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The LifeLine volunteers who “take the pain”

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Eleven years ago, Angela Henwood’s son took his own life. She now helps others in their darkest moments.

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The 68-year-old began volunteering with LifeLine – a national 24-hour telephone service which has provided suicide prevention support and emotional assistance for callers in crisis – in 2015 after retiring from nursing.

She wanting to do something that made “a difference”.

“I remember a call from a lady whose son suicided 31 years ago, and it was coming up to the anniversary, and she just ran to have a chat. She said ‘I get like this every year,’” said the Telephone Crisis Supporter.

“I don’t know that my story makes me more equipped, but I know how they feel.

“There was another call – a lady whose son suicided 11 years ago – three months ago. She called me, and said a second one had ‘suicided’. I went ‘Oh my God, she lost two’.

“It’s a tough job.”

The LifeLine Adelaide centre is staffed by 206 volunteer crisis supporters who answer calls about all kinds of issues, including suicidal thoughts or attempts, personal crisis, anxiety, depression, loneliness, abuse and trauma stress, or people seeking self-help information for friends and family members.

The centre took 30,000 such calls last year.

In the same period, across Australia, 3000 people took their own lives.

At an event commemorating World Mental Health Day last week, Uniting Communities chief executive Simon Schrapel said although societal stigma had lessened surrounding mental health, the issue demanded more attention.

“The ABS stats said recently here in Adelaide in 2018, 218 people died by suicide,” said Schrapel.

“[And] LifeLine has done a good job of heading down that track, in changing community views of mental health, but the message all the way along is we’ve got a-ways to go.”

Schrapel said LifeLine was an “unsung hero” – the accepted port of call for people in crisis that the community took for granted.

One of the many collected quotes and messages from individuals who have called LifeLife, now posted around the office. Photo: Angela Skujins

Cathy Herzel, 65, generally answers about eight calls during her three-hour shift.

She said there is no typical caller: they include any age, class or gender, and they don’t always call with a single concern.

My job was to hear the pain they’re in and sit with it, as uncomfortable as it is.

After months of preparing to be a Telephone Crisis Supporter, her first call was from a woman considering taking her life.

Herzel said the caller had made preparations, but “it was also good because if she was ringing it meant she wasn’t doing it”.

“I did what I was trained to do – connect with her and form a relationship with her, because if you can’t do that you can’t really move forward,” she said.

Another caller remains clear in her memory: a mother who needed to talk to about the death of her young son.

The mother talked about forgiving the driver who accidentally killed her son in a car crash.

“She couldn’t really talk to anyone because people don’t want to… you know it’s too painful for some to talk about it – but she was able to talk to me about it,” said Herzel.

“The very interesting part was about it was that she had forgiven the driver, and that was really something I thought that comes from the heart, to do something like that.”

Other calls have remained with Herzel for different reasons.

“I had someone ring up who had been released from jail and had been convicted of child sex offences,” she said.

“I was talking to him and he was in his flat, and he was telling me about how he was watching a young girl on the street, and he knew that he could get access [to her].

“As a caller, I had to be there with him. Part of me was saying ‘oh no’ but the other part of me was thinking ‘well he rang’ which means he’s not doing anything.

“He was worried, which means you can work with something as a caller.”

Angela Henwood says the shifts are split into three-hour periods as the service is emotionally draining.

She also said the “veterans” (anyone pushing more than four years of volunteer work) is older and the retention rates are low because the work is tough.

“We take the pain,” she said, adding that “a problem shared is half the weight.”

“But you’re connecting with humanity.”

But taking the pain takes its own toll. National mental health charity SANE Australia says individuals with mental health issues are not the only ones affected by depression or anxiety, with caregivers also bearing the brunt.

“Don’t try and do too much. Pace yourself and look out for signs that you are becoming stressed. Have a plan for what to do if this happens,” it recommends for carers.

Herzel revealed she had been “knocked around” by the work, but “reporting to a supervisor at the end of a shift and talking to the other volunteers” was her support.

When people say to me ‘thank heavens you were there’ or ‘you get it’ – that’s why I do it

LifeLine told InDaily that it cares for the carers through internal structures, but also provides self-care strategies for volunteers.

It said “the wellbeing of our volunteers is extremely important” as “volunteers are often exposed to traumatic material” and their mechanisms for maintaining mental health include having a supervisor on-duty during all shifts, holding debriefing sessions and regular group supervision sessions. 

“As well as this, we place a lot of emphasis on self-care and checking that our volunteers are using regular self-care strategies such as exercise, making time for things they love and getting enough sleep.

“Through the recruitment and selection process, to training and ongoing support, we have a number of ways we actively support our volunteers’ wellbeing, resilience and mental health.

Despite the pain, Herzel won’t consider giving up her work with Lifeline.

“When people say to me ‘thank heavens you were there’ or ‘you get it’ – that’s why I do it,” she said.

“With this [work] you’re connecting with people, you’re getting that heart-to-heart connection.

“But LifeLine should be promoted, and it needs more funding.”

You can reach LifeLine 24 hours a day seven days a week by dialling 13 11 14. Beyond Blue and headspace are other national organisations offering comprehensive mental health support. 

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