The First Suicide Hotline
In 1935 a 13-year-old girl took her own life because she thought she had contracted a deadly STD. In actual fact, the young girl had gotten her period for the first time. With no one to talk to and a severe lack of sexual education, she killed herself rather than live with the shame of dying from a venereal disease.
Hers was the first funeral Chad Varah conducted in his career.
The early years
Born in a vicarage in Humber, England, Edward Chad Varah was the eldest of nine children. His father, the local vicar, named his son after St Chad, the parish founder. Chad Varah obtained a degree in Politics, Economics, and Philosophy at Keble College in Oxford before studying for the ministry at the Lincoln Theological College. In his father’s footsteps, he soon followed, becoming an ordained deacon in the Church of England in 1935 and a priest in 1936.
So troubled was he by his first funeral, Chad Varah vowed at her gravesite to help others like her escape the kind of isolation and lack of knowledge he held responsible for causing her death.
He began by educating children when they inquired about sex, becoming one of the earliest advocates of sex education in England.
Chad himself knew the value of such instruction, having benefited from “the birds and the bees” talk when he was 12 years old by a missionary bishop. In his 1992 autobiography, Before I Die Again, he states that he felt “slightly relieved to know that masturbation, of which I was a devoted practitioner and had been since before puberty, is a normal manifestation of adolescence.”
As expected, he was vilified by conservative British society and outraged the Church of England with his progressive views on masturbation, pornography, prostitution, and contraception. Yet he paid them no mind. As a matter of fact, he briefed young couples on what it takes to achieve a happy and successful sex life upon marriage. Informing them that the clitoris was a “gift of God” to enable women to enjoy sexual satisfaction, with or without a partner, and that “any husband who was dubious about the effort involved could simply be labeled as one who didn’t know as much about sex as the vicar.”
One man and a telephone
In 1953 Chad Varah was appointed as the Rector of St. Stephen Walbrook church in London, England. It was there he read that 3 people a day kill themselves in the country’s capital. The time had come to create his legacy.
Luckily, Chad Varah managed to find himself in the right place at the right time. The St. Stephen Walbrook church had a telephone line, practically unheard of during that time. Further, he was able to take inspiration from Britain’s dedicated emergency service number, 999. The first of its kind in the world. First introduced in 1937, calls placed to this number could avoid the switchboard queues and directly to fire, police, or ambulance services.
Chad Varah surmised that individuals in crisis and dealing with suicidal thoughts would need something similar to Britain’s emergency service number. Not to receive an ambulance, but to have someone to listen to their problems empathetically.
On 2nd November 1953, nearly two decades after that first funeral, Chad Varah answered the first call to the brand-new helpline for individuals in distress and contemplating suicide. His mission was simple, to listen and not to pass judgment.
Suicide was a crime in England and Wales until 1961
During the early days, those in need would ring St. Stephen Walbrook church’s dedicated phone line or drop in for a chance to seek counsel with Chad. As the service increased in popularity, volunteers were brought in to sit with those who waited for their appointment with Chad. However, he soon realized that those awaiting their meeting would pour out their problems to the volunteers, and many did not need to speak to him afterward.
It turns out that it was the sympathetic ear and emotional support that people needed, not necessarily the clergy’s voice. A few months later, in February 1954, Chad decided to hand over supporting the callers to the volunteers officially, and the Samaritans as we know them today were shaped.
Chad Varah frequently stated that a portion of the Samaritans’ success stemmed from the fact that they were not a religious organization. Yes, it was founded by a priest and based in a church, but it was more universal than the walls of the chapel. Furthermore, Chad had observed that “Church people were all too often narrow-minded, censorious, judgemental, intolerant, conventional. So the people for whom the world was too harsh would never think of turning to the church, and if they did, they would be likely to feel worse as a result.”
Today, the Samaritans is a registered charity that aims to be available day or night for anyone who’s struggling to cope, who needs someone to listen without judgment or pressure.