Press release: Suicide still a taboo 50 years after decriminalisation

A third (33%) of people in the UK would still not talk to anyone about their feelings if they were suicidal, according to a YouGov survey published by Samaritans today.

Before the Suicide Act 1961, which was passed into law 50 years ago today (Wednesday) in England and Wales, it was a crime to take your life. Anyone who survived an attempt could be prosecuted and imprisoned, and for centuries it was considered a mortal sin by the Church.

Many callers to Samaritans, which was set up eight years before the legislation was passed, still find it difficult to talk about suicide. Last year, only 20 per cent of calls received by Samaritans - across all methods1 - were about suicidal feelings. In contrast, 43 per cent of emails and 52 per cent of text messages, both more anonymous ways of communicating, were about suicidal feelings.

In 2009, the rate of suicide among men was slightly lower (at 17 per 100,000) than it was 50 years ago. Suicide among women has halved over this period (now about 5 per 100,000). However, it is expected that suicide may increase in the coming years due to a rise in unemployment.

The need for confidential emotional support remains as great as ever today. Samaritans’ 18,500 volunteers receive five million calls a year from people across the UK and Ireland. Every 60 seconds we take a call from someone feeling suicidal.

Clare Wylie, Head of Policy and Research, said: “We know from people who use our service that they can struggle to talk to family or friends about suicidal feelings, often because they do not want to worry or burden them, or because they feel they wouldn’t understand.

“Some people who use our service have said that they do not talk to health professionals or mental health services about their suicidal feelings because they are afraid of being sectioned. Some of our callers say Samaritans are the only people they can talk to about their suicidal feelings. Talking about feelings can make all the difference between choosing to live or die.”

Suicide remains a major public health issue, with more than one person taking their life every two hours, devastating families and communities. Across the UK, 5,675 people died from suicide in 2009.

Despite traditional religious views at the time, Reverend Dr Chad Varah CBE founded Samaritans “to befriend the suicidal and despairing”. The Church of England priest was commended for his work during parliamentary debate over the Suicide Bill in 1961.

Dr Varah made it public before the law changed that he was available on the phone for anyone contemplating taking their life. He was moved to act after conducting his first funeral as a curate for a 13-year-old girl. She had taken her life after she started menstruating because she didn’t have anyone to confide in and thought she was gravely ill.

A full national and regional breakdown of the survey can be found here:

For more interviews or more information about Samaritans, please contact the press office on 020 8394 8300 / out-of-hours 07943 809 162 or email

Notes to Editors

About Samaritans

Methods of contacting Samaritans include by phone, letter, face-to-face, as well as by SMS and Text. SMS and Text together only account for 13% of all contacts with the charity: Download Samaritans Information Resource Pack.

Samaritans contributed to raising the profile of the issue of suicide at the time and was in fact commended in the parliamentary debate on the suicide bill in July 1961. The importance of having a service you could talk to any time day or night about anything, no matter how taboo, was recognised.  Mr Eric Fletcher, then MP for Islington East recommended that the medical profession and police put people in touch with Samaritans, particularly people for whom it would not be appropriate to detain in a mental hospital.

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 1066 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 01 - 02 August 2011.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).

Information on how to help a friend you are worried about.

The terminology “to commit suicide” dates back to before the Act when it was a crime. Samaritans discourages the use of this term today.
Samaritans is available for anyone feeling down and depressed or struggling to cope. Our volunteers are here round the clock to offer confidential support by phone: 116 123, email:, or face-to-face: visit for details of your local branch.