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'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