What is the Samaritans (UK)?


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).

Brief History

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.

Media Guidelines

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.

Samaritans Radar

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.

International Reach

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.

See also:

  • 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.

Similar Charities

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.

On This Day … 08 November

People (Births)

People (Deaths)

  • 2007 – Chad Varah, English priest, founded The Samaritans (b. 1911).

Hermann Rorschach

Hermann Rorschach (08 November 1884 to 02 April 1922) was a Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. His education in art helped to spur the development of a set of inkblots that were used experimentally to measure various unconscious parts of the subject’s personality. His method has come to be referred to as the Rorschach test, iterations of which have continued to be used over the years to help identify personality, psychotic, and neurological disorders. Rorschach continued to refine the test until his premature death at age 37.

Education and Career

Rorschach, in his early years, attended Schaffhausen Cantonal School in Schaffhausen, Switzerland. Rorschach was a bright student from the beginning, and he often tutored other students at his school. After Ernst Haeckel suggested a career in science, Rorschach attended Academie de Neuchatel in 1904 studying geology and botany. After just a single term, he transferred to the Universite de Dijon to take French classes. The same year he enrolled in medical school at the University of Zurich. While studying, Rorschach began learning Russian, and in 1906, while studying in Berlin, he travelled to Russia for a holiday.

Travel was a large part of his life after medical school. On a trip to Dijon, in France, he met a man who taught him about Russian culture. Torn by the decision whether to stay in Switzerland or move to Russia, he eventually took a job as first assistant at a Cantonal Mental Hospital. While working at the hospital, Rorschach finished his doctoral dissertation in 1912 under the psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, who had taught Carl Jung. The excitement in intellectual circles over psychoanalysis constantly reminded Rorschach of his childhood inkblots. Wondering why different people often saw entirely different things in the same inkblots, he began, while still a medical student, showing inkblots to schoolchildren and analysing their responses. This dissertation contained the origins for his ink blot experiment.

All the while, Rorschach remained fascinated by Russian culture. In 1913, he obtained a fellowship opportunity in Russia, where he continued to study contemporary psychiatric methods. Rorschach spent some time in the village of Kryukovo outside of Moscow, and in 1914 he returned to Switzerland to work at the Waldau University Hospital in Bern. In 1915, Rorschach took the position of assistant director at the regional psychiatric hospital at Herisau, and in 1921 he wrote his book Psychodiagnostik, which was to form the basis of the inkblot test.

Chad Varah

Edward Chad Varah CH CBE (12 November 1911 to 08 November 2007) was a British Anglican priest and social activist from England. In 1953, he founded the Samaritans, the world’s first crisis hotline, to provide telephone support to those contemplating suicide.


Varah was born in the town of Barton-upon-Humber, Lincolnshire, the eldest of nine children of the vicar at the Anglican church of St Peter. His father, Canon William Edward Varah, a strict Tractarian, named him after St Chad, who, according to Bede, had founded the 7th-century monastery ad Bearum (“at Barrow”), which may have occupied an Anglo-Saxon enclosure next to Barton Vicarage.

He was educated at Worksop College in north Nottinghamshire and won an exhibition to study natural sciences at Keble College, Oxford, quickly switching to Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE). He was involved in the university Russian and Slavonic clubs and was founder-president of the Scandinavian Club. He graduated with a third-class degree in 1933.

Clerical Career

Varah was initially reluctant to follow his father’s vocation, but his godfather persuaded him to study at Lincoln Theological College, where he was taught by the Revd Michael Ramsey, later Archbishop of Canterbury. He was ordained deacon in the Church of England in 1935 and priest in 1936. He first served as curate at St Giles, Lincoln, from 1935 to 1938, then at St Mary’s, Putney, from 1938 to 1940 and Barrow-in-Furness from 1940 to 1942. He became vicar of Holy Trinity, Blackburn, in 1942 and moved to St Paul, Battersea, in 1949. He was also chaplain of St John’s Hospital, Battersea.

The Grocers’ Company offered him the living of St Stephen Walbrook in 1953. He became rector of the church, designed by Christopher Wren, adjacent to the Mansion House in the City of London. The church was closed for structural repairs from 1978 to 1987. His son, Andrew, built chairs to replace its pews. Great controversy followed the installation of a large circular altar in travertine marble by Henry Moore, commissioned by Varah and his churchwarden Peter Palumbo. The matter was finally settled by the Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved in 1987, which granted a retrospective faculty for its installation.

He was a supporter of women priests, but preferred the traditional 16th century Book of Common Prayer (1549) to the liturgical changes authorised in 1966 (Book of Common Prayer (1928). Despite the absence of a permanent congregation, the church remained popular for weddings. He officiated at the marriage of Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones, only daughter of Princess Margaret, to actor Daniel Chatto in 1994.

He was made an honorary prebendary of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1975, becoming senior prebendary in 1997. He retired in 2003, aged 92, by which time he was the oldest incumbent in the Church of England.


Varah began to understand the problems facing the suicidal when he was taking a funeral as an assistant curate in 1935, his first church service, for a fourteen-year-old girl who had taken her own life because she had begun to menstruate and feared that she had a sexually transmitted disease. He later said “Little girl, I didn’t know you, but you have changed the rest of my life for good.” He vowed at that time to encourage sex education, and to help people who were contemplating suicide and had nowhere to turn.

To that end, Chad Varah founded the Samaritans in 1953 in the crypt of his church, with the stated aim that it would be an organisation “to befriend the suicidal and despairing.” The phone line, MAN 9000 (for MANsion House), received its first call on 02 November 1953, and the number of calls increased substantially after publicity in the Daily Herald on 07 December 1953.

He was director of the central London branch of Samaritans until 1974, and president from 1974 to 1986. He was also founder chairman of Befrienders Worldwide (Samaritans International) from 1974 to 1983, and then its president from 1983 to 1986.

Break with Samaritans

Later in life, Varah became disillusioned with the Samaritans organisation. He announced in 2004 that “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 an emotional support.”