Letter: The seven principles that guide the Samaritans

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The Independent Online
Sir: I hope those who ask the agony aunt Virginia Ironside for advice get something sounder than the unsolicited advice which she sicked on me ('Dear Chad Varah', 1 November). As everything she wrote was inaccurate or misleading - except her reference to two of our Seven Principles, which are currently being re-examined (not '10 years ago') and are unlikely to be changed - I will simply tell your readers how we arrived at these, and why.

Suicide is, by definition, a matter of life and death. It needs to be taken seriously, so that we who aim to prevent this human tragedy may be as sure as possible that they are acting in the way most likely to be effective.

When I provided the world's first hotline and drop-in centre for the suicidal and despairing, I wanted as a scientist to discover what sort of help those at risk needed. I found that seven out of eight wanted the warm, personal attention we call Befriending (a far from passive listening therapy) and one in eight needed more expert help.

Each of our branches has a consultant psychiatrist to ensure that we amateurs do not miss some medical need, and since 1960 we have belonged to the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP), which has kept us abreast of the latest research in suicidology. The association has learnt from us that in a crisis the first person encountered by the desperate caller ought to be a Samaritan rather than a psychiatrist.

Forty years of consultation, study and experience has taught us that everything the general public 'knows' about suicide is false - for example, 'those who talk about it don't do it' (fact: those who've done it did talk about it and weren't listened to).

The IASP knows that our Principles are sound: we are right to leave the caller free to take his own life (and indeed we have to if he's anonymous on the phone) while sweating blood to persuade him to accept help. In California, non-Samaritan services trace calls and send police, fire engines and expensive ambulances screaming to the rescue of the unwary caller who'd better jump now before he's in a padded cell in a strait-jacket. Can Ms Ironside not understand that we English do not want and will not respect these Hollywood larks?

Principle Four rightly forbids volunteers to try to 'sell' panaceas, religious or otherwise. It is a calumny to claim that, because of this, we deny callers 'hard information' or even 'love'. An example of respecting the caller's own beliefs is that we do, when asked, give 'hard information' about abortion, but not a hint of pressure to choose it or reject it.

For the sake of our callers - one every 12 seconds - we shall ignore sneers and bright ideas, just as would a surgeon if his sleeve was plucked by an agony aunt during a tricky operation.

Yours faithfully,


London, EC4

1 November

The writer founded the Samaritans.