It is a dreary Friday morning as I muster the courage to catch public transport and venture into Sydney’s CBD for the first time in three months. Martin Place train station at 8:30 in the morning resembles a ghost town. There are a few of us all looking at each other cautiously. Some wear masks. Some do not. All of us,however, wear the angst of uncertainty as we cautiously make our way out of the underground and to our next stop. As I walk towards my destination, I cannot
Street, usually bustling with the legal fraternity, trolleys being wheeled from chambers to courts, cafes bustling — empty. Closed. Nothing. There is an overwhelming feeling of unease that has taken hold by this point. Despite my excitement to meet Colin Seery, CEO of Lifeline, the train ride in on public transport, the lady coughing two seats away from me and the emptiness in the city has all compounded to make me, an otherwise incredibly confident and positive person, feel anxious and uneasy.
So, I arrive at Lifeline headquarters. Every Australian has heard of it. I can hear the phones ringing immediately upon arrival. Colin warmly greets me in reception, and we make our way through the main open plan office to a meeting room. The phones are ringing. We start the interview and Colin begins telling me a little about the service. The phones are still ringing.
Lifeline is a non-profit organisation that provides free, 24-hour telephone crisis support services in Australia. Largely resourced through volunteer ‘Crisis Supporters’, it provides suicide prevention services, mental health support and emotional assistance, not only via telephone but face-to-face and online as well. The phones are still ringing.
Colin proceeds to tell me about the digital platforms that Lifeline is working on as well as the development of crisis support through text servicing. All the while the phones keep ringing. I then ask: “Do the phones ever stop ringing?” The answer is no, and more importantly the fear is what about the calls that go unanswered?
Colin Seery, CEO of Lifeline
The year 2020 has not been kind. Following the disastrous bushfires that ravaged Australia and particularly the east coast, Lifeline experienced a 15% increase in calls. Although spikes are normal following a major incident, the spike just kept going and then COVID-19 hit. The period through March and April saw call numbers to the service that were unprecedented in its 57-year history — with 3200 calls received on Good Friday alone.
At least 3000 calls a day has become the new normal for Lifeline. Of those calls, between 5–10% go unanswered. Noting Lifeline’s vision is to provide crisis support to anyone, anytime, anyplace — and an avenue to be heard so as not to feel alone — these statistics “are just not good enough” for Colin. As CEO his greatest challenge is to ensure that Lifeline answers all calls in an increasingly uncertain environment where people are feeling anxious. Just as he says the words, I recognise my own increased feelings of uncertainty and anxiety of the morning. We are all currently dealing with grim statistics.
At the time of writing, almost 10,500 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 111 deaths and climbing, we are all worried about the risk of contagion. Furthermore, with almost 1 million Australians having lost their jobs and the highest unemployment rates since 1998 at 7.4% and with further job losses expected following the end of the JobKeeper package, financial security and financial stability is keeping us all up at night.
The grimmest of the statistics, however, is that the suicide rates could rise by 50% across Australia because of the impacts of coronavirus and the restrictions it brings. New research predicts an additional 1500 suicide deaths across the country over the next five years as a result of the economic fallout of the coronavirus. The modelling from the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre found the rate of deaths linked to suicide would be more than four times the number of deaths directly caused by coronavirus.
Early modelling forecasts a 25% jump in suicides, based on an unemployment rate of 10%. But if job losses cause unemployment to reach 15%, the rate of suicide could climb by 50%. Around 3000 deaths are caused by suicide each year across Australia and it is currently the biggest killer for those aged between 15 and 44; particularly men, with 3 in every 4 suicide deaths being male. All the while the phones keep ringing.
Lifeline’s immediate focus is on developing a sustainable model that can create the necessary support and impact across the wider community. Colin is looking at how to make volunteering a lot easier and exploring expansion opportunities into other support channels, including text support services. Despite increased government funding, it is not enough to meet the ever-growing demand.
Many of the new initiatives that Lifeline is pursuing rely on the support of “terrific corporate partners”, Colin said. Lifeline recently partnered with IAG to develop ‘Lifeline Accidental Counsellor Training’ programs that will provide participants with skills that can help when dealing with distressed customers. Woolworths is an ongoing supporter of Lifeline, investing in many initiatives, including the recent text support trial it funded in a joint venture with NIB.
The phones are still ringing, however, and Lifeline is still being swamped with about 3000 calls a day — or a call every 30 seconds. While those asking for help come from all walks of life, many of the callers are younger than Lifeline normally receives. At the time of my visit Australia was bracing itself for the potential of a second wave, and crisis point may be around the corner.
Although Lifeline is not experiencing a huge increase in specific reference to suicide or thoughts of suicide by its callers, LEADERSHIP at the moment it is the escalation of the current uncertainty that keeps Colin up at night and the knowledge that one of those unanswered calls can lead to the tragedy of another unnecessary Australian death. It costs approximately $39 to answer each call. The phones are still ringing…
Maria Zoras-Christo is a Board Director at the NSCA Foundation.