The Samaritans deal with the emotional problems of millions of British people every year – and Christmas is the volunteers' busiest time of all

It is late evening in early December, and down a dark and easily overlooked mews in the centre of Soho, London, is the West End branch of Samaritans. Ring the bell and step inside, and you are confronted by low ceilings, 1970s decor, a burping watercooler, and, perhaps unexpectedly, an overriding sense of peace that is surely at odds with the levels of drama that must go on here at any given time of the day or night, 365 days of the year. But Samaritans doesn't make dramas out of crises. Quite the opposite. Go through another door, and you come across a row of tiny cubicles, each bearing two chairs, one table, and a prominently displayed box of Kleenex. In addition to being largely a telephone helpline service – and, more recently, an e-mail and text one, too – one can also visit Samaritans in person. Right now, two of the rooms are occupied. They will be for some time.

I'm met by Sal, the press and PR manager, and Leanne, who is co-director of the central London branch (Samaritans deals in first names only). They take me into a peeling corner office that further rams home the sensation of being taken back in time. Samaritans is, of course, a charity. Of the £10 million it raises each year – an astonishing sum when you consider that we are a) in the middle of a recession, and b) by all accounts suffused with charity fatigue – all the money goes, quite rightly, into the business of helping people. They leave the fancy HQs to the advertising industry.

"What we do here is listen," Sal says. "And primarily we are a listening service. We don't give out advice. Instead, we explore with the caller some of their options, but the objective is mostly for them to open up, and to help themselves."

They couldn't possibly offer advice, she continues, because they don't know enough about their callers' lives. But then they don't need to. They are not doctors or psychoanalysts, and know only a bare minimum about each caller. It is, Sal says, enough.

"Psychiatric research has found that a lot of the time that is all many people want: a friendly ear. Offer to listen to someone, and it can help reduce emotional distress. And so that is precisely what we do."

Though often believed primarily to offer support to those contemplating suicide, Samaritans actually deals with all manner of problems. In 2007, 80 per cent of its calls were for other issues. Many of the more recent ones have revolved around financial worries.

Sal introduces me to a volunteer. Duncan is one of the few male listeners here tonight – as is the case in so many charities, as many as two-thirds of the volunteers are female. Duncan, who is in his sixties, has been a "listener" in various branches for the past 13 years now. Like so many drawn to work for Samaritans, he became one after being on the receiving end of their help.

"I was much younger, in my twenties," he says, "and I was going through a difficult patch. They were so helpful, and I was so impressed by the service, and so grateful, that I decided that once my life was at a point where I felt more settled, then I would become one myself."

After a necessarily rigorous training course (about which more later), the listeners are required to fit a mandatory 15 hours a month – including one night-shift – around whatever else that may be happening in their busy lives. Given that many are in full-time employment and have families, they are not so much finding the time as making it, which is something else entirely.

"I suppose it just shows how fantastic people can be," Leanne says.

But why do so many do it? As far as Duncan is concerned, work like this puts everything else in life into perspective. "Sometimes you can have a bad morning yourself for whatever reason, but you come here into a place that is so calm and peaceful that you immediately start to feel more peaceful as well. And by the time you get into full Samaritans mode, you start to feel better – not just about your morning, but about everything."

He also suggests that by listening to the problems of others, you feel more able to deal with your own. "It equips you with all manner of skills," he says, and recalls talking to a woman once, early on in his experiences here, who told him that she had been cutting herself. "My response was to say how awful it must be to be in a situation like that. But she said that I didn't understand anything about her. Didn't I realise, she asked, that her cutting herself was the only control she had over anything in her life at that point?" He smiles. "If I didn't before, then she helped me to learn. She also taught me to shut up, at least until I learnt more about the caller." Which is, of course, the key to Samaritans' entire ethos: to remain wholly unjudgemental.

The cubicles are empty now for the time being, while in the phone room the night supervisor moves from listener to listener to ensure that all is well with each, the sense of collective support palpable. A lady comes in with a tray of coffee, because right now things are quiet. But it won't last that way for long. Christmas is coming, a time of enforced jollity and, for some at least, a reminder that the roots of all their problems lie within their own extended family. Consequently, this can prove one of the loneliest times of the year, loneliness virtually a by-product of the festive season. The Samaritans, as it was known up until 2004 (after which they decided to ditch the definitive), has provided an invaluable service to the country for 56 years now. It was started in 1953 by a vicar called Chad Varah, whose work in the local community alerted him to the magnitude of problems people were facing. A woman had come to him, newly pregnant and terrified, saying that she wanted to commit suicide. In the 1950s, there were an average of three suicides a day in London, and though Varah was able to help this woman, he realised that he could never help everyone by himself. He placed an advert in the local paper encouraging people to assist him in listening to those with problems. He was pleasantly surprised by the response he got. Within 10 years, there were 40 branches nationwide. Now there are 201. Varah died two years ago, but his legacy lives on. Today, Samaritans thrives, and the organisation has established links with similar initiatives all over the world.

