By EMILIO LANERA
Ingrid Zhang answered the calls of those who desperately needed help and advice, many having fallen on their darkest hour with mental health struggles. Then, she died by suicide.
Ingrid had volunteered as a teleweb coordinator for not-for-profit support agency Switchboard – an organisation that connects members of the LGBTQIA community and their families to support services. It provides peer-led counselling and only employs LGBTQIA people.
Switchboard Suicide Prevention Manager Anna Bernasochi said Ms Zhang had a considerate nature, which she extended to everyone she met. The shockwaves from her sudden death were felt by colleagues across the organisation.
“Ingrid had trained me to be a teleweb worker and she was the person who, when I was going in to do a shift, would send me an email before or afterwards checking in,” Ms Bernasochi said.
“She had helped train a lot of our volunteers…and was also a beloved staff member.”
Switchboard, based in Victoria, is funded by the Australian government and is a part of the LGBTI teleweb counselling service, QLife.
It provides anonymous and free peer support, along with referrals for Australians looking to talk about sexuality, identity, gender, bodies, feelings or relationships.
Following Ms Zhang’s death Switchboard conducted research on the staff’s experience in losing a staff member to suicide.
“The purpose of the research is to create a postvention plan and also to understand more about how LGBTI people grieve following the suicide of another LGBTI person,” Ms Bernasochi said.
“We were going to make it broader but there were a lot of complexities involved in doing research around suicide,” she said.
In September the Victorian government announced a $500,000 funding package for Switchboard Victoria to develop new suicide prevention activities.
QLife practice standards coordinator, Riccardo Ingle said it is important to maintain a healthy working environment for teleweb workers.
Prior to working at QLife, Mr Ingle worked for another mental health organisation that had religious affiliations. The organisation made him attend chapel services as a means of preserving his mental health.
“A lot of the mental health industries are dominated by things like religious organisations,” Mr Ingle said.
“I felt that I wasn’t able to be as authentic as I could be and it became more and more congruent for me to move into a place that looked after mental health service without those other background agendas.”
Working for a peer-led organisation like QLife Mr Ingle said was rewarding, but could be strenuous at times too.
“I was in a conversation where one of the callers was talking about the suicide of their sister and that conversation went on for quite some time. When that started to wrap up they said they wanted to talk about them coming out,” he said.
The 45-minute conversation about suicide left him quite fatigued and, while it was a conversation he was able to have, having a second counsellor take over for the discussion about sexuality would have been better practice.
Acknowledging your boundaries and mental health is very important when working with an organisation providing support services, he said.
“At the end of the day you may be hearing stories and experiences that we’ve (teleweb workers) lived so that is something we need to be conscious of,” Mr Ingle said.
Owing to numerous social barriers faced by LGBTQIA members, peer lead services allow them to share their “lived experiences” and form “community connections”, Ms Bernasochi said.
“LGBTIQ [members] are more likely to have thoughts of suicide or act on thoughts of suicide just before they come out,” she said.
“We also know that there are higher rates of suicide when people who are seeking medication to affirm their gender identities don’t have access to it.”
A survey of 4,500 LGBTIQ Australians found 80% of the community members felt worse now than they did during the highly contentious 2017 marriage equality postal survey.
Currently the Morrison government is trying to pass a Religious Discrimination Bill.
If the bill is passed it could allow doctors to reject transgender people accessing hormone therapies, or lesbian couples wanting fertility treatment on the basis of the physician’s religious beliefs.
The constant support provided by the LGBTQIA people, to those within the community during these difficult times is also responsible for causing a higher burn-out rate, Ms Bernasochi acknowledged.
“People leaning on others and who need support themselves…there is a real beauty in that but there is also exhaustion,” she said.
To help alleviate the stress of teleweb workers at peer-led services governments need to fund more peer-led services and mainstream services need to work alongside LGBTQIA organisations, Ms Bernasochi added.