Real Life: Many are called, few are chosen: The Samaritans urgently need 11,000 more helpers. Yet many volunteers are told they don't make the grade. Angela Neustatter asks what's wrong

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TWO days after Neal Sanders's close friend had committed suicide by drowning himself, Neal was on the phone to the Samaritans, yelling abuse. He remembers: 'I was so close to this man and yet I had no idea he was in such despair and I wanted to vent my guilt and fury. I kept shouting, 'You are supposed to stop people committing suicide]' Not that I had any idea if my friend had ever phoned them.'

For half an hour the volunteer listened, then broke in: 'You couldn't help your friend and he is dead. Why don't you try to help someone else?' Neal was so furious that he hung up and went straight to the Samaritans' office to confront the voice in person. By the following weekend he was on a selection course to be a Samaritan and he has remained one for the past 10 years. He says 'I do it because once in a while you can help someone to see hope, and that gives me the sense that we all need of having a value.'

Around 22,500 people are Samaritans, lending their ears to those in crisis for almost four million hours a year. People talk to them about everything from loneliness, broken relationships, bereavement and Aids, to a predilection for dressing up in their wife's clothes, or the fact that they have murdered someone or are abusing a child. Logged into the Samaritans' collective memory is a comprehensive picture of how far and wide human despair stretches in our society. They can recite the fact that every two hours somebody kills themselves, and that 4,500 people a year choose this way out.

The Samaritans were founded 40 years ago by Chad Varah, a vicar from Humberside, after he had attended the funeral of a 14-year- old girl who killed herself when she began menstruating, thinking she had VD. His belief that anyone who is desperate should have the opportunity to talk to someone who will hear them in a non-judgmental way, remains the underlying principle of the Samaritans. Yet in their anniversary year, it seems that the Samaritans themselves may be in trouble. Many of their volunteers are falling by the wayside, and there is 'urgent need' for 11,000 new recruits. There is, says one ex-Samaritan, 'a chorus of discontent which is not heard, and means people who have come wanting to help, leave feeling fed up.'

A GREAT many people like the idea of being a Samaritan, and if the organisation took all offers the numbers would be quickly swelled. But a good number do not get through the rigorous selection and training process, and others who do find the rigid rules of conduct too tough. Counselling, advising, telling a caller what to do, passing judgment on their behaviour or offering personal views is forbidden and volunteers would be asked to leave if they were discovered doing these things. They would also be weeded out if they started forming personalised friendships on the phone. Simon Armson, the Samaritans's chief executive, explains: 'The point of 'active listening' is to help the person in distress explore their feelings safely. What we think or feel is not the point, and anything we say is only to facilitate the callers to say what they want. Simply having gone through a trauma yourself neither makes a person suitable or unsuitable to be a Samaritan. What is important is that they have dealt with their trauma.'

The Samaritans claim their methods have been tried and tested by decades of experience. But critics, both inside and outside the organisation, argue it is increasingly out of touch: the selection criteria, they say, are too negative and narrow, the code of practice too dogmatic, and the whole Samaritan image altogether too cosy, middle-class and do-goody.

Bob Reilly is a long-serving Samaritan who is becoming seriously worried. 'I have been involved in selection and I think it is a process which can be too cautious. For example, a woman came in who interviewed very well and seemed very wise and caring. She had three sons in prison and I felt the experience of coping with that would have given her a particular empathy. But it was seen as too risky to take her in case she turned out to be unstable. I suspect she would have had more to offer some of the callers than a woman who was taken, who appeared to have suffered nothing more traumatic in life than the death of her dog.' He also believes the selection of primarily white middle-class people has set an image for the Samaritans which puts off volunteers from different social circumstances.

Roseanne Barry, an enthusiastic 27-year-old actress, talks with considerable anger of leaving because, 'I was made to feel so unwelcome by a clique of elderly ladies who clearly felt I threatened the status quo. For instance, during a discussion about the way we work, one lady said very nastily to me that I shouldn't challenge her as she had been a Samaritan for 17 years. I was really upset. Then I was also ticked off for telling a client about something another caller had done which had helped them feel better. It just all seemed so absurd. I was doing my best to help people in distress and suddenly I was under attack. I didn't want to stay then. Out of the six volunteers who joined with me, four have left.'

