I first heard of the Samaritans not long after the service was first offered in Scotland, 60 years ago this month. As a teenager, I couldn’t imagine being able to cope with answering calls to people who might be considering suicide. But a seed was sown, and a decade and a half later I found myself hesitantly applying to join. It has proved to be one of the most rewarding things I have done.
Although the inspiration behind the Samaritans occurred in 1953, when Chad Varah started his service in London, it was nearly six years before anybody replicated what he was doing anywhere else. Then, within 18 months, Scotland provided three of the six branches (Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen).
Significant anniversaries give us the opportunity to reflect on the things that have changed and the things that haven’t. The emotions that prompt people to get in touch with the Samaritans aren’t all that different from what the first volunteers found 60 years ago.
Bereavement is still bereavement; a broken relationship in 2019 gives rise to much the same feelings as it did in 1959; unemployment can be as soul-destroying as it ever was; isolation and loneliness haven’t changed their nature; mental illness may be better understood but depression as one of many causes of suicidal feelings is much the same.
Grief, loss, sorrow, shame, guilt, remorse, anger, hopelessness and lack of self-esteem are all much the same throughout the ages, and the need to talk and to be listened to is just as it was 60 or, indeed, many hundreds of years in the past.
But there are things that have changed – some of them a lot. Attitudes are very different now from what they were in the 1950s. Until 1961 suicide was unlawful in England and Wales (though never in Scotland); stigma still surrounded divorce; homosexuality was unlawful; abortion was illegal; there were no women’s refuges, and the Samaritans got many calls from the victims of marital violence. The huge variety of specialist helplines that we now take for granted simply did not exist. Many teenagers who would now call Childline contacted Samaritans, the only confidential line there was.
Technology and the means of communication have also changed dramatically. Until the mid-1970s, only three-quarters of homes in Scotland had a telephone at all (let alone a mobile!). Although we have always been associated with the telephone, in the early days a significant proportion of people came in to speak face to face. Many older people felt uncomfortable using the telephone and preferred personal contact. People can still come and talk to us face-to-face, though they are now a much smaller proportion of the total.
Back then, long distance calls had to be made through the operator and some people feared that they might be listened in to.
This led to the innovation of the correspondence branch, dealing only with letters, as a means of reaching people living at a distance from a Samaritan branch they could visit. Though a small part of the total, the letter service continues to this day, now serving the whole of the UK and Ireland.
Initially, each Samaritan branch had its own telephone number and it wasn’t easy to divert calls to other volunteers when the lines were busy.
Another innovation, also pioneered by Samaritans in Scotland helped to address this by bringing in the first universal number in 1992. This number could be dialled from anywhere and would get a caller through to the nearest branch with an available line, at a cost to the caller of a local call.
Since then technology has continued to improve, and now you can ring 116 123, free from anywhere in the UK or Ireland, and get through to a volunteer wherever one is available. The introduction of our email and text service offers new ways for people to get in touch.
One thing that has not changed in all this time is the voluntary nature of the service. Every call, email, text of face-to-face visit is responded to by a volunteer.
Those of us who have been privileged to share the feelings and, we hope, alleviate the distress and unhappiness of thousands of fellow humans, at all hours of every day and night, know that the reward of being there can’t be measured in monetary terms alone.
Taking the time to listen can give someone the space to talk openly about their struggles – possibly for the first time – and help them to find their own way through.
Perhaps most importantly, it reminds someone that, even in their darkest moments, they are not alone. I hope I can continue to be one of the many Samaritans offering that listening ear for as long as my health and strength last.
John Lawrie, Samaritans volunteer for more than 40 years.