Phone a friend

Paul Harrison has a soothing voice and a zest for life that bubbles away in spite of being confronted each day at work with personal problems; those of children and young people.

He is a telephone counsellor with Kids Help Line; Australia’s only free national telephone counselling service for those between the ages of five and 18.

With seven years experience under his belt, Paul is one of the ‘long-termers’, although he says that others have been there since the service began in 1991. Back then, it was a Queensland initiative but by 1993 it had expanded nationally.

A child or young person, anywhere in Australia, can ring the service seven days a week, 24 hours a day, on their toll free number. Calls are not vetted, so the telephone counsellors must be able to cope with diversity as well as adversity.

Many of the 100 or so counsellors are psychologists and social workers, and all of them have undergone rigorous training and supervision tailored to meet the specific needs of Kids Help Line.

‘Some shifts (usually six hours) might be quite heavy, and you might only talk to a handful of callers, while on other shifts, you might talk to 100 children and young people’, says Paul.

Calls from those at the older end of the spectrum can take an hour or more, particularly if the situation has reached crisis point. If the caller is at risk of harm, the counsellor may put them in contact with other services.

Children as young as five often call too. ‘They like to have a chat, tell you what their day was like and what they’ve been doing.’ Like their attention span, their calls are usually short.

One central feature of Kids Help Line is the child-centred focus: working with children and young people on their level, and the sort of language that they bring to counselling.

Although Paul says that in some cases it may be best in the long term for a child or young person  to see a counsellor face-to-face, Kids Help Line is always there.

‘What we do well here at Kids Help Line is listen.’ The statistics back this claim. On average, 20,000 kids ring the service each week. Many are repeat callers, and some have ongoing contact with one counsellor over years.

Paul adds that the most common comment made by callers is that they are ringing to talk because ‘nobody listens’. The main reasons they ring, however, are problems with relationships—with family, peers, and to a lesser degree, with partners—and this accounts for 40 per cent of calls. It’s the quality of their relationships that is a major concern to children and young callers. But relationships are not the only concerns.

The next major reason why children and young people call the service is bullying, which accounts for just over eight per cent of calls.

When it comes to bullying, what the figures do not indicate is whether there is an increase in the incidence of bullying, or that it is now reported more than it used to be.

Paul is of the view that there has been a change in social values, that it’s no longer considered OK to bully at school. People are now prepared to take action and do something about it.

Emotional and behavioural management is the reason for almost five per cent of calls, child abuse 4.5 per cent, while drug and alcohol use, sexual activity, homelessness and mental health, each account for between three and four per cent of calls.

On meeting Paul it is clear that he loves talking to children and young people, helping them deal with the problems they face, and developing their own coping skills. In fact, he would like to see more enhancing life skills and interpersonal skills taught in schools.

‘As a counsellor I believe in young people’s resilience, and in supporting them. We need to hone their strengths, and bring them out.’

Paul also says that it’s not unusual for young people to ‘try you out’ first, to see how a counsellor responds before they decide if they will open up.

Apart from being a counsellor, and at times working as a shift supervisor, helping counsellors with complex cases or listening to them when they need to debrief, Paul also visits schools, as a peer skills facilitator.

Having been bullied at primary and secondary school, he thought it would be good to help kids get through similar situations.

‘I consider myself a fairly good role model. I can open the door for them, so they can express themselves.’

Although Kids Help Line is overwhelmingly used by females—comprising almost three-quarters of callers—Paul is keen to encourage males to express themselves and not to wait until crisis point to ring the service or seek help.

Kids Help Line is currently embarking on a strategy targeting young males. While they represent less than 30 per cent of callers, they are over-represented when it comes to drug and alcohol use, violence and homelessness. What the research indicates, is that there is a culture among young males of not seeking help.

Some years ago, Kids Help Line undertook a survey focused on family life; the nature of affection and discipline in families, and how this impacts on young males. What became apparent was that boys who had good relationships with their parents were far more likely to seek help.

While it was hoped that the introduction of email and web counselling would increase the number of males using the services, this was not the case. These recent innovations, based on  one-on-one counselling, introduced new children and young people to the service, but overall, did not lead to an increase in the proportion of males contacting the service.

Kids Help Line is well known in schools nationwide, and students of all ages are aware of it. The service also advocates on children’s and young people’s issues in each state.  

Michele Gierck is a freelance writer.



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