The coroner's report of 1998 is an admirably researched document, particularly in those pages of statistics devoted to suicide. It informs the reader of where in the SAR people have died (Hong Kong island, Kowloon, New Territories), how they choose to take their lives ('Jumping from a height' and 'Hanging' were by far the most favoured methods) and whether the deceased was male or female (about a third more men than women kill themselves). The coroner's report of 1997 was an equally thorough publication and it is simple arithmetic, therefore, to calculate what a difference a year makes. In 1997, 597 people decided they no longer wanted to continue with their lives; in 1998, the same choice was made by 868 people. That's an increase of about 45 per cent. The figures for 1999 haven't been compiled yet but a cursory glance at news reports indicates the numbers certainly aren't on the decrease. The 1999 figures will also show a statistical shift in the way people prefer to die. Carbon-monoxide poisoning, as a result of burning charcoal in an enclosed room, is now often cited in newspapers as a cause of death. 'This charcoal business is so worrying because it's so easy,' says Geraldine Wilson, director of the Samaritans. 'It costs about $15 to buy a bag of charcoal. It tends to be the method of choice for older people. And I don't have an answer to that problem - maybe a little card inside the bag with our number on it? I don't know.' She sighs, uncharacteristically, because she is a positive woman who tries to see what the Samaritans have achieved, not where they are failing. The past year has not been an easy one in Hong Kong, however, and the Samaritans know it. The number of calls received in the first six months of this year increased by about 30 per cent. You could, of course, take that as a sign of success: the Samaritans, after all, is a 'Suicide Prevention Hotline' and you cannot attempt to prevent a suicide unless someone at least makes contact and tells you what is on his or her mind. 'But the calls have been more despairing,' says Wilson. 'The financial downturn hit this community hard, unemployment hit this community hard. It's like throwing a pebble in a pool. The main breadwinner is facing possible unemployment but he doesn't want to tell his wife. She knows there's something wrong, she jumps to all kinds of conclusions, and so we often get the wives on the phone. And you think, 'This is a relationship problem.' But it isn't. Then the tension rubs off on the kids. Their grades drop at school, the kid rings up and says, 'The teacher is horrible to me.' But it isn't a kid-teacher problem, it's an unemployment problem.' Wilson pauses for a moment. 'I'd like to do a research project about the time of day when people kill themselves. Everyone talks about the small hours of the morning but I have a feeling it's the middle of the afternoon. People who don't have a formal job, like housewives, or people who are unemployed ... that's when they're alone. I want to find out if my feeling is correct, to check with the coroner's office about the times of death.' THE SAMARITANS are currently in the process of marking 25 years in Hong Kong. They are planning various fund-raising events, looking for long-term sponsors, and organising an event at Government House next May under the auspices of patron Betty Tung. But if they could be granted one practical birthday wish it would probably be that when you have finished reading this article, you pick up the phone and offer your services as a volunteer. At the moment, they have about 100 volunteers, of whom slightly more than half are Chinese, and it isn't enough. The transient, pressurised nature of life in Hong Kong makes commitment hard, and sometimes 'Sams' (as they refer to themselves) have to move on. 'We do recognise that you have a life,' observes Wilson wryly. 'The idea of being a Samaritan isn't to give trouble to your family or partner.' Three times a year, the Samaritans hold a selection process. The last one was in September. The next one will be in November: there will be an introductory evening talk on Monday, November 8, which is not compulsory, and a session from about 10am until 3pm on Saturday, November 13, which is. Those who are chosen from that stage will be required to attend eight evening training sessions in the following month. This is strictly enforced: if you are selected but for some reason cannot be present at all eight sessions, you must wait until the next cycle of training, which will be early next year. If you get through that process (and not everyone does, partly because applicants themselves realise they are not suitable Sams) you will be slotted into the duty time which you have specified on your initial application form. That's a once-a-week commitment of about three hours. Then there's one overnight a month: the night is split into two shifts, from 10pm to 3am and from 3am to 8am, but volunteers spend the whole night on the Samaritan premises as potential back-up. Every six weeks, there's a Sunday duty; public holidays are also covered. The Samaritans are a 24-hour service which means someone always has to be there, listening. All this activity takes