After Ann Widdecombe’s Samaritans stupidity, we look at the true pro-LGBT values and history of the original crisis helpline
When British ex-MP Ann Widdecombe, a veteran anti-gay campaigner, recently said in tabloid newspaper The Express that psychotherapists should be able to treat people who ‘aren’t glad to be gay’ it predictably caused outrage.
Most people in the UK, fortunately, and all truly professional psychologists and psychiatrists now realise that ‘curing’ lesbian, gay or bisexual people doesn’t work and attempting to do so can do a lot of harm.
Likewise Widdecombe’s argument was very dangerous because she cited her previous volunteer work at the Samaritans, the original crisis helpline for the vulnerable, emotionally distressed or suicidal, to back her claims.
By doing so – and whether this was deliberate or not we can’t say, as she refused to talk to us about it – she gave some the impression that the Samaritans were homophobic.
Here’s what she said:
‘When I was training as a Samaritan in the Eighties the first principle was never to dismiss another’s priorities.
‘If a man rang in and said he was gay we should never say, “Oh, that doesn’t matter, it’s OK to be gay,” if he took the opposite view.’
It’s true that the Samaritan’s don’t ‘argue’ or ‘disagree’ with people who call them – that would be counterproductive – but use that to imply they believe gay cures work is ridiculous and propagandist for Widdecombe’s own views.
To help them repair the damage, Gay Star News invited the Samaritans to explain their real position.
This is what they asked us to release:
You may already have an idea in your mind of what the national helpline Samaritans is all about. What you might not know is the history behind the charity, whose founder campaigned for the legalisation of homosexuality. Here we explore the myths about Samaritans and why it continues to be a support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Even though Samaritans was founded by a vicar, called Chad Varah, almost 60 years ago, the charity isn’t a religious organisation and has always had a pro-liberal approach.
Chad’s first duty in the ministry was to administer the funeral of a 14-year-old girl. The girl had started her period, but having no one to talk to, she believed that she had a sexually transmitted disease and took her own life. This tragedy sowed the seeds for Samaritans; Chad thought there should be people you could talk to about anything, no matter how desperate you were.
Chad was a man who challenged the repressive culture of the time by providing sex education to young people and couples. He supported gay and lesbian people at a time when it was a crime to be homosexual and campaigned for the legalisation of homosexuality.
He refused to accept any structures or beliefs which made people unhappy by not allowing them to be themselves. Chad also believed that every person should care for and help others, and if everyone did this, it would bring change to the world.
During the 1950s, suicide was still illegal in England and Chad had read that there were three suicides a day in Greater London. He was concerned about what people would do if they didn’t want an appointment with a psychiatrist or doctor. Many people were afraid of the establishment and felt they didn’t have anywhere to turn.
As Chad’s liberal views became more well-known, people started to write to him, telling him things they weren’t able to tell anyone else. He felt they needed support from other open-minded people. There was a 999 system if you were injured or if your house caught fire, so why shouldn’t there be an emergency service for those who where struggling to cope?
Chad explained this by saying: ‘It is a great comfort in times of emotional distress to have a sympathetic person who will simply be with you and metaphorically hold your hand and refrain from giving advice or telling you to pull yourself together when your problem is that you cannot pull yourself together.’
Chad got the chance to put his ideas into action when he was appointed Rector to the church of St Stephen Walbrook in the heart of the City of the London. The helpline number was MAN 9000, to signify a human emergency, and on 2 November 1953, it became the worlds’ first telephone helpline.
Chad Varah on the first Samaritans phone.
Following publicity in national newspapers, there was a huge influx in calls, including those from people who wanted to volunteer their time to help. Chad accepted the offer and the volunteers’ official duties were to sit with people while they waited for their appointment with him.
However, it soon became clear that their role was much more than this. Often the callers would pour out their problems to these volunteers, and then they felt they no longer needed to speak to Chad afterwards. In February 1954, Chad officially handed over the task of supporting the callers to the volunteers, and Samaritans was born.
There’s no typical person who calls Samaritans’ helpline and there’s no typical problem that people talk about. People express concerns about everyday things like job stresses, money troubles, family struggles and relationship issues, but they also talk about feeling alone, worthless or confused by their sexuality. Samaritans isn’t about providing a solution, but it’s about being listened to without being judged.
Samaritans’ helpline is completely confidential, because people need to feel safe so they can be open about their feelings. Without the promise of confidentiality, those who have the greatest need might never have the courage to call.
People don’t have to be suicidal to contact the charity; it doesn’t matter how big or small people think their problems may be, it’s about how it makes them feel. Talking about problems can offer a release, reduce distress and help people to think through their options. The service is available around the clock, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Today Samaritans receives five million calls per year, that’s one every six seconds, and continues to see people face-to-face through its 201 branches. The helpline service has expanded to provide support through email and text. Last year, it launched a partnership with Facebook to allow people to get help for any friend they are worried about online. This initiative mirrors Chad’s original vision of everyone helping each other.
The service is delivered by almost 19,000 volunteers across the UK and Republic of Ireland. Volunteers have initial training over a number of weeks, which builds on their natural instinct to care for someone in difficulty. Once a volunteer has passed the initial training, they work with a mentor for four-six months and take part in more ongoing training.
Volunteers are from all kinds of backgrounds and are everyday people. Samaritans look beyond diagnoses or labels. Callers say they feel valued and cared for when they talk to Samaritans because they are given time and attention from someone who isn’t paid and won’t try to ‘fix’ or ‘cure’ them.
Its incredibility important that people aren’t put off calling, which is why callers are never judged. People are taken as they are and volunteers respect whatever feelings or thoughts people are having.
Although the charity is best known for its helpline service, it also runs many other projects in the community, such as working in schools, prisons, homeless shelters and A&E departments.
For over 30 years, volunteers have been going out on the road and offering support at pop and rock events. Festival branch, as it is known, is available 24 hours a day and attends a range of outdoor events throughout the year, making Samaritans tents one of the most familiar sights at festivals.
Samaritans continues to exist almost 60 years on because it’s a service that’s still needed. It’s not run on government funding, but the generosity of individual donors and businesses, and the time given by the charity’s vital volunteers.
Samaritans can be contacted 24/7 on +44 (0)8457 90 90 90, by email [email protected] or visit samaritans.org to find details of your local branch.
To see more about how Samaritans has helped people, read Duncan’s story and his struggle with his sexuality by following this link.