With crisis calls expected to reach a new peak during the millennium celebrations, Britain's best-known helpline has seen its volunteer corps fall to 19,600 - a 15-year low and a loss of more than 1,000 telephone counsellors a year since 1994. So serious is the situation that the National Lottery Charities Board has awarded the group pounds 117,000 to help it fund a national recruitment drive.
The 4.5 million phone calls made to the Samaritans last year show the scale of the task they face during the next few weeks. New technology has only increased the workload, with their volunteers expected to answer 30,000 e-mails a year. Currently, the volunteer-to-staff ratio is 478 to one.
While fewer people are willing to listen and assist, suicides among young males have increased sharply during the Nineties, claiming the lives of 17 out of every 100,000 young men in 1997.
The Samaritans are not alone in their recruitment problems. "I think this is wholly consistent with the declining fortunes of other charities who seek volunteers," said the Samaritans' director of external relations, Paul Gauntlett.
Recruitment is not made any easier by the rigorous preparation period and stringent work demands. Applicants shadow a Samaritan for a trial period, followed by a six-month probation period. Once trained, Samaritans must work one three-hour shift per week and one overnight shift each month.
The Samaritans rely on "an ability to listen with compassion and warmth," said Mr Gauntlett, adding that it was vital to find younger volunteers. "When I look back on my 21 years as a Samaritan, if when I joined I had any awareness that I would gain what I've gained in those years, I'd give my right arm for that experience," he said. "If we can package that for somebody of 21, they'd be snatching at it."
Mr Gauntlett said that the ultimate goal of the Samaritans was not only to help those who are in crisis, but to remove the stigma associated with depression and suicide.
The Samaritans' national recruitment number is 0990 62 72 82. Their national hotline is 0345 90 90 90 and their website is www.samaritans.org.ukReuse content