History of Samaritans

Samaritans Founder
Chad Varah, founder of The Samaritans

The recognition that suicide posed a major public health threat that demanded extensive research and the development of proven means of prevention began a parallel course in both the United States and Great Britain almost 50 years ago. While in America, Psychologist Edwin Shneidman was pouring over hundreds of "suicide notes" he discovered by accident at the L.A. Coroner's Office that lead to his establishing the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center and the coining of the phrase "suicidology," in London an Anglican minister, Reverend Chad Varah, was making some remarkable discoveries of his own.

Though the story has taken on almost mythic proportions, Varah, Rector of St. Stephen Walbrook to this day, was called one morning in response to the death of a young girl. The girl had awakened during the night covered in menstrual blood from her first period and, lacking knowledge of her own adolescent development--it being against school and church teachings--and filled with fear and shame, and afraid to tell anyone, she took her own life. Varah, who was also a trained psychotherapist, was struck by the tragedy and the lack of education about human sexuality that had probably lead to the girl's sicide and, angered by the fact that most clergy and teachers avoided any discussion of what one might call "real life issues," announced that his parish office would be open to everyone to discuss any kind of problem.

The response was immediate, but as he conducted individual counseling sessions, he observed something that surprised him. As people came to his office, the churchwomen who assisted him would welcome them, offer them a cup of tea and sit and talk with them while they were waiting. Varah noted that these "tea servers," as they were affectionately known--with no professional or psychological training--were able to provide an immediate and effective response to many of those who came in overwhelmed with their problems or grief by simply being kind and receptive and showing a willingness to ask direct questions and listen to people's often lengthy and emotional responses. Frequently, after talking to one of these women, the crisis would pass, and the parishioner would be on his or her way without requiring further consultation with Varah.

And so, in 1953, Samaritans was born, based on the belief that the well-trained "lay person" is in an ideal position to "befriend" many of those in crisis by providing an immediate and caring response steeped in empathetic listening. Twenty-one years later, and with Samaritans' branches in nine different countries worldwide, Varah and a small group of concerned people gathered at St. Stephen Walbrook to form Befrienders International, the umbrella organization that currently oversees 400 suicide prevention centers in 42 countries. Befrienders International encourages the development and establishment of national organizations and individual centers for the purpose of befriending people who are suicidal, despairing or in distress and to increase awareness of factors contributing to suicide and the means of preventing it. The Samaritans movement spread to the U.S. with the involvement of Monica Dickens, the granddaughter of Charles Dickens, who learned of our work in 1968 while researching a book she was writing. This began a lifelong friendship with Varah and led to her helping found the first American Samaritans branch in Boston in 1973 and the Cape Cod branch four years later.

Every Samaritans center operates some form of non-religious, confidential suicide hotline, support service and/or walk-in center and ascribes to "The Seven Practices and Principles" that outline the philosophy referred to as "befriending." The primary tenets of befriending are: a) to be available to anyone at any time who is "in crisis"; b) to alleviate loneliness, despair and depression by listening without making judgements or expressing personal values; c) to explore the person's thoughts and feelings and "steer towards the pain" he or she is experiencing, especially those related to suicide; d) to recognize that every person has the right to make his or her own decision about their life, including the right to commit suicide; e) to explore each person's own inclination and to not focus on solving problems or directing him or her to a certain course of action; f) to recognize that Samaritans is only one element of the mental health support community and to work together to address the issues that lead to suicide.

Samaritans is a lay organization whose volunteers go through intensive screening and training. The hotline training is not presented as clinical or professional in nature--in fact, great attention is placed on the humanistic, communications-oriented emphasis of our work--although considerable time is devoted to understanding depression and mental illness, the warning signs of potentially suicidal behavior and effective suicide risk assessments. Many people have noted the "Rogerian" aspect of befriending, especially the "active listening" skills utilized by volunteers in all of their communications, while others recognize the techniques practiced in effective conflict management and negotiations most recently popularized by Roger Fisher in "Getting To Yes," specifically the Samaritans' emphasis on "separating the person from the problem, focusing on interests not positions," exploring options and insisting on fairness.

Other sources of Samaritans training (as presented in the NYC branch) would include: Aristotle's "Poetics," B.F. Skinner's "Walden Two," Jean-Paul Sartre's "Existential Psychoanalysis," Kubler-Ross's "On Death and Dying," Stephen Levine's "Who Dies?," Durkheim's "Suicide," Freud's "Civilization and Its Discontents," Aldous Huxley's "The Doors of Perception" and everything from Maslow's writings on "value theory" and John Cage's theories on understanding silence to Shakespeare; though it is more a reflection of the culture and society we live in than deliberate design. Though throughout Samaritans trainings the "non-clinical" nature of our work is always emphasized, mental health professionals frequently tell us that, "Your model is proper practice for all counseling scenarios," especially our emphasis on "keeping your personal thoughts, feelings and values" out of the conversation and the need to "focus on the person in crisis, not on yourself."