A cry for help answered on the Internet

Mark Walker <mark@scip.org.uk> wrote this article in 1997.

The first Samaritans branch was opened in Central London in 1953 and there are now over 200 branches across the UK and Ireland. Each is run entirely by volunteers and provides a listening ear to many thousands of people every year. The traditional telephone service has now been joined by an e-mail system, currently dealing with over 150 enquiries each week.

The idea of offering counselling over the Internet was first piloted at the end of 1994, with the full system launched in May 1995. It has proved highly successful - and provided a new avenue for The Samaritans' work.

Most users of the Samaritans e-mail service are men under 35 - the group most at risk of committing suicide. Over the past 10 years, the number of males aged 15 to 24 killing themselves has increased by 10 per cent and the service forms part of a campaign to reach out to young people - a campaign which also includes schools and colleges outreach and regular attendance at festivals such as Glastonbury.

Emma Borton of The Samaritans says that most users are from the UK, although messages are received from all over the world. "We find that many people using the service are sending their messages from educational establishments. They are usually very well-written and the senders are often already working through issues for themselves, although this may be the first time they have felt comfortable with asking for help."

"Many people appear to find it easier to express themselves using their computers than they do talking on the telephone. The process of writing a message is more considered than a telephone conversation, when it can often take several sessions to get to the root of problem."

The Samaritans aims to answer every message within 24 hours, although it is often quicker. A central mailbox is opened several times each day, with messages automatically distributed to the growing number of local branches now participating in the service. They are answered by volunteers who have been trained in using e-mail. An average of six to eight messages are exchanged for each enquiry.

Users of the service have the option of remaining anonymous, reflecting one of the basic principles of the Samaritans' telephone service. By sending their message to a special address it is possible for the user to strip out their name and e-mail address - without losing the ability to return the message correctly.

Despite minimal promotion the e-mail service continues to grow in popularity, and The Samaritans is responding by upgrading its technical resources and developing the network of on-line branches and trained volunteers. As use of the Internet grows it is expected to become an increasingly important way means of seeking help.

* The Samaritans have two e-mail addresses:
Or, if callers wish to remain anonymous:
For general enquiries about the development of the service call 01753 532713, or e-mail

The advantages of online advice, by Gareth Morgan

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