Back in 2004, however, it registered a 30-year low in volunteers. This prompted a public campaign – fronted by Radiohead's drummer Phil Selway, himself a volunteer – to encourage younger people (aged 18-24) to enrol. It seemed to work. At last year's annual volunteers conference, 1,200 turned up, and not just, Sal says, "your traditional image of a good Samaritan – an older person perhaps, in twinset and pearls – but all sorts, of all ages, and from all kinds of backgrounds".

Though they now have more than 15,000 "listening" volunteers across the UK, Leanne says they need more, always more. They deal with 2.8 million calls annually, and recent suicide statistics alone – up to 6,000 a year within the UK and Ireland – suggest they have their work cut out for them. "Deciding to call Samaritans in the first place is an incredibly brave thing to do," she says. "To pick up the phone and choose to speak to a complete stranger and tell them that you are feeling really shit takes courage. A lot of first-time callers initially hang up several times before they find the strength to talk. What they need to know is that when they are ready, we are here."

Joe is a 19-year-old university student currently studying hard for his philosophy degree. For the past year and a half, he has been giving up much of his free time to man the phones at his local Samaritans branch in Havering, Essex.

"When I was 16 years old," Joe tells me, "I went through a bad period following the end of a relationship. I found myself increasingly plagued by depression. It was friends and family who suggested that I turn to the Samaritans."

Joe decided to contact them via e-mail, he says, "because I didn't feel quite brave enough to pick up the telephone". Many don't, and no longer need to. Samaritans receives tens of thousands of e-mails a year. This has now been followed by its text service, and it gets an increasing number of messages this way, primarily from younger people who, one imagines, often communicate their melancholy through unhappy emoticons like ;(. This, I suggest to Leanne, must prove quite a challenge for an operation that calls itself a listening service.

"It is, yes," she concedes, "but that's how the caller has chosen to contact us, and we must be respectful of that. So far, it's been tremendously successful. We've had people contact us who otherwise simply never would have. And that's what we try to stress, that we really are here for everybody."

Last week, the central-London branch held a candlelit vigil amid the early-evening streets of Soho, its volunteers a serene presence amid thousands of anxious Christmas shoppers. Their purpose here was twofold: to remind people of Samaritans' existence in times of need, and also to raise awareness of a charity that relies upon both donations and volunteers. Without either, it would simply cease to exist.

Potential volunteers, Leanne explains, undergo a training period of six weeks, and then a further six of mentoring before they become listeners. During this time – a time dominated by role-playing and expert advice on how to deal with all sorts of calls, and from all sorts of people, from the suicidal to the abusive – approximately a third will decide that this simply isn't for them, while a further third will fail to meet the necessary requirements. The remainder will likely go on to flourish.

"It's not a particularly easy undertaking and can often be quite daunting, at least initially," Leanne says, "because every call that comes in can expose you to absolutely anything. It could be someone standing on a bridge and threatening to jump, or someone who is lonely and calling in simply for a chat."

Joe suggests that the loneliest calls come at night. "There is a different atmosphere at night," he says, "perhaps because people can't sleep and they have a lot of time to think. We get a lot of sobbing then."

He recounts post-midnight calls from people in the grip of a panic attack who can't breathe, men and women who have been beaten up by their partner, people suffering from depression, and those with financial worries: "Anything and everything. But many of the calls end on a much more positive note than they began, which is incredibly gratifying."

And it is this, Joe insists, that makes a job that doesn't pay feel so very worthwhile. "The fact that you are giving up your own time to be there for someone in distress can't help but make you feel good," he argues.

"I'm constantly amazed by the generosity of people who give up their time," Leanne adds, "but I can't say I'm surprised by it. It is such a great thing to do. It builds your confidence in so many ways, and it makes you appreciate everything you've got. It's humbling work, but it's also rewarding, and you make great friends. I'd recommend it to anyone."

Back in the West End branch, the seven volunteers who will be here until long after the rest of us have gone to bed, are milling about in a room where voices never rise above a whisper. One young woman takes a sip from her coffee and reads her book. Her telephone rings. She finds her bookmark to mark her place, and answers it.

"Hello, Samaritans?" she says.

Then, leaning forwards slightly, she starts to listen.

For volunteering opportunities, visit or contact the national Volunteer Recruitment Line on 08705 627282. For emotional support, call 08457 90 90 90 or e-mail