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Suicide Prevention: Samaritans in Boston

by Ron White, LICSW, Samaritans | September 22, 2016

SamsSlider2014_2_031Samaritans was started in the UK through the efforts of Reverend Chad Varah, an Anglican Vicar who along with members of his congregation began offering what they called “befriending” over the phone. Though founded by a vicar, Samaritans does not have any religious affiliation. Samaritans in Boston was founded in 1974 by Monica Dickens, the great-granddaughter of author Charles Dickens. Born in London, she married an American and focused her efforts on humanitarian interests, which included the Samaritans.

Initial efforts by the Samaritans involved building trust among medical and psychiatric service providers and other public institutions. Champions rose to the occasion and the first phone line opened in the basement of the Arlington Street Church, where early doubts about stuffy New Englanders picking up a phone and sharing their troubles with a stranger were soon dispelled. Today, Samaritans answers phones and (as of October 2015) texts 24 hours a day, 7 days a week through a dedicated volunteer workforce. Comprised of adults and teens, volunteers give 3 to 4 hours of their time/week to listen and befriend those who have lost touch with a reason for living.

As you might expect, people who call trend toward and older demographic and people who text trend younger. Unexpectedly, we've discovered that risk levels for suicide are higher among people who text vs. those who call, and evidence of that risk is detected earlier in a text than during a call. Also, the average time spent with a text is 4 times the average time spent with a call.

What hasn’t changed over these past 40+ years is the reason people reach out to Samaritans. We have a basic need for connection with others, to have our feelings understood and validated by others, and to know that we are not alone in this journey of life. Volunteers are in a unique position to fill this need by listening without judgment, validating emotional pain of others, and simply being present with those who suffer.

Today, in addition to crisis services being offered by phone, chat, and text, we are engaged in community education efforts in local schools, colleges, community groups, and businesses by starting the difficult conversation about suicide, the risk factors and warning signs and how to help. We are also supporting those who have lost a loved one to suicide through support groups and home visits led by volunteers who are loss survivors themselves.

None of this work could happen without the generous support of the community. In addition to corporate sponsorships such as CRICO’s, foundations, individual donors, and some government support, Samaritans holds several fundraising events throughout the year. On October 1, Samaritans will host a 5K Run/Walk for Suicide Prevention where 3,000 people will gather to remember those we have lost, to walk for those we love, and come together to make a difference. To join Team CRICO, donate, register your own team, or to learn more please visit: give.samaritans.org; or call 617-536-2460.

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