place in a flat supplied by the Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital in Chai Wan. It is, frankly, not the most convenient spot to get to (one of the questions asked during the September introductory talk was why the Sams had to base themselves so far away) but it is spacious, it has two bathrooms - a godsend for those overnighters who have to go straight to the office - and plenty of sofabeds. Until three years ago, the Samaritans were based in Wan Chai MTR station and, while they were grateful for the generosity of the MTR Corporation, they have settled into their bright eyrie with relief. They are 18 floors above the typhoon-scorched trees of a temperamental summer; when, as sometimes happens, callers make an appointment to speak to a Sam face-to-face, the balcony doors are kept locked. In a couple of rooms in this flat, the Sams answer about 50 calls a day, which run the gamut from screaming abuse to complete silence. They can cope with 19 languages (including Tagalog, Turkish and German), but more than 90 per cent of those ringing in speak Cantonese. There is an exclusively Chinese-language Samaritan service in Kowloon, which is separate in its administrative operation from the Hong Kong branch but which has a voice message which relays the Chai Wan number when its own lines are busy. If, as often happens during the day, the Hong Kong office is single-manned by a non-Cantonese speaker, he or she will try to encourage the caller to speak in English. If the caller cannot speak any English, the Sam on duty will, with the caller's permission, arrange for a Cantonese speaker to ring the caller back. Confidentiality is the unbreakable rule of the Samaritans and there is no caller-display facility on the telephones. (It should be noted here that this writer did not listen to any phone calls in the office nor was she present when the contents of those calls were discussed by volunteers and their team leaders.) 'You have to encourage people if English is their second language,' explains Lisa, a volunteer who does not speak Cantonese. 'They say, 'My English is not good' and you say, 'You're doing fantastically.' Today, I feel good because I had an hour of speaking to a Chinese man. You have to build up trust. He just wanted to talk, whether in Cantonese or English.' It is Saturday evening and Lisa is sitting, with other volunteers, all in their late 20s or early 30s, in a room which is evidently the nerve-centre of the Chai Wan flat. The noticeboards are covered with contingency arrangements: there is a Typhoon Procedures list, a Duty At Short Notice list and a Leader On Call rota. At the end of every shift, the volunteers must report to the leader on call to ensure that when they leave the building, they are not burdened by what they have heard. A Samaritan has to be able to listen to the gravest problems, to empathise with one caller then move on to the next, without collecting a soul-searing set of emotional baggage along the way. No one can emerge unscathed from some of the phone conversations ('You read the papers for weeks afterwards, looking at the stories about suicides and thinking, 'Was that the person I spoke to?' ' says one volunteer, with feeling) but the system is sensibly geared towards sustaining, as much as possible, the equilibrium of the volunteers. There is a director of volunteer care, and immediately after training, volunteers are also assigned 'buddies' to see them through their initial shifts. The trouble, of course, is there is no shallow end to being a Sam: you can't have a trial period of talking to people with relatively minor problems and then progress to the more serious stuff. When the telephone rings, it could be anyone - a sexually abused child, a father standing on a ledge with his two children, a heavy breather - on the other end. 'I remember one call, I think it was my fifth, and I broke down in tears,' says Sally, a bilingual volunteer. 'I was so angry - not with the caller but what he'd been through - that I knew I had to cry. There are people out there suffering the sort of hurt and pain you would never have thought possible. But you can't change the world, you can't let it bother you. You just have to live for that moment on the phone.' Tonight, in another room, Peggy, who is Chinese, is talking to a distressed woman. The call lasts for one hour and 40 minutes, which is unusually long; volunteers try to wind up a call after about an hour so the phone lines can remain open. Sally hovers protectively in the doorway, checking that Peggy is fine and doesn't need additional help from the leader on call. In an emergency, and with the caller's permission, the Samaritans can activate a Flying Squad, which consists of a man and a woman who can go to the caller's home and give assistance. This, as it turns out, will not be necessary in the case of Peggy's caller. 'They tell you the whole story because they have no one to listen to them,' Peggy explains later. Lisa agrees: 'A woman will do that, but a guy will get to the point.' She has been a Hong Kong Sam for a year; before that, she was a Sam in London for two years. 'People here are quite direct,' she says. 