Desperate crisis calls meet with voicemail

IMOGEN NEALE
Last updated 05:00 17/06/2012

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Calls to crisis and suicide helplines are going unanswered, leaving desperate people with only voicemail messages.

Insiders say a dramatic increase in demand simply cannot be met.

The Sunday Star-Times called Youthline, Lifeline, Depression.org and the Suicide Prevention helplines several times in the morning and night throughout the week, and also sent a text to The Lowdown's 5626 helpline.

On every occasion Youthline's number went through to voicemail. A text to its 234 number was answered an hour later.

Lifeline answered once, but for other calls the number rang repeatedly then either cut out or went to voicemail. Its recently launched suicide prevention crisis helpline operates from noon to midnight, but calls were answered with a message saying team members were busy on other calls.

A message sent to The Lowdown received a text back that it operated from noon to midnight, and people should call Depression.org's helpline.

Four calls to that helpline went through to a voice message saying the call was either outside hours – it wasn't – or the line was busy.

Youthline spokesman Stephen Bell said it distressed him that people were not getting through. "It's not ideal. I'd love to say that every call gets answered."

Last month the line "managed" 45,000 contacts, and roughly 2000 calls went to voicemail, he said. Of those, 280 people chose to go through to a crisis line mentioned towards the end of the message.

He said the number of contacts had increased five-fold since the organisation opened a text platform. "Youthline gets very limited government funding. So we do have a capacity and resourcing challenge. We have to find about $500,000 every year to make sure the helpline service works."

About $160,000 of that money went on the phone bill.

Lifeline's clinical manager, Melanie Ingram, estimated that last year the four or five volunteers who answer the nationwide 24-hour helpline at any one time handled more than 120,000 calls.

She said they were well aware of a dramatic increase in demand, and were constantly trying to improve their systems to cope.

Lifeline Aotearoa runs three helplines, including email, text and message boards, on behalf of the Ministry of Health's National Depression Initiative. They are Depression.org, The Lowdown and Like Minds, Like Mine. Calls to those services are prioritised.

The ministry told the Sunday Star-Times it took missed calls seriously and would be following up on the newspaper's experience. But, it said, Lifeline was confident 80 per cent of calls were being answered with 20 seconds.

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A spokesman said a pending system upgrade would lead to better information about calling patterns, and, in turn, better call management.

Casper (Community Action on Suicide Prevention Education and Research) founder and chief executive Maria Bradshaw questioned how effective helplines were because they often referred people on to mental health services.

But, she said, it was a "real issue" if a service was offered but was not staffed because if someone got to the point where they were picking up the phone to ask for help it was absolutely critical they got a response. "If somebody reaches out for help and there's nobody at the end of the phone, then you're doing more harm than good."

Most of the crisis lines' answerphones and websites directed people to call 111 if their call was urgent.

Bradshaw said her organisation had started to field crisis calls from people who did not want to phone emergency services because they feared being put in handcuffs and admitted to a psychiatric hospital or being handed on to a mental health crisis team.

Christchurch school counsellor Chris Hooker said that, given the number of cases he was dealing with involving significant depression, often including suicidal thoughts, he would not be surprised if helplines were overwhelmed. "I was thinking it was maybe just a Christchurch thing, given that we're still struggling with the earthquakes, and will be for some time. But maybe it's not just Christchurch."

School counsellors were in a "rather privileged" position in that they offered an accessible service on the students' own territory. However, his one experience of Youthline had been positive. "I did suggest to one student she contact Youthline over the last summer holidays if she felt she needed help. She did, and got an immediate response from emergency services. I was very impressed with how Youthline handled the situation."

- Sunday Star Times

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