephone helpline.
Its name derives from the biblical Parable of the Good Samaritan although the organisation itself is non-religious. Its international network exists under the name Befrienders Worldwide, which is part of the Volunteer Emotional Support Helplines (VESH) with Lifeline International and the International Federation of Telephone Emergency Services (IFOTES).
Samaritans was founded in 1953 by Chad Varah, a vicar in the Church of England Diocese of London. His inspiration came from an experience he had had some years earlier as a young curate in the Diocese of Lincoln. He had taken a funeral for a fourteen-year old girl who had killed herself because she feared she had contracted an STD. In reality, she was menstruating. Varah placed an advertisement in a newspaper encouraging people to volunteer at his church, listening to people contemplating suicide.
The movement grew rapidly: within ten years there were 40 branches and now there are 201 branches across the UK and Ireland helping many, deliberately organised without regard to national boundaries on the basis that a service which is not political or religious should not recognise sectarian or political divisions. Samaritans offers support through over 21,200 trained volunteers (2015) and is entirely dependent on voluntary support. The name was not originally chosen by Chad Varah: it was part of a headline to an article in the Daily Mirror newspaper on 07 December 1953 about Varah’s work.
In 2004, Samaritans announced that volunteer numbers had reached a thirty-year low, and launched a campaign to recruit more young people (specifically targeted at ages 18-24) to become volunteers. The campaign was fronted by Phil Selway, drummer with the band Radiohead, himself a Samaritans volunteer.
Chad Varah Breaks with Samaritans
In 2004, Varah announced that he had become disillusioned with Samaritans. He said, “It’s no longer what I founded. I founded an organisation to offer help to suicidal or equally desperate people. The last elected chairman re-branded the organisation. It was no longer to be an emergency service, it was to be emotional support”. One in five calls to Samaritans are from someone with suicidal feelings. Samaritans’ vision is that fewer people will die by suicide.
The core of Samaritans’ work is a telephone helpline, operating 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Samaritans was the first 24-hour telephone helpline to be set up in the UK. In addition, the organisation offers a drop-in service for face-to-face discussion, undertakes outreach at festivals and other outdoor events, trains prisoners as “Listeners” to provide support within prisons, and undertakes research into suicide and emotional health issues.
Since 1994, Samaritans has also offered confidential email support. Initially operating from one branch, the service is now provided by 198 branches and co-ordinated from the organisation’s head office. In 2011, Samaritans received over 206,000 emails, including many from outside the UK, and aims to answer each one within 24 hours. In 2009, Ofcom introduced the first harmonised European numbers for harmonised services of social value, allocating 116 123 to Samaritans. This number is free to call from mobiles and landlines. From 22 September 2015, Samaritans has promoted 116123 as their main number, replacing the premium rate 0845 number previously advertised.
In 2014, Samaritans received 5,100,000 calls for help by phone, email, text, letter, minicom, Typetalk, face-to-face at a branch, through their work in prisons, and at local and national festivals and other events.
Samaritans volunteers are given rigorous training, and as such they are non-judgmental, empathic and congruent. By listening and asking open questions, the Samaritans volunteers help people explore their feelings and work out their own way forward.
Samaritans does not denounce suicide, and it is not necessary to be suicidal to contact Samaritans. In 2014, nearly 80% of the people calling Samaritans did not express suicidal feelings. Samaritans believes that offering people the opportunity to be listened to in confidence, and accepted without prejudice, can alleviate despair and make emotional health a mainstream issue.
In 2013, following extensive consultation with journalists and editors throughout the industry, Samaritans produced a set of guidelines outlining best practice when reporting suicide. Since its publication, the organisation has received many awards in recognition of its work influencing the way in which suicide is reported.
On 29 October 2014, Samaritans launched the Samaritans Radar app, which Twitter users could activate to analyse tweets posted by people they followed; it sent an email alert to the user if it detected signs of distress in a tweet. However, because Twitter users were not notified that their account was being monitored in this way, concerns were raised that the service could be abused by stalkers and internet trolls, who would instantly be made aware that an intended victim was potentially feeling vulnerable.
Following concerns, the service was suspended on 07 November 2014, nine days after launch. Joe Ferns, policy director for Samaritans, said in a statement: “We have made the decision to suspend the application at this time for further consideration”. He added: “We are very aware that the range of information and opinion, which is circulating about Samaritans Radar, has created concern and worry for some people and would like to apologise to anyone who has inadvertently been caused any distress. This was not our intention”. The app was later withdrawn completely.
Samaritans have a strict code of caller confidentiality, even after the death of a caller. Unless the caller gives consent to pass on information, confidentiality will be broken only in rare circumstances, such as when Samaritans receives bomb or terrorism warnings, to call an ambulance because a caller appears to be incapable of making rational decisions for themselves, or when the caller is threatening volunteers or deliberately preventing the service being delivered to other callers.
In November 2011, the Board of Trustees UK agreed a motion breaking with confidentiality in the Republic of Ireland by agreeing, “To provide confidential support to children but report to the Health Service Executive any contacts (from either adults or children) where it appears a child is experiencing specific situations such as those that can cause them serious harm from themselves or others.” In 2011, Facebook collaborated with Samaritans to offer help to people in distress. This led to ‘cold case’ calling, which some believed was an infringement on people’s privacy. An Irish journalist wrote of her experience of receiving such a communication.
Through its email service, Samaritans’ work has extended well beyond the UK and Ireland, as messages are received from all around the world.
Samaritans’ international reach is through Befrienders Worldwide, an organisation of over 400 centres in 38 countries offering similar activities. Samaritans took on and renamed the Befrienders International network in 2003, a year after it collapsed. Some members of Befrienders Worldwide also use the name Samaritans; this includes centres in the United States, India, Hong Kong, Serbia and Zimbabwe, among others.
The Volunteer Emotional Support Helplines (VESH) combines Samaritans (through Befrienders Worldwide) with the other two largest international services (IFOTES & Lifeline), and plans a combined international network of helplines. In their roles as emotional support service networks, they have all agreed to develop a more effective and robust international interface.
- The Samaritans Hong Kong (Multilingual Service).
- The Samaritan Befrienders Hong Kong.
- Samaritans of Singapore.
- Samaritans USA:
- This was formed in 2005 when Samaritans of Boston (established 1974) joined forces with their Framingham branch.
- Samaritans is also a certified member of Contact USA (a Lifeline International member).
- There are Samaritans offices in other regions of Massachusetts and the US operating independently with a common mission and philosophy.
A number of other helplines exist that offer a similar service to Samaritans. These are often aimed at a specific sector/group of people.
- One example is Nightline:
- A student-run listening and information services, based at universities across the country, offer a night time support service for students.
- Each service is run specifically for students at a particular university/geographical area, and most Nightlines are members of the Nightline Association, a registered charity in England, Wales, and Scotland.
- The NSPCC’s ChildLine service is similar to Samaritans in some ways:
- NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) offers support for children only, but Samaritans supports both children and adults alike.
- The NSPCC does not usually support adults.
- Another example is Aware:
- A national voluntary organisation, based in Ireland, which provides supports to individuals who experience depression with their families and friends.
- It provides a Helpline service, as well as nationwide Support Groups and monthly lectures, which seek to educate and increase awareness of depression.