'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

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on pottermore site this morning

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie Sheen said he would
tv

Charlie Sheen could be set to revive his role as a hedonistic womaniser

Life and Style
Jamie Oliver’s version of Jollof rice led thousands of people to post angry comments on his website
food + drink
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
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

Early Years Teacher - Jan 2015 - China

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Position: Early Years TeacherRequired: J...

KS1 and KS2 Primary NQT Job in Lancaster Area

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education is urgently...

Trainee Recruitment Consultants

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K: SThree: We consistently strive to be the...

Primary Teachers required - Cardiff and the Vale

£95 - £105 per day + plus free travel scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: KS1 ...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes