'Our fears have been realised': Plebiscite sees spike in calls to counsellors
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'Our fears have been realised': Plebiscite sees spike in calls to counsellors

Counselling services have reported a spike in the number of calls received from the LGBT community surrounding the upcoming same-sex marriage postal vote.

In the two weeks since the government announced the $122 million non-compulsory postal survey, counsellors and hotlines have recorded a surge in phone calls from LGBT people concerned for their well-being as a result of debate surrounding the vote.

Counselling services have recorded an increase in calls from the LGBT community due to the same-sex marriage plebiscite.

Counselling services have recorded an increase in calls from the LGBT community due to the same-sex marriage plebiscite.

Photo: AAP

One counsellor told The Canberra Times he's received 20 times the number of phone calls from the LGBT community in the past seven days compared to an average week.

​LGBT phone-counselling service QLife has recorded a more than 20 per cent increase in the amount of calls since the plebiscite was introduced.

Postal ballots for the plebiscite will be distributed in September.

Postal ballots for the plebiscite will be distributed in September.

Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
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Rebecca Reynolds - executive director of the National LGBTI Health Alliance, which operates QLife - said the service was expecting to receive even more calls as the debate surrounding same-sex marriage continued.

"We're keeping an eye on the numbers very closely, and it does point to us receiving more calls," she said.

"What we always see when there's public discussions surrounding equality is that it puts pressure on families and also the community."

The alliance's director said there had been increased demand for QLife and other support services since the plebiscite was first introduced to parliament in 2016.

Counsellor Matt Glover says he is receiving 20 times more calls than normal from the LGBT community.

Counsellor Matt Glover says he is receiving 20 times more calls than normal from the LGBT community.

Photo: Eddie Jim

On average, the service receives 400 calls per week.

"What this means is that people are feeling like they are the subject of conversation topics that aren't positive and feeling the negative impacts," she said.

"People call us when they are feeling isolated and when they don't feel like they have someone in their immediate family or at school they can talk to, and while that isolation exists, inequality exists."

National mental-health service beyondblue has registered a 40 per cent increase in call volume following the announcement of the postal vote.

However, a spokeswoman for the organisation said there was no specific information about the direct cause behind the recent surge.

A spokesman for Lifeline said there hadn't been a measurable spike during the past fortnight because it was difficult to measure specific community issues among the 2500 calls it received per day.

Delia Quigley, president of Canberra-based LGBT support service Diversity ACT, said she had seen a noticeable increase in people seeking help on the organisation's Facebook page.

"I've seen people who have been quite upset during the debate on Facebook, but also people being upset about the things posted online [about same-sex marriage]," she said.

The organisation told The Canberra Times in September 2016 they feared a surge in people using support services if a plebiscite went ahead.

"People have also been upset by the Prime Minister's response to [anti-marriage equality] put up, saying they were part of democracy," Ms Quigley said.

Posters calling for people to "stop the fags" and calling homosexuality a "curse of death" have been seen in Melbourne and Sydney.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said this week the vast majority of Australians were bringing "respectful views" to the discussion.

Clinical director at the Black Dog Institute, Associate Professor Josephine Anderson, said members of the LGBT community regularly faced discrimination in society, and the debate surrounding the plebiscite was likely to exacerbate mental health concerns.

"Younger LGBT people have higher rates of mental health issues and a higher rate of suicide compared to their heterosexual peers, and the reason for that is the discrimination and prejudice against them," she said.

"When there's additional publicity and debate, young people will become even more aware of their differences."

Dr Anderson said people's mental health was impacted with more people voicing opinions on same-sex marriage in a public setting.

"People who may not necessarily have had these conversations or expressed their views now feel emboldened to do that, with there being an increase in discussion of the topic at things like barbecues," she said.

"There's also a largely unregulated expression of people's feelings towards same-sex marriage on social media, and it can often be anonymous."

Victorian-based counsellor Matt Glover said he usually received "one or two" calls a week from the LGBT community.

Last week, however, he reported as many as 20 phone calls from people concerned about the effects of their mental health due to the plebiscite.

"My phone has been ringing off the hook. I've not seen anything like this since I've become a counsellor," he said.

"People's fears about the plebiscite have been realised. There has been genuine concern and distress since the plebiscite was announced."

The counsellor said in the past two years, he had seen four spikes in the number of calls received from the LGBT community.

In a viral Facebook post, Mr Glover said the first spike came last year after the plebiscite was first announced, the second after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, and the third following the election of Donald Trump.

The fourth and largest spike has been seen in the past two weeks after the plebiscite was re-introduced.

"All of a sudden there's been all this hostile language in the media and on social media," he said,

"The main issue is anxiety, and what this means for me and my relationship and what it means for my place in the wider community."

For people feeling anxious or concerned about the plebiscite, Mr Glover suggests taking time away from the internet.

"I'm encouraging everyone to give themselves a break from the plebiscite," he said.

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"Hang out with friends and people who love you and engage in your interests."

Lifeline 13 11 14, beyondblue 1300 224 636, QLife 1800 184 527

Andrew Brown is a journalist at the Sunday Canberra Times. Andrew has worked at the Canberra Times since 2016.