A History of 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 around 60 years ago.

In America, Psychologist Edwin Shneidman was pouring over hundreds of “suicide notes” that he had discovered by accident at the L.A. Coroner’s Office. This led to his establishment of the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center and the coining of the phrase “suicidology.” Meanwhile, in London, an Anglican minister, Reverend Chad Varah, was making some remarkable discoveries of his own.

One Man Vows to Prevent Suicide

Early one morning, the late Reverend Chad Varah, Rector of St. Stephen Walbrook, was called in response to the death of a young girl who had tragically taken her own life. Varah, who was also a trained psychotherapist, was personally struck by this and angered by the fact that many clergy and teachers avoided any discussion of what one might call “real life issues.” He felt this avoidance had played a large role in her untimely death, and might also have given children and parishioners the impression that they may have no one to turn to for support during times of crisis. As a result, Varah announced that going forward, his parish office would be open to all to discuss any kind of problem.

The number of people who responded was significant. But, as Varah conducted individual counseling sessions, he observed something that surprised him. As people came to his office waiting to meet with him, the churchwomen who acted as his assistants would welcome them, offer them a cup of tea and sit with them to keep them company.

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, 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 any consultation with Varah whatsoever.

An International Movement is Born

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 grew to oversee over 400 suicide prevention centers in 42 countries.

The Founding of the Samaritans of New York

The Samaritans movement eventually spread to the US with the involvement of Monica Dickens, the great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens, who helped establish the first American Samaritans branch in Boston in 1973 and then Cape Cod four years later.

In 1981, through the painstaking efforts of two devoted volunteers from the Boston branch, Mary Buser and Joe O’Neil, with the assistance of Charlotte Ervin, Peter Grey and Father Patrick Boyle and key supporters, the New York City branch of the Samaritans was established. A year and a half later, after securing seed funding from Bankers Trust and the New York Foundation, finding a suitable location and handling the countless details that go into operating an all-volunteer, community-based organization, the Samaritans confidential suicide prevention hotline officially opened in NYC. Initially, working out of a small ticket office in a church in what was then called Hell’s Kitchen, the hotline was open for only twelve hours a day and volunteers were recruited from ads on the back page of the Village Voice and by word of mouth.

Today the Samaritans of New York has over 120 volunteers and a staff that oversees the operation of: 1) NYC’s only completely confidential 24-hour suicide prevention hotline that has answered over 1.2 million calls; 2) a suicide awareness and prevention education program that has trained over 40,000 parents, teachers, guidance counselors, social workers, psychologists, substance abuse counselors, health providers, first responders, etc.; and 3) NYC’s first survivor of suicide loss program that has provided solace and emotional support to hundreds of New Yorkers who have lost loved ones to suicide since 1988.

The Samaritans hotline in New York City is the oldest and longest-running crisis response hotline in NYC and has been in contract with the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene for over 25 years. The public education program is also the longest running and is credited with putting suicide prevention education on the NYC public school’s health agenda, working with the NYPD, FDNY, Department of Youth and Community Development, Department of Aging, US Coast Guard, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, AIDS Task Forces, Safe Horizon, Mount Sinai Rape Crisis, NYU Graduate School of Nursing, Veterans Administration, Salvation Army and the Girl Scouts of America (to name a few).

Samaritans is a founding member of the National Council for Suicide Prevention (NCSP), the New York State Suicide Prevention Council and the New York City Task Force on Suicide Prevention.

Devotion to Humanistic Values

The majority of the work done by the more than 25,000 Samaritans volunteers around the world is performed in hotlines and crisis centers. A lay organization, Samaritans volunteers go through intensive screening and professional training which is humanistic in nature, communications-oriented, with considerable time devoted to understanding depression and mental illness, the warning signs and risk factors associated with suicidal behavior and 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.

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,” taking all talk of suicide seriously and the recognition that you never know what anyone is thinking.