Befriending is a free, confidential, and nonjudgmental listening service offered by trained volunteers to help people who are lonely, despairing, and suicidal. Unlike some approaches to suicide prevention, befriending does not involve telling or advising a suicidal person what to do. Befriending respects the right of each person to make his or her own decisions, including the decision of whether to live or die. Befriending centers are nonpolitical and nonsectarian, and the volunteers do not seek to impose their own beliefs or opinions. Instead, they listen without judging, allowing suicidal people to talk about their fears and frustrations. It is common for callers to say that they have nobody else to whom they can turn, and simply talking through problems can begin to suggest solutions.
Befrienders are not paid professionals. They come from many different backgrounds and cultures, and range in age from eighteen to eighty. This diversity is central to the philosophy of the befriending movement, which recognizes the importance of professional psychiatric help but also believes that laypeople—carefully selected, trained, guided, and supported—provide a valuable service by simply listening.
The concept of befriending originated in England in 1953, when Reverend Chad Varah began a service in London. To meet the huge response, he organized laypeople to be with those waiting to see him, and soon noticed a wonderful interaction between the callers and the volunteers who listened to them with empathy and acceptance. He called what the volunteers were doing "befriending."
From that single center in London grew the Samaritans, which by 2001 had 203 centers across the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. The concept also spread beyond Britain, and in 1966 Befrienders International was established to support befriending centers around the world. In 2001 this network spanned 361 centers in 41 countries. There were significant numbers of befriending centers in Brazil, Canada, India, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Two other organizations—the International Federation of Telephonic Emergency Services and LifeLine International—have networks of centers that provide similar services.
Befriending is provided in different ways. The most common form of contact is by telephone, but many people are befriended face to face. Some prefer to write down their feelings in a letter or an e-mail. One British center does not have a physical base but instead sends volunteers to major public events, such as shows and musical concerts, to offer face-to-face befriending to anyone who feels alone in the crowd. A number of centers have gone out to befriend people in the aftermath of earthquakes and other disasters. Many centers run outreach campaigns, working with children and young people, and promoting the concept of listening. The Internet provides an unprecedented opportunity to provide information about befriending to a global audience. As of the end of March 2002, the Befrienders International web site offers information in the first languages of half the world's population.
While the situations and processes of befriending can vary, the essence of the contact is always the same: an opportunity for suicidal people to talk through their deepest fears and to know that somebody is interested in them and is prepared to listen to them, without passing judgment or giving advice.
See also: Suicide Basics: Prevention; Varah, Chad
See Bereavement, Vicarious; Grief: Overview.