'I get the impression they really are suicidal and that it's pretty pressing. In the UK, they call because they have a problem. When men in Hong Kong say they're suicidal, they actually mean it.' There are other differences. In Britain, Samaritans tend to have medical textbooks to hand to work out the immediate consequences of the cocktail of drugs a caller may claim to have taken; in Hong Kong, a place where people jump off tall buildings, that sort of academic back-up isn't quite so vital. Neither is there the same level of drunken-related incidents here. 'The UK has drop-in centres and we don't,' explains Lisa. 'On Saturdays, people would get drunk, slash their wrists and then knock on the door. That was a nightmare.' The limited space in most Hong Kong homes means people often find it difficult to make private phone calls. 'I used to have a shift on Mondays and we were always busy,' recalls Sally. 'Then I changed for a while to Wednesdays and we were quiet, hardly any phone calls, and another volunteer explained it was because of race night. Everyone was at home watching television, and so someone in a flat who might want to ring us couldn't get to use the phone. Sometimes callers use soft voices because they're whispering, they don't want to be heard in a small flat, and you really have to listen.' Lack of privacy is one of the reasons the British Samaritans introduced an email service about four years ago. The prime reason, however, was to provide a service for young people, particularly men, who would never think of speaking on the telephone but who feel they can unburden themselves in cyberspace. Nineteen branches worldwide use this service (Hong Kong was the first outside Britain) and the emails are distributed through a centre in Slough, southern England; there is an undertaking that the person who sent the email will have a reply within 24 hours. The Hong Kong Samaritans handle about eight a day. Isn't there a cultural divergence which might make answering emails from round the globe more difficult? 'We try to deal with the person, not the problem,' explains Jasper, another bilingual volunteer. As Wilson says, 'The reasons people think about taking their own lives - broken relationships, bereavement, financial worries - these reasons are the same in the rest of the world. Hurt is hurt is hurt. We are concerned not with their problem but with their pain. It's the inability to cope with that pain that leads people to commit suicide.' The Samaritans always ask what Wilson calls 'the suicide question' ('Are you thinking of suicide?') except when the caller is a child. 'The advice we've been given, and we tend to err on the side of caution, is that very small children don't see death as permanent,' she says. 'Whether that's true I don't know, but what we do is believe them. Here is a grown-up believing them, accepting what they say, and so they may tell someone else. It's not our job to rush out and help them. Getting that aspect across to volunteers and to the public is very difficult. We do what we say we do - we are here and we will do everything we can to support someone who is having a bad time.' What would happen in your life if you decided to become a Hong Kong Samaritan? Wilson says a new Sam instantly makes 45,000 friends worldwide; but it is suggested to new volunteers that they don't tell their friends here. 'Otherwise you'll get everyone in the block ringing you [at home],' explains Wilson. 'And it might put off one of your friends who is thinking of ringing the Samaritans.' 'When I thought of joining,' says Sally, 'I rang up the hotline last September and gave my name, and I remember asking, 'What benefits do I get out of it?' ' She smiles. 'I know, really bad. But I meant mental gain.' What answer would she give to that question now? 'It's a very personal thing. It sounds so corny ... but it's the feeling that you know you can help. Some callers say, 'You sound so young but you're so mature, you've really understood me.' It's hard to explain what that feels like. You probably won't get that feeling from anywhere else unless you're a Sam. And it's changed my view of the world. It's made me realise how lucky I am, all my grudges about life have disappeared.' 'The stories people have are so incredibly sad,' says Jasper. 'The grief people go through ... but you know when you have made a difference. I can't tell you how I know that, what made me feel I'd helped that person. You just know it.' 'All volunteers in training want you to give them a magic phrase, something to say that will make a caller feel better,' says Wilson. 'There isn't one. But we can do lots of workshops and role-playing, and everyone learns to do it their own way. If you're sitting there thinking, 'Easy, this is no problem,' you're not the right person. If you're apprehensive, if you're thinking, 'I can't do this,' then you're the one I want. We can teach you how to be a Sam.' The names of the volunteers have been changed in this article. If you would like to be a Samaritan, or if you feel you need help from the Samaritans, please ring the hotline on 2896-0000. You can email them on firstname.lastname@example.org , or view their Web site at www.samaritans.org.hk .