For a maths teacher, lending a friendly ear to those who need it most poses a particularly pointy problem – there’s no right answer.
That’s the toughest lesson 48-year-old father-of-three Andrew had to learn when he stepped up as a Lifeline phone volunteer in February this year.
“I’m a maths teacher, so I’m a problem solver, and I’m a male and I don’t know whether you guys agree with me, but whenever I’m told there’s a problem the instant reaction is ‘I have to solve that problem’,” he tells 7NEWS.com.au.
“And that’s not what a good listener does.”
Andrew’s day-to-day schedule is nothing short of chaotic.
He’s a middle-aged, high school maths teacher in bustling Sydney with a wife and kids at home.
But for four hours each week, Andrew is nothing more than a voice on the other end of the line at a Lifeline call centre on the Upper North Shore.
When he speaks to 7NEWS.com.au on a Thursday afternoon, Andrew had taught all day Wednesday and Thursday, and also squeezed in four hours on the phones on Wednesday night.
He didn’t appear worse for wear in the slightest.
With an easy grin, Andrew recalls how he came to be a volunteer.
“To tell you the truth, I was sitting at a set of traffic lights and I saw the sign up there saying ‘are you a good listener?’ he says.
“And I thought I was but it turns out I was mistaken.
“I was good at hearing, being a school teacher and always being switched on as to what’s going on in the classroom is one thing. But in terms of the actual concept of listening it was actually some skill.”
As all of the volunteers stress, the job description is never to provide advice or tell people how to handle their problems, but rather to point them in the right direction.
Instead of telling someone to “do this”, a volunteer might say “consider this”.
Creating a connection, Andrew explains, is the aim of each call. Being able to convince someone at their most vulnerable to confide in you is a rare talent.
Andrew did just that when he spoke to another middle-aged dad. It’s the call that sticks with him the most during his brief tenure at Lifeline.
“He told me his name and that he had three kids, but he’d just been handed legal papers saying he’s losing custody of his kids,” he says.
“And he wanted to talk to me.
“He asked my name and a Lifeline policy is you don’t give your name so he gave me one. He told me my name was Jack.
“He said ‘Jack, I’m going to miss my youngest son’s birthday’.
“And it was having that empathy as a dad of three kids myself and having that connection with your kids, hearing him go through what he was going through was something that really really hit me.”
The average call at Lifeline last about 20 minutes – this one went for over an hour.
“At no stage was there any question of whether he was contemplating suicide,” Andrew says.
“I’d checked his safety but he just wanted someone to talk to and sit with him while he was going through that in that pain.”
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If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
For further information about depression contact beyondblue on 1300 224 636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.