|Region served||United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland|
Samaritans (until 2002 known as The Samaritans) is a registered charity aimed at providing emotional support to anyone in distress or at risk of suicide throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland, often through their telephone helpline. The name comes from the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, though the organisation is not religious. Its international network exists under the name Befrienders Worldwide, which is part of the Volunteer Emotional Support Helplines (VESH) with Lifeline International and the International Federation of Telephone Emergency Services (IFOTES).
Samaritans was founded in 1953 by Chad Varah, a vicar in the London Diocese. His inspiration came from an experience he had had some years earlier as a young curate in the Diocese of Lincoln. He had taken a funeral for a girl of 15 who had killed herself because she feared she had contracted an STI. In reality she was menstruating. Varah placed an advertisement in a newspaper encouraging people to volunteer at his church, listening to people contemplating suicide. The movement grew rapidly: within ten years there were 40 branches and there are now 201 branches across the UK and Ireland, deliberately organised without regard to national boundaries on the basis that a service which is not political or religious should not recognise sectarian or political divisions. Samaritans offers support through approximately 17,000 trained volunteers and is entirely dependent on voluntary support. The name was not originally chosen by Chad Varah: it was part of a headline to an article in the Daily Mirror newspaper on 7 December 1953 about Varah's work.
In 2004 Samaritans announced that volunteer numbers had reached a thirty-year low, and launched a campaign to recruit more young people (specifically targeted at ages 18–24) to become volunteers. The campaign was fronted by Phil Selway, drummer with the band Radiohead, himself a Samaritans volunteer.
Samaritans' vision is that fewer people die by suicide.
The core of Samaritans' work is a telephone helpline, operating 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In addition, the organisation offers a drop-in service for face-to-face discussion, undertakes outreach at festivals and other outdoor events, trains prisoners as "Listeners" to provide support within prisons, and undertakes research into suicide and emotional health issues.
Since 1994, Samaritans has also offered confidential email support. Initially operating from one branch, the service is now provided by the majority of branches and co-ordinated from the organisation's head office. It receives tens of thousands of messages each year, including many from outside the UK, and aims to answer each one within 24 hours.
In 2007 Samaritans received 5,319,462 contacts, by phone, email, text, letter, minicom, face-to-face at a branch, through their work in prisons, and at local and national festivals and other events.
Samaritans stresses that the service it provides is not counselling, and it will not give advice. Although Samaritans volunteers are trained in many of the same techniques as professional counsellors, they neither judge nor tell people what to do. By listening and asking questions, the Samaritans volunteer help people explore their feelings and work out their own way forward.
Samaritans do not denounce suicide, and it is not necessary to be suicidal to contact Samaritans. In 2007, 80% of the people contacting Samaritans did not express suicidal feelings. Samaritans believes that offering people the opportunity to be listened to in confidence, and accepted without prejudice, can alleviate despair and make emotional health a mainstream issue.
Samaritans maintains a strict code of caller confidentiality, even after the death of a caller. Unless the caller gives consent to pass on information, confidentiality will be broken only in rare circumstances, such as when Samaritans receives bomb or terrorism warnings, or when the caller is threatening volunteers or deliberately preventing the service being delivered to other callers.
Through its email service, Samaritans' work has extended well beyond the UK and Ireland, as messages are received from all around the world.
Samaritans' international reach is through Befrienders Worldwide, an organisation of over 400 centres in 38 countries offering similar activities. Samaritans took on and renamed the Befrienders International network in 2003, a year after it collapsed. Some members of Befrienders Worldwide also use the name Samaritans; this includes centres in the USA, India, Hong Kong, Serbia and Zimbabwe, among others.
The Volunteer Emotional Support Helplines (VESH) combines Samaritans (through Befrienders Worldwide) with the other 2 largest international services (IFOTES & Lifeline), and plans a combined international network of helplines. In their roles as emotional support service networks, they have all agreed to develop a more effective and robust international interface.
A number of other helplines exist that offer a similar service to Samaritans. These are often aimed at a specific sector/group of people.
One example is Nightline - student run listening and information services, based at universities across the country offer a night time support service for students. Each service is run specifically for students at a particular university/geographical area, and most Nightlines are members of the Nightline Association, a registered charity in England and Wales.
Another example is Aware - a national voluntary organisation, based in Ireland, which provides supports to individuals who experience depression and their families and friends. Aware provides a Helpline service, as well as nationwide Support Groups and monthly lectures, which seek to educate and increase awareness of depression.