Abuse survivors flood helplines
Suicide helplines, psychologists and victim support groups are struggling to keep up with a surge in demand for counselling, as the royal commission into child sexual abuse triggers renewed trauma for survivors.
Callers distressed by media coverage of the upcoming inquiry flooded Lifeline with requests for help in the week following Prime Minister Julia Gillard's November 12 announcement.
The national suicide helpline - which usually manages 1500 calls a day - experienced a 16 per cent increase in calls, taking an additional 250 calls each day from abuse survivors, some of whom had never spoken of their ordeal.
While the number of royal commission-related calls has since dropped to about 40 a day, Lifeline chief executive Jane Hayden said the service is still over-stretched and warned demand is likely to increase further when proceedings begin.
"Callers are not coping with their own emotional reactions to the news and not knowing where to turn. People want to tell their story but they're distressed because the media coverage reminds them of what they suffered," she said. "We know that people who have been sexually abused run a higher risk of dying by suicide so that's a real concern."
Ms Hayden called for additional government funding to support abuse survivors as the royal commission - which is likely to run for several years - gets under way.
The plea was backed by Frank Quinlan, chief executive of the Mental Health Council of Australia, which represents 180 mental health services across the country, many of which are already reporting increased demand.
"I have been personally approached by people who are experiencing increased levels of distress in relation to matters that they thought had been put to bed a long time ago. It's important that we talk about these things but we need to be aware that it causes distress to people and that services are appropriately supported," Mr Quinlan said.
"We will be approaching government to make sure that the spike in demand is met because it's really important that people get a good response on their first call for assistance."
Kathy Kezelman, president of Adults Surviving Childhood Abuse, said their daily call volume had jumped from about 15 to 60 calls since the royal commission was announced.
"Many people don't start to deal with their issues of abuse until they're in their 40s and 50s and some people never disclose, but as people give the example of speaking out others will follow suit so when the commission kicks off we expect an increase again in people needing support."
Ursula Benstead, a psychologist and counsellor advocate for the western region Centre Against Sexual Assault, said the centre was experiencing an increase in calls, particularly from men. "We had experienced earlier in the year quite a spike in calls as a result of the Victorian parliamentary inquiry [into child sexual abuse], now with the royal commission we're seeing a further increase and our service is already really stretched. We have a waiting list and often can't get back to people in the same day or perhaps even the next business day because there is such a demand."
The Australian Psychological Society has also seen a significant increase in the number of people seeking specialists in childhood sexual abuse through its online "find a psychologist service".
Heather Gridley, manager of public interest, said that while the scale of the royal commission may empower some abuse survivors it would be also be traumatic. "The secrecy around sexual assault in a systemic way like this is one of the biggest things, so someone's had to live with a secret, be blackmailed, threatened, cajoled into not telling and all those kinds of things. It's like sitting in a dark room and then you've been out of the dark room for a long time and suddenly you're back in there again so it's not surprising that it triggers such distress."
Care Leavers Australia Network, which represents people who experienced abuse and neglect in orphanages, children's homes and foster care, has been inundated with callers worried that their ordeal will not be recognised.
"People are highly anxious and contacting us saying what about all the floggings that happened to us, the criminal assaults and the unpaid labour we all did in orphanages, polishing floors and working on farms and in commercial laundries?" said co-founder Leonie Sheedy.
"We're talking about children having to eat their own faeces, eat their own vomit, the dehumanisation of little children. It looks at this stage that the royal commission will only look at the sexual abuse of children and that is triggering a lot of distress for a lot of our people who feel their experiences of abuse won't be addressed."
Minister for Mental Health Mark Butler said he understood that revisiting the past would be a traumatic experience for many and that mental health service providers may experience an increase in demand for services.
"The government is investing $2.2 billion to strengthen the mental health support system, including for victims of child abuse dealing with mental health issues," he said.
For help or information call Lifeline on 131 114 or Adults Surviving Child Abuse on 1300 657 380.