ACT News

The people behind the voices on Lifeline, Australia's suicide crisis line

Neale is a sounding board, a counsellor and a stranger.

For more than a decade, he has volunteered on the phones at Lifeline's Canberra office, absorbing the pain of thousands of Australians.

Lifeline Canberra call-centre worker Neale.
Lifeline Canberra call-centre worker Neale. Photo: Rohan Thomson

"I've been doing it for 13 years, and every time the phone rings I still get that little flutter in the stomach 'cos you don't know what it's going to be," he says.

"The one [thing] that everyone knows Lifeline for is for suicide.

"But it's a crisis support line. So for some people their crisis is that their child's just died, for some people their crisis is they've just been assaulted by their drug addict son. Some people have just been raped, some people are going through domestic violence."

News from the bureau of statistics that suicide is the leading cause of death of Australians aged 15 to 44 – together with a steep rise in suicide among the middle-aged – rocked the country earlier this month.

In the ACT, the number of deaths by suicide remained steady – but at a level that had surged by more than 50 per cent just the year before.

Lifeline has called the crisis a "national emergency". The organisation hit a record one million calls for help in 2015.

And though there's no shortage of volunteers, in Canberra at least, about 15 per cent of calls nationwide go unanswered, the organisation says.

Neale volunteers at Deirdre Allen Phone Room, where people are fielding a "growing number" of calls each month. The ACT branch receives roughly 35,000 calls each year.

The work at Lifeline is challenging but rewarding, and Neale is the first to admit that while he's giving back to the community, he also gets something out of it.

"Sometimes I answer the phone and someone says, 'Mate, I just wanted to say I've been ringing you guys for 10 years, my life's turned around, it's really good and I just wanted to say thank you for being there', and they're priceless calls."

Every time the phone rings, I still get that little flutter in the stomach

Neale

He volunteers for more than 10 hours a week, taking three- or four-hour shifts in between his full time role in the public service.

"There's a lot of calls that don't stick with you, but there's a lot that do. The skill is actually being able to do that self-care, and look after yourself and go, 'OK, I've helped that person, I've done what I can'."

Training for new support workers begins with three months' preparation in emotional literacy, followed by a year long probation on the phones, where new recruits are supervised until they earn accreditation.

Volunteers maintain accreditation through ongoing training sessions.

"The first couple of weeks is very much about your own self-awareness and connecting with yourself, so then you have the ability and the insight to see that in others," Lifeline ACT director Mandy Larsson said.

"It's about [the caller's] story when you're on the phones. But it's also about being aware and insightful, and giving that person the time and the space to open up."

Neale admits he cries – and sometimes laughs – with his callers.

"You've got to be a real person," he says. "People are really pouring out their lives to you. Often you're the only person who someone will tell they've been raped."

Lifeline ACT chief executive Carrie Ann-Leeson, who also volunteers on the phones, said that with 350 volunteers on the books, the ACT centre had not had to actively recruit support workers for more than a year.

"What we read into that is, mental health and suicide are becoming issues that affect more and more people, so more and more people are looking for ways to help and contribute."

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