Chad Varah was 24 when he conducted his first funeral. It was for a 14 year old girl who had taken her own life after experiencing her first period. With no-one to tell her otherwise, she presumed that she had a sexually transmitted disease and took her own life.
That was 1938. By 1953 Chad Varah had been offered a parish of his own in the City of London. He decided to use the opportunity to launch what he called “a 999 for the suicidal.” He was, he said: “a man, willing to listen, with a base, and an emergency telephone”. On 5 November 1953, Samaritans was born: a listening service designed to be confidential, non-judgmental and non-religious. Today, they have 201 centres and more than 21,000 volunteers across the UK and Ireland.
The best thing about it was that it was my choice – no one was making me go back. There was no prejudice and no chance of repercussions. It gave me a lot of freedom to express myself – at a time when there was nobody else I could speak to. They just let me speak; I didn’t have to censor anything.”
You don’t need to be a trained counsellor. It’s just your own experience and empathy – one human being to another.
It brings together like minded people. It’s not work experience; you don’t just turn up. It’s not just a charity or volunteering either – it’s a way of life. You have to become the Samaritan.
Yes – but it is also a real privilege to hear somebody talk about the darkest parts of their life – things they haven’t told anybody else. It has given me an understanding of the breadth of human experience
People on the outside don’t realise how confidential it is, but we are always on the side of the caller – disclosure would not just be a betrayal of them but of the people volunteers go home to as well. If I tell someone what I heard during a call, it could put them off calling themselves in the future
To go from being with your own family, to someone with no-one to talk to really puts your own Christmas in perspective. It is a very isolating time, especially for people who are not around their families when they can see that others are.
That’s what I thought at the start – but I don’t help people, because I can’t pass the information on to anyone. I am simply a sounding board so they can work out how to help themselves.