1 May 2020

Working at helplines a relief for some during Covid-19

4:33 pm on 1 May 2020

For some helpline workers, helping others in lockdown moves the focus away from their own isolation.

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Photo: Petr Macháček / Unsplash

Ross* used to do one shift a month for OUTline, a volunteer-run telephone service for the LGBTQI+ community that's been going since 1972. But since much of the country went into quarantine, he's been doing a three-hour shift each week.

As soon as the lockdown began, his routine of volunteering for the service, which he's been with for six months, changed from being based out of a call centre in Auckland's Freemans Bay to working from a spare room in his south Auckland home. Instead of taking calls from a booth separate from, but surrounded by colleagues, Ross sits at a desk in a small, quiet, white-painted room with a photo of him and his partner at Ninety Mile Beach on the wall, and the door firmly shutting the rest of his household out.

He says that almost as soon as the country went into lockdown on the evening of 25 March, the way people use OUTline changed. "The calls are quite long - or can be quite long… Especially if people are feeling isolated in lockdown. You might be the only person that they've spoken to that day, so it's nice to be able to give that time to someone."

A broader range of people are calling the helpline too - more young people, and more first time callers, Ross says. "Our service does have some regular callers who are still seeing - but also people are reaching out to us who might not have felt they could reach out to us before, which is good. I think also people being in isolation, they're maybe having more time to think through their feelings about things. Some of the calls that we're getting are people who've said, 'I'm in isolation and I've had time to think, and I think I'm this, can you offer some support?'."

The organisation has recently changed the way it measures call numbers, but OUTline general manager Claire Black says that anecdotally, there appears to be a relative increase in the number of first time callers to the service, and that callers have been skewing slightly younger than usual.

"Topic-wise, we've definitely been getting calls about lockdown with unsupportive people, and [about] feeling isolated, but also a really large proportion of people questioning their identities," she says.

But the increase in work at OUTline has come with an unexpected silver lining for Ross. It provides him with a sense of purpose - a change in routine amidst the tedium of lockdown.

"It allows me to put my focus outwards a bit… It's an opportunity for me to - instead of thinking about my own feelings about it, my own situation - to be supportive of others, which is quite positive. It's nice to let other people know they're not alone, that they're being heard and that they're being listened to.

"I can finish the day feeling like I have accomplished something, even if in other areas the days are feeling a bit amorphous."

OUTline volunteer Ross says helping others during the covid-19 lockdown gives him a sense of purpose.

OUTline volunteer Ross says helping others during the covid-19 lockdown gives him a sense of purpose. Photo: supplied

It's not only OUTline that has seen a change in the way people are using their service. Earlier this month, Lifeline reported a 25 percent increase in the number of calls received since lockdown began. Clinical manager Renee Matthews said the increase, up from an average of 10,000 a month, was the result of a combination of new callers and more contacts from regulars citing anxiety about money, accommodation and relationship pressures.

And the National Telehealth Service, which runs multiple services including 1737 and the Depression Helpline, saw a 15 percent increase in contacts at the beginning of the level four lockdown period - similar to what is seen over the Christmas period. In the last five days, the increase has averaged around 40 percent more than normal.

"The concerns we're hearing on 1737 are diverse - ranging from distress about 'bubble issues', relationship challenges, access to social circles and questions about how to support children," the organisation's chief executive Andrew Slater told RNZ. More than half of the organisation's mental health team is working from home, and they receive clinical supervision, regular debriefs if needed, and peer support.

Compared to last year's daily averages, 49-year-old charity Youthline has seen a 50 percent increase in the number contacts by phone, text, email or webchat. For the young people who get in touch, suicide, depression, anxiety, self-harm, relationships, loneliness and isolation, grief and loss, and abuse and violence are the most common issues.

In text conversations where a person has made specific mention of Covid-19, presenting issues have included family conflict, abortion service advice, self-harm urges, anxiety, health advice, and barriers to engaging in their normal activities including sport, says Youthline clinical services manager Julian Barnett.

At the epicentre of this important work are the teams who take the calls, like the one led by Auckland manager Adrian Jamieson. They've been working from home since lockdown began, and talking with Jamieson regularly.

"I've been blown away by their professionalism," he says. "There has been this increase in contact and they're just taking it in their stride. It's been a big change for them to work from home. So I mean, I've just been constantly impressed by their ability to continue to support young people, while doing it in new, unusual circumstances."

Like Ross at OUTline, Youthline staff and volunteers are increasing the number of shifts they do, treating the work as a change to an otherwise repetitive lockdown existence, Jamieson says.

"Some of our volunteers feel like having the opportunity to be able to have a break, I guess, from this sort of internal bubble to support young people around New Zealand has been kind of a welcome change for them."

*Ross has asked not to be identified by his full name for privacy reasons.

Where to get help:

OUTline: 0800 OUTLINE (0800 688 5463) every evening, 6pm to 9pm.

1737 - Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7)

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz

What's Up: online chat (7pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 children's helpline (1pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-10pm weekends)

Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7)

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