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. An international network exists under the name Befrienders Worldwide. The name comes from the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, though the organisation is not religious.
Samaritans was founded in 1953 by Chad Varah, a vicar whose pastoral work had led him to understand that there was a need for this service. At the time there was an average of three suicides a day in London. The movement grew rapidly: within ten years there were 40 branches and there are now 202 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 17,200 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 7/12/1953 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 describes its current vision as "a society in which: fewer people die by suicide; people are able to explore their feelings; people are able to acknowledge and respect the feelings of others."
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 general 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 April 2006 Samaritans launched a pilot scheme offering emotional support by text message, available to anyone in the UK and Ireland. In August 2002 Samaritans first completed a report on young people's use of text messaging. The report showed that 94% of 18-24 year olds send personal text messages. In 2004 the Mobile Data Association recorded that 81 million text messages were sent on August 19th - on the day that 'A' levels results were announced in the UK - another annual peak period of emotional support activity for Samaritans. In preparation for the nationwide, 24:7 text service, Samaritans ran two years of feasibility studies in its own branches, at schools and at music festivals.
The Samaritans also train sixth-formers in some United Kingdom schools as "Listeners", to provide a similar service to the telephone helpline in their school. The most notable difference, aside from the meetings being in person rather than by phone, text messages or emails, is that certain problems are not allowed to be kept confidential. This is because schools have a duty of care to the students and such events are not legally allowed to go unreported. These include serious self-harm and sexual or physical abuse.
Samaritans stresses that the service it provides is not counselling, and it will not give advice. Rather, it provides a listening ear and an opportunity to talk through problems. The organisation's vision is for a society where fewer people die by suicide because people are able to share feelings of emotional distress openly without fear of being judged. Samaritans believes that offering people the opportunity to be listened to in confidence, and accepted without prejudice, can alleviate despair and suicidal feelings. It is the aim of Samaritans to make emotional health a mainstream issue.
Samaritans was part of Befrienders International, an organisation of over 400 centres in 38 countries offering similar activities. Befrienders collapsed in 2002 and a year later Samaritans took on the network, re-naming it Befrienders Worldwide. Some members of Befrienders Worldwide also use the name Samaritans; this includes centres in the USA, Hong Kong, Serbia and Zimbabwe, among others.