It’s a familiar mantra that we hear on TV news bulletins and read at the end of online news items: “If you or anyone you know needs help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14”. And this month marks sixty years since Lifeline began.
Lifeline describes itself as “Australia’s leading suicide prevention service”, which is “a national charity providing all Australians experiencing a personal crisis with access to 24-hour crisis support”. It began as a small-scale local enterprise in Sydney, and now has branches right across Australia, where 1,000 staff and 10,000 volunteers work together to provide a caring, compassionate response to people who are in crisis.
In the early 1960s, the Rev Alan Walker took a phone call from a distressed man who was very distressed. The Rev Walker was the Superintendent Minister of the Central Methodist Mission in Sydney, a part of the then Methodist Church. The CMM, as it was known, had a long and valued ministry to vulnerable people in the inner city of Sydney—including a number of hostels and day programmes for such people. The ministers and staff of the Mission had regular contact with a wide range of people in distressing and difficult circumstances.
Three days after taking that phone call, the Rev Walker learned that the man had taken his own life. Determined that he would do something to assist other people who were lonely, anxious, depressed, or suicidal, the Rev Walker instigated a planning process that eventually led to the establishment of Lifeline, on 16 March 1963, as a crisis line operated by people associated with the CMM.
The website of Lifeline Australia states that “Lifeline Sydney was two years in planning and preparation, with 150 people attending a nine-month training course to work at the centre. A century old, dilapidated building owned by the Mission, on the fringes of downtown Sydney was renovated for the purposes of this new support centre. A staff of full-time employees was appointed to direct the work of these new telephone crisis support ‘workers’. The Director General of Post and Telephone Services authorised that this crisis support service should be listed on the Emergency Page of the Telephone Directory and the phones were installed.”
You can read more at https://www.lifeline.org.au/
In 1994, Lifeline transitioned the 24-hour telephone crisis support line, with local counsellor dealing with local phone calls in each location, to a single national priority 13 number (13 11 14). Then in 2007, Lifeline introduced national call flow to the 24-hour service, which allowed Lifeline to begin flowing calls nationally over a wide area network, to be answered by the next available telephone support volunteer, anywhere in the country. It has been a wonderful development that has taken place over these six decades.
My own connection with Lifeline took place in 1975. I was working at the Central Methodist Mission as the Youth Director (a grand title for what was actually a very lowly job). I ran a variety of weekly programmes that brought me into contact with younger people that were vulnerably housed, or living below the poverty line; people who faced mental health challenges, but who found comfort in the community of the church on Pitt St in Sydney.
Looking to develop my own (meagre and basic) skills in relating to such people, I did the Telephone Counsellor Training Course that Lifeline offered—three hours, once a week, for six months, with practical sessions as a trainee counsellor, taking phone calls and learning how to deal with people in crisis. (The limited success, or rather the ultimate failure, of my attempts to develop good skills in listening, intervening, and referring, I leave to the judgement of those who know me now!) I served in that role for a couple of years, by which time I was a candidate for ministry, undertaking other training to prepare me for my lifetime in ministry.
The Rev Dr Sir Alan Walker, as he became, is rightly remembered and honoured for the creative and practical way that he responded to what was becoming, even in the 1960s, a widespread and difficult societal problem. Well known for his strong public stands against gambling and alcohol, and for his opposition to the Vietnam War, the Rev Walker’s initiative to establish Lifeline points to the way that he lives, and preaches, and acted, in response to the Gospel: both pastoral and prophetic responses were required.
The Rev Walker shows that the Gospel is as much about a person’s individual life and their relationship with God, as it is about how society was structured and how it provided equity and justice for all. I have always appreciated my opportunity to learn this at close quarters, from the 13 months that I spent working at the CMM. (The CMM is now Wesley Mission, one of Australia’s largest benevolent organisations, as well as one of the largest Uniting Church organisations.)
In substantiating their claim that “Lifeline is Australia’s largest suicide prevention service provider”, the website of Lifeline Australia reports:
• Each year, over 1 million Australians reach out to Lifeline for support.
• Lifeline’s 13 11 14 crisis support line receives a call every 30 seconds.
• Lifeline’s network of 41 centres, 10,000 volunteers, and 1,000 employees provide a lifesaving national infrastructure for those experiencing immense pain and anguish.
• There are 3,500 Crisis Supporters working with Lifeline so that no person in Australia has to face their darkest moments alone.
It is sobering to read the breakdown of suicides reported in Australia. The following statistics, reported by Lifeline Australia, are taken from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/health/causes-death/causes-death-australia/latest-release#intentional-self-harm-deaths-suicide-in-australia)
• 8.6 Australians die every day by suicide; that’s more than double the road toll
• 75% of those who take their own life are male
• An unknown number of Australians attempt suicide every year, with some estimates suggesting this figure may be over 65,000
• Suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians between the ages of 15 and 44
• The suicide rate in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is twice that of their non-Indigenous counterparts
• People in rural populations are 2 times more likely to take their life by suicide by suicide
In addition, they report that LGBTIQ+ community members report having attempted suicide in the past 12 months at a rate 10 times higher than the general Australian population. Despite the advances made in recent years relation to this sector of society, they still experience much stress and live in high risk environments.
All of this remains a cause for deep concern. It is a fine thing that people in Australian society do have the support of Lifeline Australia—and, indeed, other organisations such as Beyond Blue, the Black Dog Institute, both Headspace and Reachout for young people, Open Arms for veterans and their families, and 13Yarn for First Nations people; and more. See https://mhaustralia.org/need-help
I am grateful today for the energy, initiative, and compassion of Alan Walker, six decades ago, in seeing a need and working to implement a practical response. I am also grateful to the many staff and especially the thousands of volunteers, on the phone and behind the scenes, that enable this service to operate right around the clock, every day of the year—no annual breaks, no public holidays, no time out at all (collectively).
“If you or anyone you know needs help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14”.