The Samaritans' online service may offer the only outlet for those who feel unable to pick up the phone, says Roger Dobson
Leo Leibovici is hunched over a screen near the window. The text of a long, incoming message is flowing at great speed across and down his computer screen, and scrolling over into one, two, three and then four pages. Soon, 10 pages have arrived from an anonymous electronic mailing address in Finland. Almost every line of text contains the outpourings of grief, despair and depression of a young man apparently intent on killing himself. Every new page as it scrolls into view reveals more of the personal heartache and anguish that has driven the young man to the verge of suicide. Quickly, and in silence, Mr Leibovici reads the message and then leans back in the chair, hands on head, eyes closed, as he begins to compose and prepare a reply to a man he will never see, hear or speak to.

Mr Leibovici is director of the Bracknell branch of the Samaritans. This small room is one of a handful of Samaritan centres that handles e-mail messages, and the text in front of him is one of 1,200 electronic cries for help from Internet users that have been dealt with over the past 12 months. "We were very surprised at the numbers of replies because we didn't really advertise it; we simply put a message on the Internet," he says.

The young author of these 10 pages, who could be anywhere in the world, has chosen to remain anonymous and used a charge-free facility in Helsinki to keep his identity a secret. It erases his e-mail address and his message is passed on to the Samaritans with a code number. When Mr Leibovici sends his reply, the code number will electronically and secretly link up with the young man's e-mail address. "It is the electronic equivalent of a box number. We do not know the name or the country where he lives," he says.

The e-mail scheme has proved an effective way of reaching people at high risk of suicide who are reluctant to talk about their feelings. Between 1982 and 1992, the suicide rate among men aged 15 to 24 rose by 71 per cent. Seventy-five per cent of people who contacted the Net service reported having suicidal thoughts, compared with 25 per cent of telephone callers. Why the rate should be so high is unclear, although theories abound.

"Maybe people feel safer using e-mail and feel it is easier to reveal feelings," Mr Leibovici says. It also seems to be true that the Net appeals to loners, people who may have difficulty in expressing themselves in social situations, or who have low esteem, or who are susceptible to addictive or obsessive behaviours.

Researchers are also looking at the possibility that the Net may itself be addictive and thus contribute to users' distress. In a report, Howard Shaffer, a leading US expert on addiction, says: "Online service is not as reliable as cocaine or alcohol but, in the contemporary world, it is a fairly reliable way of shifting consciousness."

Mark Griffiths, of Nottingham Trent University, is a leading specialist on technological addiction. "Many people may think the idea of someone being addicted to TV or the Internet is nonsense because the perception of addiction is that there has to be a drug," he says. "But a number of no-drug behaviours are regarded by some authorities as addictive, including gambling and playing computer games."

During his research, Dr Griffiths has collected a number of accounts of possible addiction. In one study, a man described his experiences. "I get so angry when people tell me I spend too much time on the Internet. I sometimes feel guilty about my time on the Internet. I sometimes log on in the morning to steady my nerves."

Dr Griffiths, who has spent seven years investigating technological addiction, says this sort of account may suggest addiction. He is embarking on a new research project to examine Net addiction. Clues he will be looking for include people using the Net for long periods of time, obsessive traits in that usage and its intrusion into dreams. It is this kind of indicator that may highlight not just cases of addiction, but of young men at risk and potential users of the Samaritans' e-mail. The Net is perceived as a way of helping to advance and improve lives, but the Samaritans' experience and the new research may show that there are casualties and victims on the superhighway.

Samaritans' e-mail address: People who want to maintain their anonymity can use the Finland service: