'Samaritans... can I help you?' Now you can text the helpline, but the problems remain the same

It's come far since Anglican priest Chad Varah took his first call for help 60 years ago

It started with one man and one phone. After years of listening to parishioners with problems, Chad Varah, an Anglican priest, realised there was a need to cast a safety net beyond the walls of his church and religion. He installed an old Bakelite telephone in the crypt of St Stephen Walbrook in central London. Sixty years ago this weekend, it rang for the first time.

Today, Samaritans, the world's first helpline, has hundreds of phones manned by 20,000 volunteers in 200 branches. They ring, on average, once every six seconds. Once a minute, somebody calls because they are in great distress; many consider ending their lives.

But Samaritans is changing the way it listens. Text messages now form one in 10 of the five million "contacts" it receives each year. Almost half those who text have suicidal feelings, compared with less than a quarter of all those who make contact by any means. Three thousand texts last year were recorded as "suicide in progress".

Stephen Hodell is chair of Samaritans and has been a volunteer for 40 years. "It astonishes me that there is so much demand for texts and that it's possible to support people in short messages, but it really does work," he said. "It's clear that many of these people don't want to speak but want to be heard."

The text service, which Samaritans does not yet advertise widely while it develops the means to respond to more messages, is also more popular among women. They accounted for 78 per cent of messages last year, compared to 43 per cent of all contacts (this may partly be because women tend to send more messages per exchange, the charity suggests).

Helen Elizabeth Colson suffers from depression and anxiety. Two years ago she hit a low during a traumatic break-up. "I was feeling really upset and angry and didn't know where else to turn," she said. "A friend recommended texting Samaritans and they were really helpful, just asking questions so I could explain how I was feeling."

While the means of contact have changed, the Samaritans' mission has not: simply to listen. Duncan Irvine was 21 and living in Edinburgh when, in 1970, he tried to kill himself. He was gay when, he said, "the word didn't exist" and he was living with his mother, who had mental health problems.

"I wandered the streets late one night and came across a Samaritans card in a phonebox," he said. "Someone I'd never met drew out of me what was going on, things I'd never said or considered. Nothing changed – my mother was still ill and I was still gay – but I was able to talk because a stranger was so accepting."

Mr Irvine, who now lives in London, has been a Samaritans volunteer for the past 20 years. Despite decades of supposed social progress, he says many of the calls he receives echo his experience. “Men in particular still find it difficult to talk about how they feel,” he says. “And we still get calls from people coming to terms with being gay.”

Terrence Collis began volunteering 30 years ago. He has observed evolution in the types of calls he receives. “Now they often revolve around the pressures of modern life - work, financial worries, and fitting into a society where others are having a wonderful time and you are not,” he says.

What has not changed since Varah, who died in 2007, received that first call, is the need for help. The suicide rate for men in the UK is at its highest since 2002, while the female rate has significantly increased in the past five years. In 2011, more than 6,000 people in the UK committed suicide.

“It would be nice to think we might get to a point where people don’t need a service like Samaritans,” says Hodell, who adds an appeal for more volunteers and donations, which make up most of the charity’s funding . “But I can’t see that happening.”

The Samaritans can be reached on 08457 90 90 90

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
peopleMathematician John Nash inspired the film Beautiful Mind
News
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Life and Style
Audrey Hepburn with Hubert De Givenchy, whose well-cut black tuxedo is a 'timeless look'
fashionIt may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
music
Life and Style
fashionFrom bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine