The Junction

Heartbreak, joy and all things between

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Some callers are desperate; some just need a friendly voice. Lifeline volunteer Ricki Woolfe says: “They’re lonely and need a place where they can vent and talk and have someone listen to them, and not fob them off and tell them they’re crazy or that there’s something wrong with them.” Image: Supplied

The young woman on the end of the phone was plainly distressed. She was talking about hurting herself, and there was every indication that she meant it.

Ricki Woolfe, a former Lifeline volunteer, was working his regular shift at Lifeline Adelaide, listening intently, ready to sit in the dark with her while she rode her emotional wave. But suddenly the phone cut out, leaving only a wake of eerie beeps.

That was two years ago. It’s a call he’ll never forget.

“When you’re nearly at that next step to go somewhere, to bring them back to reality, or to bring them to something that’s worth living, and then the phone goes silent… that’s quite haunting because you go away from the shift and you just don’t know,” says Woolfe.

Calls like these are part and parcel of what good-willed volunteers sign up for when they come to Lifeline. And with Lifeline recently recording its busiest day ever as a result of increasing mental health anguish from consecutive lockdowns, Lifeline’s volunteers have become many people’s confides, friends, and like family.

The Citizen goes behind the figures to meet the people picking up the phone, and to hear their reflections on what Lifeline provides and how it might continue to do so in the future.

Kate Wallace, the practice coordinator at Lifeline Adelaide, says personal experience often attracts people to volunteer with Lifeline, be it with mental illness, family violence, suicide or trauma. Image credit: Supplied.
Kate Wallace, the practice coordinator at Lifeline Adelaide, says personal experience often attracts people to volunteer with Lifeline, be it with mental illness, family violence, suicide or trauma. Image credit: Supplied.

Kate Wallace, the practice coordinator at Lifeline Adelaide, says personal experience often attracts people to volunteer with Lifeline, be it with mental illness, family violence, suicide or trauma. Image credit: Supplied.

“It’s not patting lambs at the zoo,” says Kat Wallace, practice coordinator at Lifeline Adelaide.

“It can be life and death”.

Yet, the Adelaide centre attracts more volunteers than it can take. The 120 places in its annual training program more than fully subscribed, with enough interest to fill it twice over.

The reasons volunteers sign up are perhaps as varied as the people themselves – there are the psychology and social work students, retirees, mums, hairdressers, builders, accountants, police, and everyone in between – but Wallace says giving back to the community is a big one.

This was the case for Ricki, 53. He joined in 2018, wanting to connect with people on a deeper level, and the experience exceeded his expectations.

“I loved it,” he reflects, “I used to think that [the callers] used to give more to me than I could give to them.”

It was a similar story for Martina van den Broek, 75, who joined in 2004, not long after retiring to look after her husband who required full-time care.

“I thought this is something I could do… and I thought I could still give,” she says.

“Nobody could understand why I would take Lifeline. They thought ‘why don’t you take on belly dancing or something like that if you’re going to have time off from a heavy situation?’”

Personal experience draws more in, be it with mental illness, family violence, suicide or trauma. But Wallace is clear that it’s not about the volunteer, it’s about the caller.

“It’s removing yourself from your own walk and putting yourself completely in a space where you’re there 100 per cent to listen to the help seeker and be there to support them.”

Lifeline was founded 58 years ago by the late Reverend Dr Sir Alan Walker, a Sydney clergyman dedicated to social justice, in a bid to prevent lives being lost to isolation. After receiving a call from a distressed man who went on to suicide, Walker opened the first crisis line in Sydney in 1963.

Nowadays there are 41 centres and 3,364 crisis supporters across the nation and the service also includes online chat and text.

A veteran of the Adelaide arm of the operation, Van den Broek has seen it evolve over nearly two decades.

When she first began, she’d work night shifts from 10pm to 7am, her and one other answering the phones, a bed in the office and a box of Wheaties to tide them over. If she needed help, she’d call for backup, a phone on each ear and a lot of paraphrasing.

Now shifts are three hours, and there’s always a supervisor on site.

She’s been there while the nation has been bruised by natural disasters, and by traumatic stories unfolding in the media, such as Cardinal George Pell’s historical child sexual abuse case. Accompanying these events are always influxes of calls.

“They don’t necessarily want answers. They just want to be listened to,” says Van den Broek.

And of course, there’s the biggest shake up in a century: COVID-19. Calls from Victoria skyrocketed by 22 per cent in the middle of last year with people feeling the clutch of loneliness.

“They might be in a room with six other people, and they’re doing the call on their toilet, the only private place, and they just wanted to get control over their feelings,” says Van den Broek.

But she’s sensed escalating demand for this service since well before the pandemic struck, and her observations are borne out by the data. In less than a decade, national calls have nearly doubled, from 483,000 over the 2011 financial year to 989,192 in the last.

“There’s an awful lot of people out there that have no support,” Van den Broek says. “Lifeline is an incredibly important organisation.”

Increased government and philanthropic funding have helped the crisis line meet the growth in demand, but the generosity of the volunteers has also been crucial. They’ve put their hands up to fill extra positions on significant days, such as Christmas Day and Mother’s Day. Paid crisis supporters also play their part, manning the phones during hard to fill hours. The average call wait times are now down to 60 seconds.

Nonetheless as the calls keep coming, there is some concern around the scope of Lifeline’s operations.

Dr Rob Watson, a researcher from Federation University, and former crisis supporter with Lifeline, says it has evolved from its genesis as a crisis line to a more generalist service.

