Tens of thousands of desperate phone calls to the Lifeline crisis hotline are going unanswered or being put on hold, raising concerns that people contemplating suicide could be left in danger.
New research has raised questions about whether community hotlines like Lifeline are fully equipped to handle critical suicide calls, and whether a dedicated 24-hour national telephone suicide service is needed.
Research from Federation University's Dr Robert Watson, who himself was a Lifeline counsellor and trainer for a number of years, found of the 884,000 calls to Lifeline in 2014 only 735,000 were answered.
And data from Lifeline's 2016-2017 annual report also revealed that more than half the calls to Lifeline take more than 90 seconds to answer, which could put some suicidal callers in critical danger.
If socially isolated people do decide to call Lifeline at times of urgent need and then cannot reach a Lifeline counsellor within a reasonable time, then they may perceive they are not worthy of support and/or see it as confirmation that death is their only option.Dr Robert Watson
"Lifeline counsellors can work diligently and patiently to talk a suicidal person down and guide her or him to reassess their circumstances and abandon their suicide plan," Dr Watson said.
"But due to the massive number of calls taken by this national service each year, the vast majority not involving imminent suicide, calls can go unanswered and waiting times to reach a counsellor are publicly unclear or even misleading.
"This means there is a vital gap in our suicide prevention services, at a point where it may be a caller's last hope."
A spokesperson for Lifeline Australia acknowledged the call answer rate was not 100 per cent, and varied over time.
"A Lifeline objective is to be available to anyone, anytime, anywhere. We currently take approximately 1 million contacts per annum, more than any other in the sector," the spokesperson said.
"We have more than 4000 volunteer crisis supporters who are working at capacity 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They do some of the most challenging and important work imaginable."
The spokesperson said Lifeline had identified, in a public document to the Productivity Commission, a series of steps to broaden its accessibility and responsiveness to callers.
"As the leading national service provider with a vision of an Australia free of suicide, Lifeline is committed to enhancing our service offering to ensure that people in distress can contact us in the way they feel most comfortable."
Callers to Lifeline are directed to call 000 if there is imminent danger, but Dr Watson said this was not a suitable alternative to the confidential counselling that Lifeline volunteers offered to talk suicidal callers out of their planned action.
If they wish to speak to a counsellor, they may be on hold for up to 40 minutes.
Dr Watson said in his experience, counsellors could take an hour or more to talk a suicidal person 'down' and guide them to reassess their circumstances and abandon their suicide plan for an alternative course of action.
"This is not something that an emergency services line is designed to do. With few other suicide services available to fill this vital gap in the service network, lives may be at stake. This matter of access is heightened, as callers to such services tend to be isolated from other forms of support," he wrote in the research paper Lifeline Caller Response Times and Suicide Prevention in the latest edition of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry.
"If socially isolated people do decide to call Lifeline at times of urgent need and then cannot reach a Lifeline counsellor within a reasonable time, then they may perceive they are not worthy of support and/or see it as confirmation that death is their only option."
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 3128 Australians died from suicide in 2017, up 9.1 per cent from 2016.
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"There is mounting concern that Australia needs to find ways to reduce suicides' growing toll," Dr Watson said.
Victorian mental health minister Martin Foley said the government provided $1.4 million to Lifeline every year, and funded other specialist partners such as Beyond Blue and LGBTI specialist service Switchboard for contact services.
"We support a range of suicide prevention services, from early intervention programs to treatment support through our HOPE program for those who present to an emergency department after a suicide attempt," Mr Foley said.
"But we know there is more to do to combat suicide, which takes more than twice as many lives as the road toll and devastates many more people across Victoria."
Mr Foley said the government had committed to halving the suicide rate by 2025, had established the landmark Royal Commission into Victoria's Mental Health System and would implement all of the Royal Commission's recommendations.
"Suicide rates are not only a Victorian crisis but a national one. Victoria stands ready to be part of the partnership needed across government and community to respond to this challenge," he said.
Dr Watson was also concerned that, having first started research in to the area in 2003, little has changed.
"What I was really surprised with is things haven't changed much. We still seem to rely on Lifeline, particularly, to be a suicide prevention or intervention service for those at imminent risk of suicide but the vast majority of calls to Lifeline have nothing to do with suicide.
"Those callers are making it difficult for people who may have an urgent need with regard to suicide."
If you need help, contact:
- Lifeline 13 11 14 or lifeline.org.au
- Beyond Blue 1300 224 636 or beyondblue.org.au
- Suicide Callback Service 1300 659 467
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