A lifeline for the vulnerable

Reading Time: 5 minutes
Some of the volunteers of Sydney Pregnancy Help. Photo: Marilyn Rodrigues

24/7 support for women in crisis

Seven nights a fortnight Lynn goes to sleep with her mobile phone next to her bed, fully charged and volume turned high.

When it rings, the person on the other end of the line is usually a woman who is feeling worried or hurting in some way.

Lynn is one of around 30 volunteers at Pregnancy Help Sydney, a 24-hour, seven days a week support line for women who are pregnant or have had an abortion, their partners, and their families.

“Sometimes it’s a two or three minute call, sometimes a lot longer, but the offer is always there for them to call back, and if you have built a rapport with them some do, but usually we don’t know the outcome of the conversation,” she says.

“After that I do a bit of a mental debrief and then try and go back to sleep. You feel good when you know they’ve felt a bit stronger as a result of speaking with you.”

“You feel good when you know they’ve felt a bit stronger as a result of speaking with you.” – Lynn, Pregnancy Help Sydney Volunteer

Mary, its president, says pregnancy is a vulnerable time for women and that the support line is primarily there to support women who are looking for assistance from the moment of conception. People call with different needs, including for advice about drugs or illness during pregnancy, mental health, suspected miscarriage, questions about termination, or just wondering if they might be pregnant.

About a third of the 500-odd calls each year are from a woman experiencing a crisis or unexpected pregnancy. They are offered information about the options before her of adoption, parenting or abortion. A small percentage of callers are men; boyfriends, husbands or fathers.

Volunteers are screened and spend months training before they take calls, with attendance at annual weekend in-services required for ongoing development.

“We are not qualified counsellors or medical professionals ourselves but the training we do is very powerful as it’s our job to ensure that the person calling feels completely supported and safe where they are at that moment when they have had the courage to make the call,” Mary says.

Often, she says, people appreciate first being listened to. “It’s incredible to think that in this world of great connectivity so many people have no one to talk to, but that’s what we often find in this work.”

After listening, volunteers can offer to connect them with the appropriate support in their local area, whether medical, legal, government, or a charity. As a pro-life organisation, they will not give information about how to procure an abortion, but will offer clear, impartial information about what happens during and after one and suggests questions to ask before giving consent to any procedure.

In some cases it can provide material and financial support for women as they prepare for their baby or after giving birth. And while some callers like to continue the conversation by email or phone, most of the time the volunteers don’t know to what extent they have given someone fresh hope.

But sometimes they do.

Elizabeth took a call from a distressed student from Hong Kong who was unexpectedly pregnant. She referred her to a Chinese-speaking volunteer who was able help her to think through her options and access support.

“In the end she went back to Hong Kong where she had the baby with her parents’ support, and she kept in touch with us to tell us how she was going. That was a great example of teamwork,” Elizabeth beams.

Mary says they have noticed a rise in calls relating to mental health issues, including women who need support after a termination.

“I think that’s understandable because it’s the one loss that women feel they can’t really share,” she said. “If a pregnancy is welcomed and then there is a miscarriage or the loss of a baby, then there is overwhelming sympathy and support available. But if a woman makes a choice, and it could be for a whole different range of reasons, to end the pregnancy, then often she can’t really share that grief and loss with anyone.

“And that is the most conflicted grief you can have. Because it’s still a deep, deep loss, but you feel responsible for it. So there is a guilt and grief and that is the worst suffering, I feel. We have all had calls from women who have signs that they’re in trauma and an abortion has just occurred. And we’ve had calls from people 20 or 30 years after an abortion, who have never been able to reconcile that to a degree.”

The service relies upon donations and its network of like-minded individuals and organisations. Mary says essentially they are serving the same need since the service was founded by Sydney woman Carmel more than 40 years ago, and that is to protect emerging human life because of a fundamental commitment to the sanctity of life.

Karin has been a volunteer for 12 years, and said one of the most important things it offers is a calm and safe space to women with an unexpected pregnancy.

“When someone has just found out that they’re five or six weeks pregnant, and are in a panic and say they need to get rid of this baby, it’s really important when we get that kind of call to slow those people down. Let them think, look at the options, and just give them that support, offer them an information pack and let them know they can call back at any time.

“People allow you into a very personal, very vulnerable situation very quickly and it is a privilege to be in the trenches of their life at that moment”

“That is very, very important in all our training, that, you know, you can reassure them they they’ve got some time to think things through and if they are given that time some of them do change their minds.

“It’s important to let them slow down and to actually speak about what they want…Particularly when everyone around them has a view about what they want to happen, I find that a very powerful question is, ‘What do you want to do? Because right here in this conversation, you can say what you truly feel, and no one is going to try and argue against you’.

“It allows the person in some cases for the first time, to actually speak what they want and then we may be able to support them to make that decision they really want.”

After 30 years, originally trained as a Lifeline counsellor, Marea can’t imagine not taking calls from women who are stressed about their pregnancy.

“People allow you into a very personal, very vulnerable situation very quickly and it is a privilege as a support worker to be in the trenches of their life at that moment,” she said.

Susan, another long-time volunteer, agrees.

“The most lovely part for me is when they say at the end of the conversation, ‘Thank you for listening’.”

Pregnancy Help Sydney 24-hour support line: 1300 792 798
[email protected]
For more information: www.pregnancyhelpsydney.com