27 Sep 2016

What it’s like to be an ‘emotional paramedic’

10:47 am on 27 September 2016

Julian Barnett has experienced all kinds of shifts at Youthline at all hours of the day, being the person who's there when no else is. 


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Youthline says it's receiving so many calls that about 150 people a week are missing out on help. Other helplines say they’re struggling with an increasing number of calls too.

Stephen Bell, Youthline’s chief exec, says the organisation’s “emotional paramedics” are also dealing with much more complex and intense calls.

Julian Barnett has worked with Youthline for more than nine years. He’s experienced all kinds of shifts on the helpline at all hours of the day. He shares his experience of being there when there’s no one else to talk to.

‘What it’s like’ is a weekly Wireless series. For more, click here.


When I have a shift on the helpline I am very conscious of my day beforehand. I make sure I don’t burn myself out so I can enter the shift pretty relaxed.

At the start of the shift, I look at what our current contact is through email, text, calls and chat. This is something I’m not sure everyone realises about our helpline, it is a suite of tools, not just a phone line.

Sometimes I am prepared for a conversation before I even arrive. I can think of a recent example when my colleagues were supporting someone on a Sunday night who was at risk of suicide. Together with that person they made a plan to get back in touch the next morning, during my shift.  Once I’m speaking with someone, we have a space to work together to clear a pathway forward.

We can advise and guide, but we do not judge. We respect an individual’s own wisdom and strengths and ability to see themselves through tough times, with our support.

The common complaint that clients have about the quality of interactions they have with people in their lives is that they get told what to do - that is Youthline’s real strength. We can advise and guide, but we do not judge. We respect an individual’s own wisdom and strengths and ability to see themselves through tough times, with our support.

As a member of the triage team, when I turn up, I have the responsibility of holding the overview of what is currently active in the Helpline in terms of risk, and how that is prioritised. When we talk about risk we are talking about unsafe or potentially unsafe situations - this could be risk of suicide, harm to self or harm to others, or any number of other situations.

Increasingly, we are working with clients between their appointments with other services. Some people have very complex situations and are working with multiple mental health services. As much as possible we try and work together with other services to best support that person.  

When it comes to suicide, one difference that’s notable between call and text is that young people can be more upfront right away in a text; over the phone it can take young people longer to feel comfortable to share that. Anecdotally, we are noticing a similar pattern in our newer chat service as well.

Throughout my shift I am constantly ensuring that at any point I am prepared to go into a very distressed space with someone for a significant amount of time. I’m potentially engaging with multiple clients at once, so I need to be aware of how I might wrap some of those conversations up, or pass them on, if I need to start dealing with a more intense conversation. Throughout this I need to be aware of my own energy levels.

Things have changed a lot in the nine years I’ve been with Youthline. Back when I started our text service was minimal, often it consisted of one text which said: “Thanks for texting, please call us!”

Of course, now texting is the most popular way young people reach out to us, and the majority of our contacts to the Helpline take place that way. It was an amazing thing when that service first went free, suddenly, the number of contacts we received skyrocketed.

What I hear from young people today is that there is no one to talk to.

When I think about what is going on for young people today, and I think about history and how things might be different, one thing that stands out is the quality and depth of relationships. There have been some very intense and stressful times in human history, the Great Depression, war and living in war zones, even our earliest ancestors who struggled to survive. But what I hear from young people today is that there is no one to talk to.

What is going on around them may not be more intense than at other points in history, but they are feeling less supported. I think people used to be in communities and families and friendships where they could express more of what was going on for them, where they had time to dive into deeper conversations.

Going back to risk, it honestly feels like the level of risk has always been really high. I can think of an example where I had five concurrent suicidal text message clients. That was about three years ago.

One thing that is consistent is that young people always seem really comfortable reaching out to us to chat through things. Youthline’s role is to make time for those conversations and in a way where it doesn’t remove people from their family and friend networks, that tries to connect them into those relationships in positive ways.

At the moment our volunteer situation is very healthy, but of course nowhere near what we need to meet demand. We also need more help during tricky times for volunteers to be available, like the three hours before midnight.

Our counsellors vary in age, some older adults and many university students. We always need more help, and our training is open to all. The pathway to becoming a counsellor is comprehensive and affordable. It is also a doorway to many other opportunities at Youthline, which is why I am still involved today. We take training seriously and invest a lot in our people.

These are roles you can be incredibly successful in. It is a way of helping with a big issue in society that is very direct and immediate. I found huge satisfaction in this work.

Where to get help with depression:

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz

Lifeline: 0800 543 354

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7)

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

What's Up: online chat (7pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 children's helpline (1pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-10pm weekends)

Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7)

Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.