Samaritans was founded 60 years ago, in November 1953 by Prebendary Dr Chad Varah CH CBE. The idea was seeded after he conducted the funeral of a 14 year old girl who had taken her own life, after she started menstruating and thought she was gravely ill. Chad vowed at her graveside to devote himself to helping other people overcome the sort of isolation and ignorance that had caused the girl to die in this way. He would do it through a combination of education and the provision of access to emotional support in times of need.
When he was offered charge of the parish of St Stephen Walbrook, London in the summer of 1953 Chad Varah knew that the time was right for him to launch what he called a '999 for the suicidal'. At the time suicide was illegal and many people who were in difficult situations and who felt suicidal were unable to talk to anyone about it without worrying about the consequences. A confidential emergency service for people 'in distress’ was what Chad Varah felt was needed to address the problems he saw around him. He was, in his own words, 'a man willing to listen, with a base and an emergency telephone'.
The first call to the service was made on 2 November 1953 and this date is recognised as Samaritans' official birthday.
When that first call was made, the UK was a very different place. Nearly everyone was white, racial and sexual discrimination was perfectly legal and homosexuality and abortion were not. Samaritans was the world’s first 24 hour telephone helpline which has grown from “one man in one room with one phone” to a service delivered today by 20980 volunteers in 201 branches across the UK and ROI. Someone contacts Samaritans every six seconds and over the last 60 years, more than 127,000 volunteers have answered over 115 million calls for help.
People can talk to Samaritans any time, in their own way and confidentially, about whatever is getting to them. They do not have to be suicidal, there is no typical person who calls Samaritans' helpline and there is no typical problem that people talk to us about.
Samaritans listens to people talk about job stresses, being out of work, money troubles, family struggles, relationship issues, trying to measure up, feeling alone, feeling worthless, feeling sad or angry all the time, getting into trouble, being abused, feeling suicidal, or needing to drink to get through the day. These issues have remained pretty consistent over the past 60 years.
What has changed is the ways in which people communicate with us. 60 years ago, many people did not have a telephone at home, and many people either had to use a public telephone or contact Samaritans by letter. Today the telephone is still the main way to talk to us, but emails and text messages are increasing rapidly, although we still have a small number of communications by “snail mail”. In addition we have an ever growing number of outreach projects, where Samaritans volunteers work in hospitals, schools, job centres, food banks and prisons.
Partnerships are a very effective way for us to pass our expertise to other organisations, particularly those working with vulnerable people. The growing dangers posed by the online environment are a concern so we have established partnerships with both Facebook and Google, and we also work to reduce suicide on the railway by working closely with Network Rail.
Suicide has always been a public health issue and Samaritans has played a vital role in society. In 2011, there were over 6, 500 suicides across the UK and the ROI. For every suicide, there are approximately 20 attempts made, which means in that same year, there would have been more than 120,000 attempts.
This is why it is important that Samaritans is available round the clock, every single day of the year. We provide that safe place to talk for anyone struggling to cope, whoever they are, however they feel, whatever life has done to them. We have six decades of being there for those people who need us and we will be continuing to do the same for the next 60 years and beyond.
To mark Samaritans’ diamond year, the charity is asking people to help them be there for the next 60 years. Please text ‘SUPPORT’ to 70123* to make a £3 donation.
Samaritans is available round the clock, every single day of the year. We provide a safe place for anyone struggling to cope, whoever they are, however they feel, whatever life has done to them. Please call 08457 90 90 90 (UK) 1850 60 90 90 (ROI), email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.samaritans.org to find details of the nearest branch.