The good Samaritans

THE phone rings in the neat but nondescript room in a Chai Wan high-rise. Suddenly all chatter stops. Rosemary Birch takes a deep breath before answering.

It could be anyone on the line, a pregnant teenager, a middle aged woman who has gambled away the housekeeping money or a man who has had sex with a child.

But whoever they are, whatever they have done, they are desperate and need a sympathetic, non-judgmental ear and for anything up to three hours, the sounds you'll hear are 'Hmm, yes, hmm . . . then what happened?'.

This is the world of the Samaritan volunteer. She is not a counsellor, not a problem solver, just a good listener. Rosemary, the director of The Samaritans, has been doing this for 18 years, making her one of the longest serving volunteers as tonight The Samaritans celebrate 20 years in Hong Kong.

The territory's Samaritan office was the first to open up outside Britain and began life under the direction of Andrew Tu. It grew out of the Lok Fu Estate clinics run by his wife, Legislator Elsie Tu, in the early 60s.

Twenty years on and the demand for the service continues to increase. But unfortunately there are more people with a loose grip on hope than there are volunteers to hear their problems. And there is a good reason for someone to be on the end of the line.

Statistically, in Hong Kong today two people will kill themselves and many more will try. Suicide is cited as a major cause of death in young adults. While 100 people staff the 24-hour hotline, answered every day of the year, the Samaritans really need 150. As director Rosemary Birch explained: 'Finding volunteers is an on-going problem.' 'We run two training courses every year, but are losing more people than we can recruit,' she said. That, combined with the cautious eye she must keep on the service's bank balance and her hotline duties makes her job a little tough sometimes.

But, as Rosemary pointed out, people only do volunteer work if they get something out of it themselves. A Samaritan volunteer is a caring and compassionate sort of person, but also 'ordinary'. The type of person you are drawn to when you need to talk.

'They also have to be unshockable,' added Rosemary. 'They have to be able to hear some horrible things and not gasp or turn around and say, 'Well that was silly of you'. ' The Samaritans themselves sometimes need a sympathetic ear. Other people's problems can get you down.

Two Christmases ago Alice Leung was walking through the Central MTR station when she spotted two women selling Christmas cards for The Samaritans. For the first time she thought, 'I want to be a Samaritan', and a new volunteer was found. Alice now not only answers the hotline, but has also been made the service's education officer because she wants to let people know they are there.

She talks to school children, hospital workers, police officers and social workers - anybody she can.

She said the satisfaction she gets from being a Samaritan is 'a very abstract kind of feeling', and that it developed in two stages.

'Last year the satisfaction came from the feeling that I was lucky that I was not getting myself involved in some of the problems the callers had got themselves into,' explained Alice.

'Now, I feel it is something I want to do, I feel happy because I want to help and I am able to do it. I guess it is a reflection of my personal philosophy - being part of this universe and wanting to contribute something, this is a good way to achieve that goal.' Being a volunteer never really gets her down, said Alice, it is only when she is tired after an overnight shift that she feels slightly depressed, but that goes after a good rest.

Alice is one of The Samaritans' bilingual hotline operators, a service which from April 1993 to March this year answered 17,575 calls from people of all ages and nationalities, although 61 per cent were Chinese.

The umbrella organisation which keeps an eye on the 330 branches around the world, Befrienders International, is now working to establish a 24-hour Cantonese hotline early next year with the help of The Samaritans. The organisation is also moving into China.

The Samaritans was founded 41 years ago by Dr Chad Varah and became the world's first suicide prevention hotline. He swore to help people whose cries for help went unnoticed when, as a priest, he buried a 13-year-old who had killed herself because she did not understand what was happening when her periods began.

What concerns people like Rosemary is that 70 per cent of people who commit suicide sent out a string of signals long before they took their lives.

Of the 17,500 callers to the Samaritans' hotline, a number were categorised as 'seriously suicidal', 51 per cent of those were in the 25 to 44 age group, while 33 per cent were aged between 15 and 24.

Trouble with relationships and loneliness or depression were the two main causes. But who is most likely to 'end it all', or make a serious attempt, is a mystery, even to the experts.

'I don't think anybody can tell you who is most likely to kill themselves. There is no rhyme or reason,' said Rosemary.

When asked the thorny question, 'Do you think someone has the right to take their own life?' Rosemary hesitates for only for a second.

'Yes, I do believe that people have the right to take their own life. For some people, no matter what is said or done, that is what they want to do.' But she is also quick to quote a statistic - only four per cent of people who attempt suicide actually want to die, and that's enough to get people like Rosemary sleeping on a single bed in a Chai Wan flat waiting for the phone to ring.