The volunteers manning Lifeline’s crisis hotline have noticed an interesting trend — an increase in first-time callers who say they’ve never felt the need to use the service before.
Some are timid and unsure about whether they should be calling the crisis line, others apologetic; heavy with the knowledge that many others are also suffering right now.
“They’re sort of curious, like ‘is it okay if I just talk about this sort of thing?’,” Sydney Lifeline supervisor Liz Locke says, “and I suppose the answer to that is, yes, we’re there no matter what to listen and hear.”
That more people are reaching out to mental health services a year and a half into a pandemic that has upturned our lives, forced people out of work, and left people physically isolated from friends and family isn’t exactly a surprise.
But for many who have never dealt with mental illness before, the psychological burden of the pandemic and extended lockdowns has come as exactly that. “It’s people who never thought they would be in a position where they would need to access Lifeline for support,” Liz, 57, says.
As Sydney prepares to enter its ninth week in lockdown, the mental health organisation is preparing to mark its own milestone: its busiest month since it was founded almost 60 years ago.
The volunteers who answer the calls, known as crisis supporters, say this because the lockdown has exacerbated people’s existing issues — such as financial stress or family problems — and amplified feelings of loneliness and isolation.
“As soon as you hang up from one call, and you prepare yourself for the next call, the phone is ringing again,” volunteer Di Saunders says. The 62-year-old has worked as a crisis supporter for two decades, her most recent stint in Sutherland in Sydney’s south.
Since the pandemic she’s doubled the number of hours she works on the hotline to help meet the “constant” demand. “You can hear a lot of the distress there, and that they’re carrying a lot, and the lockdown has made it worse for a lot of people,” she says.
A watershed year
It’s been a record-breaking month for mental health services. On Thursday, Lifeline recorded 3,505 calls in one day — the highest daily number in the organisation’s 57-year history. It was fourth time this month the record had been broken.
More generally, the number of calls is 40 per cent higher than it was two years ago. Where pre-pandemic Lifeline would expect an average of 2,400 calls a day, they are now regularly hovering around 3,400. The calls are also typically longer, which indicates higher levels of distress.
Mental health organisation Beyond Blue has also experienced a dramatic spike in requests for support since the beginning of the Sydney lockdown. Since the stay-at-home orders were introduced this time, demand for the organisation’s services has increased by 29 per cent — almost double the usual 14 per cent increase seen during past lockdowns.
“The likelihood of going back to 2,400 calls a day, as we were two years ago, is almost non-existent. We think the new normal is over 3,000 calls a day,” Lifeline Australia chairman John Brogden says.
But he believes there’s a silver lining to the high levels of demand; it means people are reaching out and not suffering in silence.
With lockdowns in place across large parts of the eastern seaboard, health authorities are acutely aware of the mental health impact.
Dr Grant Blashki, the lead clinical adviser at Beyond Blue, describes the current situation as a “triple whammy” for people already struggling, referring to concerns about work and finances, the virus itself, and the vaccine.
“I work as a GP, and I’m working with a lot of people who are trying to navigate their way through the stress, the upset, and trying to get a handle on what the future is looking like for them,” he says, “it’s not easy”.
As a result, since the beginning of the pandemic, leaders have pushed to ensure mental health support is part of the pandemic response and the national conversation.
For Lifeline workers, this has meant more people are starting to understand the value of what they do. “I can be anywhere and Lifeline’s name will come up now, that wasn’t the case when I started in 2008,” Liz says. “There is that openness to actually talk about it [mental health], it isn’t shut away in a corner.”
Part of Liz’s role as a supervisor is providing emotional and psychological support to the crisis supporters, who she is acutely aware “are going through the same thing as our help seekers”.
“As much as we stress to them that their wellbeing is of paramount importance … some of them are coming in and doing more hours than they usually would,” she says, “and our centre is surpassing our normal as far as the number of calls we are taking.”
For Di, part of protecting her own mental health during the pandemic has been setting boundaries and keeping up her own self-care practices, like exercising before she goes in for a shift. Then when the mayhem of the phone ringing off the hook is all over for another week, she tries to let the conversations go.
But that doesn’t mean some calls don’t stay with her. She describes one instance where she stayed on the phone while a young man walked to the emergency room after deciding to get help. “When you really think about it I saved his life,” she says.
Pandemic a tipping point
Overwhelmingly the people who work on the frontlines of the mental health crisis say it is usually not just COVID-19 that has led a person to seek help, but a culmination of factors that have worsened since the pandemic.
This could be someone who has a strained relationship with their families forced to spend more time with them, the removal of socialising as a coping mechanism for people who were previously managing to maintain their mental health, or financial stress from lack of work.
“They will talk about what’s going on in their life as being the problem and they’ll say ‘and COVID has made that a lot harder’ or ‘the lockdown has made that really hard’,” says Sydney resident James Lee, who volunteers on Beyond Blue’s peer-run mental health support forum.
“It almost tipped them over the edge in that way.”
The 29-year-old said he got involved with volunteering at Beyond Blue after turning to the platform during his own mental health struggles about six years ago. All of the volunteers who respond to posts on the forum have lived experience of mental illness.
Like at Lifeline, Lee said he’s seen a lot of new people entering the community who have never posted before, including school-aged young people. Periods of lockdown seem to be a particularly strong catalyst for people to ask for support.
“Most of the references to COVID-19 are really references to lockdown,” he says. “For most people it’s the isolation, it’s the loneliness, it’s the being stuck inside that they find quite tough.”
The reality of lockdown is that when Di or Liz pick up the phone, they’re often the first person the caller has spoken to that day.
“We don’t have to say much,” Di says, “just sit there with them in their pain and they find they can move on, even if it’s just a glimmer of hope.”
“People will often say, ‘isn’t it depressing doing what you do?’,” Liz says, “and it can be sad … but there’s also a sense of amazement at people’s resilience, hearing what people have been through in their lives and they are still managing to get out of bed everyday.”
Asked whether there’s a particular moment from her work with Lifeline that has stayed with her, Liz recalls something a caller told her: “He said, ‘what you’ve gotta realise love is that when you save a life, it’s not just that person’s life you are saving’ — it’s the ripple effect.”
“It’s really important to hear that, that the work you do is of value to other people.”
Lifeline is running an appeal for donations to train 300 new crisis support volunteers, you can donate here.