Dear Chad Varah: A few words of advice from an agony columnist to the founder of the Samaritans.

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I feel a bit awful writing you this letter on the birthday of the Samaritans, which you founded 40 years ago tomorrow. After all, your motives in setting it up were so admirable, to 'alleviate human misery, loneliness, despair and depression'. To dare to criticise your baby feels rather like telling God that Jesus has got a bit behind in class.

The truth is that, as I see it, your baby hasn't grown up. Oh, the psychoanalytic 'more listening than talking' technique was spot-on in the Fifties, an appropriate reaction to the 'do this, do that' approach of the time. And of course you never gave information about self-help groups - they virtually didn't exist.

But despite changes in the counselling movement, which now involves more interaction with clients, your volunteers remain, essentially, passive listeners. I know because I've had letters from people who've rung the Samaritans desperate to get information about self-help groups and been met with nothing but a sympathetic refusal. I've even rung myself a couple of times, in suicidal despair, and felt afterwards that I'd been talking to a brick wall.

My real gripe with you is your detachment, crystallised in one of your Seven Principles. Do you really mean it when you say that: 'A caller does not lose the freedom to make his own decision, including the decision to take his own life?'

Isn't allowing someone to bump himself off, when you could save him, taking detachment (or 'respect for the caller' as you might call it) to the point of not caring a pin? Isn't this hands-off reaction against every human instinct?

I recently met a man who only lived to tell the tale of his suicide attempt because a friend had left a wallet behind in his flat. The Samaritans, whom he had rung, had taken his refusal of their offer of an ambulance at face value.

Surely you, who care so much about depressed people - and have helped so many thousands - know that it's characteristic of many suicides to reject help, even though the fact that they call you is a sign of their desperate anxiety to be saved? And when unhappy people ring, I wish volunteers weren't so wary of breaking Principle Four ('Volunteers are forbidden to impose their own convictions or to influence callers in regard to politics, philosophy or religion') that they sometimes deny the caller hard information or, worse, the gift of the ultimate conviction, love.

The idea that responding in a human and heartfelt way is dangerous or unhelpful when caring for depressed people, is one that is fearful and outdated. I know you don't have any formal connection with the organisation any more, but apparently you're still around as an 'inspiration'. Your famous Principles were last updated 10 years ago. In order to continue some of the marvellous work you do, they need to be updated much more drastically. Your volunteers are full of love. Allow them to give more of it.

(Photograph omitted)

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