A night on the front line

Telephone crisis supporters taking calls in the Lifeline call room
Telephone crisis supporters taking calls in the Lifeline call room

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

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?”

If you’re interested in becoming a Volunteer Lifeline Telephone Crisis Supporter, go to: www.lifelineh2h.org.au or phone the Training Team on 8287 1154.

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