A night with Life­line's cri­sis sup­port work­ers

The Monthly Chron­i­cle sits in on a shift at Life­line’s lo­cal of­fice serv­ing the na­tion

Monthly Chronicle - - Front Page -

It’s 6pm on a win­tery even­ing and as com­muters rush home, in­side an un­re­mark­able build­ing six peo­ple are sav­ing lives.

This is the North Shore of­fice for Life­line, the sui­cide pre­ven­tion ser­vice. Tonight it’s staffed by six vol­un­teers in a small car­peted room with one win­dow, hunched over calls in par­ti­tioned booths, head­sets on, lis­ten­ing in­tently to call­ers in dis­tress.

It’s one of 40 cen­tres across the coun­try staffed by 240 paid and vol­un­teer cri­sis sup­port­ers around the clock, with around five cen­tres open for night shifts.

Each of the cri­sis sup­port­ers has another life - tonight it’s a re­tired school teacher, an ac­coun­tant, a stu­dent com­plet­ing a psy­chol­ogy de­gree, a fi­nan­cial ad­viser. When they sign up to vol­un­teer they receive six months ini­tial train­ing and then on­go­ing skills up­dates in deal­ing with just about ev­ery is­sue life throws at peo­ple.

It could be sui­cide, eat­ing dis­or­ders, gam­bling, al­co­hol, drugs, anx­i­ety or de­pres­sion, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, child abuse, bul­ly­ing at school or work, gen­der is­sues, money prob­lems, self harm, be­reave­ment or so­cial iso­la­tion.

Tonight there are calls about feel­ing sui­ci­dal, con­cerns over the NDIS, fi­nan­cial hard­ship, a sin­gle mother try­ing to cope and another from a mother highly con­cerned about the stress toll the fi­nal Year 12 ex­ams are hav­ing on her daugh­ter who is heard cry­ing in­con­solably in the back­ground. For rea­sons of con­fi­den­tial­ity I am per­mit­ted only to hear what the cri­sis worker Keith says to her.

“Does she set high stan­dards for her­self?” he asks the mother in a kind voice. “Is she try­ing to get 100%?” He waits for an an­swer and a few min­utes later comes: “She has gone into a cata­tonic state. How do you feel about tak­ing her to a hospi­tal emer­gency depart­ment with a men­tal health unit at­tached? They can triage her and she can get im­me­di­ate men­tal health ser­vices help.”

The 20 minute call ends with the mother agree­ing to take her daugh­ter there. Why does he do this? “I work in sales but it’s so su­per­fi­cial, so this is putting back. It’s emo­tional, it means some­thing.”

There are sea­sonal trends with in­creased calls at Christ­mas, Mother’s and Fa­ther’s Days, dur­ing floods, droughts and bush­fires. Anec­do­tally, there has also been a rise in the num­ber of men call­ing.

“When I started back in 2002 it was mostly women who called,” says Jean, a former teacher who’s been at Life­line for 16 years and has had calls as far apart as Weipa and Tas­ma­nia. “And while it’s not quite 50/50, there are def­i­nitely a lot more men call­ing for help.”

Deal­ing with sui­cide is, for most peo­ple, unimag­in­ably dif­fi­cult - but at Life­line they have thor­ough train­ing and a clear pro­ce­dure to fol­low when a sui­ci­dal caller rings up. “Call­ing us means there’s a part of them that still has hope and that’s what we fo­cus on,” ex­plains Jean.

“We try and em­power the caller and try not to solve their prob­lems. You’re walk­ing be­side them, not do­ing it for them.”

A caller around 7.45pm is a 17 year- old girl in­tent on self­harm and pos­si­bly sui­cide. Nor­mal pro­ce­dure is to set up a “safe plan” where the caller agrees to halt the sui­cide plan in its tracks to keep them­selves safe. That could be throw­ing away the pills, seek­ing pro­fes­sional help, call­ing a friend to come and be with them, or agree­ing to call back in an hour.

But in this case “she wasn’t agree­ing to the safe plan,” ex­plains the su­per­vi­sor Carolyn, an ac­coun­tant. “So we ended up hav­ing to do an in­ter­ven­tion with po­lice as we were on the phone to her for 90 min­utes. She gave me her ad­dress and the po­lice went round. We don’t know what the out­come was - we have to as­sume she got some help.”

If a sui­cide is hap­pen­ing right then, an alert can be sent to the po­lice. Life­line doesn’t alert am­bu­lances and some­times the out­come is not known, though some­times the caller rings back. Other times the po­lice say they got there, just in time.

An­swer­ing calls must surely take its toll, and ev­ery­one has their own way of deal­ing with the stress - de­brief­ing with the su­per­vi­sor dur­ing the shift, a post-shift glass of wine, spend­ing qual­ity time with fam­ily at home, pound­ing a pave­ment, med­i­ta­tion, or wash­ing their face and hands be­tween calls.

Then there are the highly in­ap­pro­pri­ate and some­times abu­sive calls - in­clud­ing sex calls that need weed­ing out. The new­est team mem­ber, 21 year-old psy­chol­ogy stu­dent Natalie, adeptly han­dles an abu­sive caller, tes­ta­ment to her ma­tu­rity and train­ing. For these there’s a ver­bal warn­ing, then the call is put through to a recorded mes­sage let­ting them know their num­ber is be­ing sent to the po­lice with a num­ber trace likely.

There is a lull in the calls and a cou­ple of the team go and make some warm­ing cups of tea, and grab a bite to eat. There are jelly snakes and other sweets in the jar in a cor­ner of the room to keep them go­ing. Then the phones start up again. “Hello, this is Life­line. May we help you?”

Tele­phone cri­sis sup­port­ers tak­ing calls in the Life­line call room

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