Immediately following the Christchurch Mosque Shootings the National Telehealth Service expanded by 120 staff to counsel more than 800 New Zealanders by phone. Don Rowe visits to learn how they did it.
In the 24 hours following the Christchurch Mosque Shootings an army of counsellors mobilised across New Zealand. Psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers scrambled to man the phones as the country reached out for comfort, support and answers. In her third statement to media, at 9am on Saturday 16th March, prime minister Jacinda Ardern encouraged the grief-stricken nation to call 1737, the national mental health line, to talk.
In an office building just off Auckland’s Grafton Road, overlooking the oldest bowling club in the Southern Hemisphere, the phones started ringing. That day more than 120 additional staff would conduct over 800 counselling sessions, and all of them totally free. They haven’t stopped since. Last month, there were more than 11,000 sessions.
The National Telehealth Service was established in 2015 as a private-public partnership to bring phone services like Healthline, Quitline, Gambling Addiction Support, and The Lowdown under one efficient umbrella. By 2018, they were receiving more than 630,000 contacts a year, supporting tens of thousands of smokers, people with addictions, and those suffering from mental health issues through text and phone-based counselling sessions. The service employs more than 400 staff from Kaitaia to Bluff, all trained to deal with the worst situations people can go through. But nobody could have prepared for Christchurch.
Syazwa Anwar works across the entirety of the services provided at the Telehealth centre. She arrived on Sunday, 24 hours after Jacinda Ardern’s statement.
“When I walked into the space I saw a lot of calls waiting, and I could sense the anxiety and trauma,” she says. “I hadn’t spoken to anyone and yet I could feel that anxiety in the air. Of course, I knew what had happened, but personally as a Muslim I felt confused. I was trying to make sense of what happened, but I also knew I needed to be here to support my team.”
As video footage of the terrorist attack spread across the internet, shared thousands of times across multiple platforms in the immediate aftermath, the traumatised unloaded on the service’s counsellors. Additional rooms were set-up for staff sessions, where counsellors could triage their own emotions with supervising staff.
“During that period when we were so busy, and we had staff feeling affected by what had happened, and people sharing quite graphic information, it was a very tough time for us,” says Anwar.
The counsellors employed by the Telehealth centre receive mandatory monthly evaluations, and staff are trained to avoid emotional burnout, but in the days following the attack they flocked to the office, with Muslim members assembling to create guidelines for media reporting, and conversations at home. The guidelines were translated into Arabic, Farsi, Indonesian, Malay, Somali, Turkish and New Zealand Sign Language, and would be downloaded more than 7500 times, as well as disseminated throughout newsrooms across the country. Other staff were put on planes to Christchurch.
“We were all shaken,” says Anwar. “But when you work you have that professional hat on, and so in some ways it wasn’t so different than speaking to someone who is suicidal, which we get a lot – you’re just there for the person.”
Demand for services like 1737, one of the world’s only text-and-phone based counselling providers, can spike at unpredictable times. There’s the “John Kirwan effect”, where a public subversion of the common narrative destigmatises – even just for a moment – subjects like depression, and movements like #metoo, where the veil drops on a systemic problem. Even what’s on TV can have an effect, Anwar says.
“Before Christchurch, we had the Michael Jackson documentary. Following the documentary we had a big increase in calls about sexual harm, and then there were also people who had seen the documentary and needed someone to talk to for comfort, and there were people who were opening up for the first time about their own trauma.”
The NTS also provides a Safe To Talk line, where victims and potential perpetrators of sexual assault can talk anonymously with counsellors.
At the heart of the Telehealth service is ease of access, says the NTS’ Calvin Cochrane. Eighty percent of calls are answered within 20 seconds, and the txt service pioneered worldwide by The Lowdown lowers the barrier again, especially for the young. The system was recently upgraded to allow for the use of emojis, part of an effort to provide easier, more empathetic conversation over txt. Cochrane says the service is consistently looking at ways to innovate, most recently sending executive and IT staff to study what works abroad.
“Internationally, in places like America, AI is employed to triage incoming calls and messages, alerting supervisors and counsellors to high risk sessions. Words like ‘pills’ or ‘military’ can give an early heads-up that a session might be particularly intensive or risky. That’s something we could do here. The IT team are always trying to integrate new tech into the counselling process, not just making sure the phones stay on. Of course, it’s all informed by clinical research – but we’re always looking at what can be done differently to combat our mental health statistics.”
The process is iterative, Cochrane says, and even changes to things like hold music are considered from a clinical perspective. Demand is unpredictable, but the government’s consistent messaging on mental health and promotion of 1737 has driven growth and thus technical investment. In the days after Christchurch, Jacinda Ardern could be seen with a 1737 pin. But the beating heart of the service remains counsellors like Syazwa Anwar, manning the phones 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year round.
“We grieve as a nation and I think it helped not only me but everyone here to push through, because we know we’re the national service and it’s an honour having the nation’s faith that we will be here to support people through such a terrible time,” she says.
“That helps us to come here every day and do the best that we can.”
National Telehealth Service (1737 need to talk) – 1737, available 24/7
Safe to Talk (sexual harm helpline) – 0800 044 334, available 24/7