“There’s two different roles there, and I don’t see that it’s best practice to have them combined because it means that there’s simply not enough telephone counsellors available to take that urgent call when it does arrive,” says Watson.

He’s calling for a separate line exclusively dedicated to suicide prevention.

But this is looking at it from a service provision perspective, rather than a user perspective, points out Alan Woodward, national mental health commissioner, and former executive director for research and strategy at Lifeline.

“A lot of people who are feeling suicidal don’t necessarily want to identify in that way and call a service that says, ‘suicide line’… and there are some people who are even profoundly suicidal and are not aware,” says Woodward.

“To have a service with no criteria or fences about what a person can bring forward is very likely to attract people who are feeling suicidal… and therefore it can help attract people earlier on. It can help de-escalate things and support a person through difficulty.”

So, when the calls come through, how do crisis supporters help? And what wisdom might they share with the community so that we can better support people experiencing personal distress or crisis?

Some strategies and methods that Lifeline uses are guarded to maintain the integrity of the service, but there is an emphasis on being self-aware, and identifying own judgements and biases.

Volunteers are trained to build a connection with the help seeker. They’re not there to fix the problem, but to listen and sit in the pain with them.

“Rather than trying to rescue them and pull them out of the mud, just to get in the mud and sit right there next to them, where it’s hard and dirty and unclear and really tough… enables the help seeker to put things together for themselves,” says Wallace.

The training program is vigorous. Varying slightly from centre to centre, there’s coursework, followed by a placement and then an internship. It’s about a year before volunteers come out with their crisis supporter accreditation. And it doesn’t stop there – there’s ongoing accreditation and professional development throughout the year to keep volunteers up to date with emerging social issues.

What is it like being on the phones? The experience varies from heartbreaking and harrowing to life-affirming or even joyful.

Martina van den Broek, a volunteer with Lifeline Adelaide, says her biggest lesson from her 17 years volunteering with Lifeline is learning how to listen: “I know I can’t actually do anything. But for that half an hour that they are with me, I’m there for them 100 per cent. And that’s quite a privilege to be allowed in their lives that way.”
Martina van den Broek, a volunteer with Lifeline Adelaide, says her biggest lesson from her 17 years volunteering with Lifeline is learning how to listen: “I know I can’t actually do anything. But for that half an hour that they are with me, I’m there for them 100 per cent. And that’s quite a privilege to be allowed in their lives that way.”

Martina van den Broek, a volunteer with Lifeline Adelaide, says her biggest lesson from her 17 years volunteering with Lifeline is learning how to listen: “I know I can’t actually do anything. But for that half an hour that they are with me, I’m there for them 100 per cent. And that’s quite a privilege to be allowed in their lives that way.”

“It’s very humbling. Some people have never ever opened up about their pain or their experiences. And here you are, in a privileged position listening to something that they might just share for the very first time. That’s quite an amazing thing,” says Van den Broek.

People call for more reasons than being on the brink of suicide, and not all are dark. Many just want someone to talk to.

“They’re lonely and need a place where they can vent and talk and have someone listen to them, and not fob them off and tell them they’re crazy or that there’s something wrong with them,” says Woolfe.

Some call at the same time every week, wrapping up in time for the evening news. Others ask volunteers to join them in prayer or ring because they’ve written a song they want to share. Sometimes it’s a prisoner, having no one else to talk to on their daily call.

“One woman rang me up, and she said, ‘I’ve just made gingerbread. And it’s really, really nice’. And she gave me the whole recipe and then hung up,” says Van den Broek.

Other calls are unwelcome. Abusive calls, be it fits of anger or sexual gratification, are unfortunately part of it.

“Sometimes I can have three or four abusive calls in a row, and then I decide I’m going off to have coffee somewhere else, because I didn’t come out of bed to be abused,” says Van den Broek.

While it’s a privilege, both Woolfe and Van den Broek say that the end of their weekly three-hour shift is marked with exhaustion. According to Van den Broek, if you’re not exhausted, you’re not doing it properly.

But they’re far from alone in dealing with the heaviness of time spent on the frontline. There’s always a shift supervisor available for support, ready to help debrief after a challenging call, and volunteers are encouraged to take a break when they need.

“They are interested in you as a crisis support worker as much as they are concerned about the person seeking support,” says Woolfe. “They’re always asking, ‘what are you going to do for your self-care?’.”

These people, giving their time and compassion, offer a unique aspect to the service, both Watson and Woodward agree.

“In some circumstances, [volunteers] may be better than having a professional, because I think they might be able to connect on a more one to one basis,” says Watson.

“That somebody cares about them enough to sit there late at night and take their phone call or the chat without getting paid to do so, for some people that makes so much difference,” says Woodward.

So, what’s the biggest lesson from volunteering for Lifeline? Both Van den Broek and Woolfe say learning how to really listen.

“I know I can’t actually do anything. But for that half an hour that they are with me, I’m there for them 100 per cent. And that’s quite a privilege to be allowed in their lives that way,” says Van den Broek.

Woolfe still doesn’t know what happened to that distressed young woman on the phone. He wanted to listen, but he’ll never know what she had to say.

 

If you know someone in crisis or needs support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 

Anyone between 5-25 can call kids helpline on 1800 55 1800 

For more information on getting help please go to HeadspaceReachOut.com, or BeyondBlue

About the Writer
Photo of University of Melbourne
University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria
The University of Melbourne's Centre for Advancing Journalism offers a Master of Journalism & Master of International Journalism & graduate certificate & diplomas in journalism. It publishes The Citizen
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Heartbreak, joy and all things between