On the Other End of the Line

Saturday, 27 September, 2014

Trigger Warning: Discussion of mental health and suicide

Natalie doesn’t know who is on the end of the line when she picks up the phone. She might be the last person they ever speak to. As a Lifeline crisis support counsellor, she has been trained to prepare for anything.

Natalie is one of 11,000 current volunteers who answer the over 2,000 calls that Lifeline receives every day. Unlike your GP or psychologist’s office, Lifeline never closes. It receives over one million contacts each year from help-seekers, through the phone, online chat and face-to-face. Natalie’s always had an interest in healthcare. For a long time she toyed with the idea of going to medical school and becoming a doctor.

“Eventually I decided to not do that because it wasn’t where I wanted to go,” she tells me. “But still I think the part of me who wanted to do that is channelled into Lifeline.”

“It’s been something I’ve wanted to do for quite a few years and I think most of all it looked like a really good way to help people at their worst.”

Despite being most often associated with depression and suicide intervention, people call Lifeline for a whole spectrum of reasons. Callers are stressed, worried or alone. The one thing they all share is that they are finding it difficult to cope.

“The vast majority of calls are people who aren’t suicidal and are just trying to overcome an issue—like coming out to their parents, for example. Or they’re turning an issue over in their heads and need to get it out to someone that they don’t know.

“A lot of people have something they want to talk through but they can’t, because it’s confidential. So they can’t talk about it to the people close to them. Because they don’t want them knowing. There’s so many calls in that category.”

Lifeline operates on the idea that talking about our problems in a safe and non-judgemental space helps to reduce stress and helps callers cope better.

Natalie explains that all volunteers learn how to create a safe space where callers feel comfortable to open up. It includes a lot of role-playing and learning what to say in some very daunting situations.

“After doing it for a while and listening to other people do it and talking to other volunteers you realise no one’s going to be the same. There’s no perfect model. I think after that, you just relax a bit more. The best thing you can do is just be there and be yourself,” she says.

Natalie likens her work to being one of the “first responders” for mental health in a country that averages approximately 200 suicide attempts a day.

“There will be people who call up and everything is wrong with their lives. And I’m not there to fix it. But it is my job to help get them through the crisis. You will get people calling in crisis and at rock bottom and they just don’t know how to get through the next couple of hours. The next 15 minutes even. And that’s what we’re trying to do—is get them through that moment of crisis and hopefully give them some direction to get out of it,” she says. Volunteering at Lifeline is a big commitment. The cost of training is partially subsidised by the organisation, but volunteers still pay to enrol. In 2015, the cost of all Lifeline courses in Melbourne will be $950. There’s also the time commitment; incorporating training, a probationary period of at least 92 hours over 12 months. Finally there’s the emotional pledge to be ready to respond to every situation.

“There’s no guarantee that it won’t be a bad call. It could be anything. It’s a national line now, so you could be getting a call from anyone in Australia.”

As for who should call Lifeline, and what constitutes a crisis, Natalie says it could be anything. There’s no pre-requisite for calling.

“Crisis is so subjective. In the end, if someone feels like they’re in crisis or they’re not coping, then that means they’re in crisis. It doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. If someone’s having a bad time and wants to talk to someone, then that’s what lifeline’s there for.”

For some, it’s a once-off. Others are repeat callers, incorporating the service into their plan to help manage their mental health.

“For some people it’s part of their mental health care plan. Some people have a care plan with their doctors and psychologists and psychiatrists, but if it’s after hours and you can’t reach those people or if you’re having a panic attack … Anything like that, part of the plan could be to call Lifeline.”

Part of the training involves the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) workshop—something Natalie describes as “basically a first-aid course in mental health”. She says it’s been incredibly helpful, not just for her role as a crisis supporter, but in everyday life too.

“I think I’m a lot more self-aware, I’m a lot more aware of how I’m feeling. I’ve also seen a lot more of what people go through, what they’re like. I feel like I’m learning a lot.”

“I did the course and I was like ‘I’ve been in situations where I could use this’. And yet everyone learns CPR. Young people, at least, are a lot more likely to need mental health first aid rather than CPR and no one does it. And yet we all know how to do CPR and not many people know how to talk down a suicidal person.”

While suicide-related calls make up only about six per cent of the total calls to Lifeline, that’s still around 50 calls a day. Often callers feel like they have nowhere else to turn to and for these people; Lifeline provides a vital service in suicide intervention.

“There’s also people for whom it’s the last point in the thought process. They’ve tried everything, it hasn’t worked, they don’t want to live. And the only reason they call us is because someone—a friend or family member, or lifeline crisis supporter—has told them that before they act on the suicidal thoughts they should call Lifeline. And that’s the only reason they’re calling, because they’ve promised someone. And in some cases, for some people it actually is the last step. It’s really hard to know (whether it is) because of the nature of Lifeline. There’s no follow-up, it’s completely anonymous.”

Despite never really knowing the outcome of some of her callers, the feeling of having helped someone is the reason why Natalie continues to volunteer.

“There are people that say ,‘thanks so much for listening to me’ and when they hang up you get a sense that you really made a difference to someone’s wellbeing that evening or that day. And I think that’s the most rewarding part of it, being able to finish a shift knowing that I made a difference to someone. Even if I never know who they are.”

If you need a non-judgmental and safe space to talk about something that’s worrying you, lifeline operates 24 hours a day on 13 11 14.
You can also chat online to a crisis support volunteer from 8pm to 4am every day.
Volunteer training is open each semester, with the next round of training to be advertised on the lifeline website later this month.
If you or someone you know is in danger or needs immediate medical attention, call 000.