Early in his career as a vicar (Anglican priest) Edward Chad Varah, the founder of the Samaritans, held his first funeral. It was for a 14-year-old girl who had taken her own life because she thought she had contracted a deadly illness that would kill her shamefully. In reality, the young girl had just gotten her menstrual cycle for the first time. Due to confusion and lack of sex education, the girl thought she was dying of a sexually transmitted disease and killed herself. Moved by this instance, Edward Chad Varah vowed to help others overcome the type of isolation and miseducation similar to what the young girl experienced. He founded the first crisis hotline, The Samaritans in 1953.
The son of a clergyman, Chad Varah was born in Humber, England, and was the oldest of nine children. He briefly studied natural sciences at Keble College, Oxford before switching to Politics, Economics, and Philosophy. He also studied at the Lincoln Theological College, now called Chad Varah House for his impact. It was here that he served as an assistant curate (parish priest) and began teaching sex education to youth groups and couples as marriage counseling. This and having contact with a suicidal population within his parish and at local hospitals, he started seeing the taboo issues that people were struggling with that he believed led to isolation and future suicidal ideation.
The more Varah worked with people who reported suicidal tendencies and in 1950 when 3 suicides were reported a day in the Greater London area, he knew something needed to change. It seemed like many people’s needs were not being met and people who were suicidal needed to be able to talk to some at any time, day or night when they needed support.
Shortly afterward, in November of 1953, he and volunteers in his parish at St. Stephen Walbrook in the City of London, took their first call as the Befrienders. Later, the title “The Samaritans” was coined by a news outlet covering their story. While the organization was founded in a church it was not a religious group. They were simply a group of people wanting and willing to help other people.
“999 For the Suicidal”
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Chad Varah called it a “999 for the suicidal”. People would call the church line, Man 9000 (for Mansion House), come in for a chance to talk with him. He soon noticed that his volunteers often seemed to bond with those who came in and offered emotional support to those in need. He eventually took this as a sign of people needing other people, not specifically a clergy man’s voice- they just needed someone to talk to, someone who would listen. He enlisted more volunteers, the initial recruiting slogan being “are you ordinary enough to be a Samaritan?” Years later, Chad stepped down and let the volunteers run the organization.
In addition to his work for the ostracized with mental health needs, The vicar was also a writer. In one such instance, this helped spread the message of the Samaritans. Vahar wrote a television play that was broasted in short BBC series called “Nobody Understands Miranda” in the early ’70s. The series, the Samaritan’s work was loosely cataloged in the show by a group called ‘The Befrienders’. His other works include been associated with the founding of The Eagle, a comic founded by another clergyman, Marcus Morris. Varah wrote for both The Eagle and its expansions, Girl, Robin, and Swift. He also wrote an autobiography entitled, “Before I Die Again,” the title was a reference to reincarnation.
Today, Samaritans has over 20,000 volunteers and 200 branches in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Their work is spread throughout various communities including hospitals, prisons, and schools and even the Network Rail. The 24-hour crisis line was Chad Varah’s vision come to life and has impacted the lives of many people who are struggling and in need.
If you’re in need of someone to talk to, want to volunteer or donate visit them online here. If you know of anyone in need of help you can also contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, available 24 hours every day.