Margaret Forgan, who has 20 years' experience and is director of the Birmingham Samaritans, acknowledges that some volunteers leave after a relatively short time. But she believes that there are many other reasons rather than dissatisfaction with the organisation. Many go because they cannot take the stress, she says, or because they do not get a big enough feeling of virtue, or are shocked by sexually explicit calls, or feel too profoundly upset by failing to prevent a suicide. However, she concedes that others find the rigidity of the code of conduct too hard to abide by. 'It seems absurd to some, when they believe that telling their own similar experiences would help. But the point is, once you do that, you make the call about yourself - and we are here simply to listen. And we can't afford to have people who may have very strong personal convictions put them across to a person who is vulnerable.'

THE office of the Birmingham Samaritans is a small, functional room with cubby-holes fitted round the walls, where calls are taken. A large board with volunteers' numbers written on is fixed up at one end, but there is little other decoration. The morning I visited, the volunteers included Dick, a gaunt chap in fluffy pullover and spectacles, reminiscent of a scout leader, who had been a Samaritan for 10 years; Shirley, a young black woman in a large floppy hat, who said that although she didn't volunteer because of her colour, 'I do think it is important that there are different races and types available for callers. Sometimes they want their own kind of person to talk to'; and Angie, a small soft-voiced woman, who talked about joining the Samaritans because 'My life seemed very fortunate and I thought I might be able to help people less lucky'.

By mid-morning little was happening and coffee all round was suggested. Then the phone rang, and Dick jumped to his feet. Another rang and Angie went, but immediately came back: the caller had hung up. Margaret the director, whose manner is a study in warmth and common sense, explained: 'People sometimes just want to hear a voice. They may take fright, having rung. Sometimes there will be several false alarms, then they talk.' Dick emerged to talk, in serious tones, about the distressed caller he had just heard. An integral part of what Samaritans do is to support each other after a difficult call, discussing with each other how they have coped.

A quiet morning suddenly became busy as several phones rang in quick succession and a client, a young black woman, arrived for a one-to-one session with Shirley. Cubby-holes were filled with volunteers listening, bent heads visible through the glass windows. The occasional gentle interjection - a couple of words asking the caller if they felt all right, or urging them to stay on the phone and speak when they felt ready - could be heard. Margaret explained: 'We want callers to feel they can stay as long as they wish on the phone, and for some people, simply being quiet but knowing they are in touch with a person is enough. The calls we do cut off are the sexual ones. London used to have something called the 'Brenda' line for people who wanted to masturbate, but we are not here for people's sexual fantasies.'

ALL Samaritans have their 'horror stories'. Neal, the volunteer who joined after his friend drowned, recalls a young-sounding girl who said she had taken an overdose and asked him to stay on the phone as she went to sleep. He says: 'I heard her getting drowsier and drowsier, and then everything went quiet. I felt just terrible and I wanted to cry. Almost immediately afterwards another call came from a woman who was very upset because her cat had died. I listened for about 40 minutes, then I did the unforgivable thing and broke in saying, 'I know it is terrible, but it was only a cat'. I was so preoccupied with the young girl's death I didn't think. I heard later that she had killed herself.' He feels that 'the code of pratice may be fine, but there are times when you just know, instinctively, that you could help a person by suggesting a way forward or telling them why you understand.'

The number of people turning to the Samaritans is on the increase, demonstrating that people do believe they can help. But society is very mixed, and callers represent a cross-section which at present is not matched by the Samaritans themselves. Samaritans like Bob Reilly believe it is time for those selecting to stop taking 'a preponderance of middle-aged women who appear to have pulled straws out of a hat to decide whether they will help the rainforest, Bosnia or the Samaritans'. Equally, allowing Samaritans like Neal more flexibility to give 'the help you believe to be best' might provide a valuable empathy for callers, and give volunteers a greater sense of involvement. If volunteers continue to leave in large numbers and after a relatively short time, the Samaritans may soon be facing a crisis of their own.

An Everyman programme about the Samaritans, 'The End of the Line', will be shown tonight at 10.30pm on BBC1

(Photograph omitted)